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How climate change has fueled the border crisis

REUTERS/Pascal Rossignol
There is solid evidence that one factor often behind the migration is climate change – which wind turbines help mitigate.

If President Trump wants to stop the flow of poor and desperate Central Americans to the U.S. border, he could do much worse than encourage construction of a whole lot of wind turbines.

That probably sounds a little odd. And in any case, it’s not going to happen. Even before his bizarre claim last week that wind turbines can cause cancer, it was clear that Trump detests wind power – apparently due to a fight with the Scottish government some years ago over an offshore wind farm near one of his golf courses. He appears to dislike those migrating from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador just as much, but wind farms are not his idea of the kind of project that will keep them out.

Instead, as the number of arrivals spikes again, you blame the secretary of homeland security and cut aid to Central America. And you still insist on building a wall.

But here’s the thing. Those arriving at the border may cite gang violence or economic hardship for leaving. And while that’s true, there also is solid evidence that one factor often behind it all is climate change – which wind turbines help mitigate (and which, of course, the president thinks is bogus).

It’s next to impossible to unravel all the ways in which climate change and migration are connected, but here is a start: Most of those heading north come from rural areas of Central America, according to a report by the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean. For instance, almost two-thirds of unaccompanied Salvadoran minors deported in a recent year were from rural families. About three-quarters of rural people are poor in Guatemala and Honduras. And they live in areas especially vulnerable to climate change, particularly the so-called Dry Corridor near the Pacific coast.

FAO warned three years ago that 3.5 million people were in need of aid because of persistent drought. It would not be a stretch to assume that some of them ended up at the U.S. border. The U.N. agency adds that the Dry Corridor “has become one of the most susceptible regions in the world to climate change and variability.” In El Niño years, there are long periods with high heat and little rain that decimate corn and other grain crops; during years of more rain there are tropical storms. Both climate variants are becoming more extreme.

Many people don’t head straight for the U.S. border when they can’t survive on the land. The governments don’t really keep track of internal migration, but it’s not unusual for them to head into the cities first – where they may be subjected to gang violence and a different kind of poverty.

There has been some excellent reporting recently on what this actually looks like to those living with the effects of climate change.

The western highlands of Guatemala are a tough place in normal circumstances; the malnutrition rate is 65 percent, according to Jonathan Blitzer, writing in the New Yorker. Of the 94,000 Guatemalans deported from the U.S. and Mexico last year, he says, half are from this region. Most people make their living off the land, but hurricanes, wild fluctuations in temperature and rainfall are making it much harder. Land that once fed a family for a year now can sustain it for less than five months. Even more enlightened U.S. policies have missed the boat. Although experts have been warning for years about the effects of climate change on the region, Blitzer points out that a $750 million Obama administration aid package contained little money to address it.  

In rural Honduras, PBS special correspondent Marcia Biggs says, FAO estimates farmers lost more than 80 percent of their corn and bean crops last year due to drought. One farmer told her that a decade ago he could harvest 4,000 pounds of corn from his land; today it’s more like 500. Faced with persistent drought, farmers are trying a more rugged and lower-quality corn they once fed to chickens.

Things aren’t much better for coffee farmers. Honduras is the world’s fifth-largest coffee producer, and almost 3 million people depend on it to live. But hot, dry conditions are ideal for a leaf fungus that eventually destroys the plants.

In El Salvador, one of the big issues is water – a result of mismanagement and climate change, according to National Geographic.  More than a quarter of the rural population has no access to running water – at home, or at a public tap. Meanwhile, aquifers have dropped by up to 13 feet, and 90 percent of the surface water is polluted. Climate change threatens to make matters worse. Much of El Salvador is in the Dry Corridor.

The Famine Early Warning Systems Network, a project of USAID and other federal government agencies, says the circumstances of subsistence farmers and farm workers have deteriorated over the past five years because of irregular rain, diseases, pests – and a lack of other employment options.

That’s the problem in government-report language. In the simpler words of Alfredo Monge, a Honduran farmer: “Not having food makes one desperate.”

He added: “We will have to get out of here.”

