A new analysis, which brings to light the pressing issue of climate migration, has called for changes in the US immigration policy. While our understanding of how climate change impacts human migration and mobility is still developing, we do know that climate change drives migration through extreme weather events like flooding and droughts, and other impacts. At the end of 2019, around 5.1 million were displaced and in the first half of 2020 alone, 9.8 million more were displaced due to disasters. However, there is little mention of climate migrants within existing US laws and, due to its growing concern, there is a push to create climate migration legislation.
According to a study, under a business-as-usual scenario, the temperature of the Earth will increase more in the next 50 years than it has in the last 6 000. Humans have lived in the same part of a narrow climate envelope, which is defined as where the species currently lives, for a millennium and these fundamental changes to the climate will expose several hundred million people to climate-related risks and poverty which will inevitably cause many to migrate. The study predicts that approximately 3.5 billion people, or 30 percent of the earth’s population, will have to move to other areas of the globe in the next 50 years. While these projections remain highly uncertain, there have been a range of analyses which suggest that changes in climatic conditions can exert enough stress on the affected individuals to trigger migration. Historical evidence has also highlighted climate-triggered migration and upheaval. For instance, the coldest period of the Little Ice Age in Europe has causally been linked to a peak of migration from 1580 to 