Comments (12)

  1. Submitted by Ray J Wallin on 04/08/2019 - 11:24 am.

    Yes, if you blame everything on climate change, then there is an emergency. But droughts and famines have happened forever. Establishing a link to climate change is not science.

    Fact: Climate related deaths have decreased over 90% in the last 100 years.

    Question. If climate change is coming on so strong, and will lead to such misery, why are the same environmentalists against nuclear energy? Shouldn’t nuclear energy be the answer to the global warming crisis… at least for this century?

    MN could be 100% emissions free, including CO2, in ten years if we went nuclear. Isn’t that what we want?

    Seriously, what is the goal here?

    • Submitted by Pat Terry on 04/08/2019 - 11:51 am.

      Droughts and famines have occurred forever. But they are increasing in frequency and severity because of climate change. That is science. There is an emergency.

      Some people do support nuclear power as an answer to climate change. The problem, of course, is the accidents. Nuclear would be great if it was safe. But so far it hasn’t been.

    • Submitted by David Lundeen on 04/08/2019 - 12:18 pm.

      Well Ray, the goal is to make sure we drastically cut CO2 emissions so people can live in stable environments in which the rate of change is not exponentially elevated. Hard to believe you had to ask that question.

    • Submitted by Ray J Wallin on 04/08/2019 - 01:01 pm.

      How is nuclear not safe, Pat?

      Deaths due to nuclear range in the hundreds, and that’s being generous. How many deaths do you see happening because of climate change? If it is a thousand, then there is no emergency. If it is in the millions to billions, then why not nuclear?

      • Submitted by Pat Terry on 04/08/2019 - 02:06 pm.

        Well, first, I am not opposed to nuclear power. And some of the resistance comes from the fact that nuclear has acute disasters, rather than killing people slowly like fossil fuels.

        The problem with nuclear is mostly that its prohibitively expensive. And part of that expense are the costs involved if something goes wrong. Chernobyl cost $235 billion. Fukashima is at $200 billion and counting. I can’t really fault environmentalists for opposing something that has made large areas inhabitable to humans basically forever.

      • Submitted by Ray J Wallin on 04/08/2019 - 03:59 pm.

        You have to compare the 500B in cleanup costs to the world gdp of 90,000B. Meanwhile, billions are starving because they don’t have the reliable energy that nuclear can give.

        Since we began to use fossil fuels, our life expectancy has nearly doubled and world population has spiked. I’m not sure how fossil fuels are curtailing our lifespans.

        Like I said in my original comment. What is the goal here? To eliminate fossil fuels at the expense of human life? I don’t see a plan.

      • Submitted by Dave Carlson on 04/11/2019 - 01:50 pm.

        Add to the specter of catastrophic nuclear disasters (or terrorist attacks on nuclear facilities) is the lack of any national program or site to store the highly radioactive spent nuclear fuel rods. At Prairie Island, the current “temporary” storage in large casks right along this nation’s largest watershed is just inviting some future disaster.

  2. Submitted by David Lundeen on 04/08/2019 - 11:31 am.

    Just another example of the current administration being unable to connect the easiest dots, and a significant percentage of the population willing to be satisfied with the most empty, and phyrric gestures as long as it comes at the expense of poking the ‘elites’ in the eye.

  3. Submitted by cory johnson on 04/08/2019 - 04:47 pm.

    So the border crisis is the fault of India and China? Interesting. I’m willing to bet it has slightly more to do with the ineffective and corrupt governments in Central America. Just slightly.

    • Submitted by David Lundeen on 04/09/2019 - 10:12 am.

      I think it has more to do with decades of US policies which resulted in Latin America being run as a corporate fiefdom.

  4. Submitted by Tom Anderson on 04/08/2019 - 10:00 pm.

    Who is going to tell the migrants from the South that we are on a path to doom here in the States too? Drought, floods, hurricanes, etc. are killing us too.

  5. Submitted by Kent Fralish on 04/11/2019 - 10:11 am.

    The world leaders need to start having serious discussions about human population. Scientists estimate the earth can only sustain 10 billion people.
    We are at 7 billion now and rising.

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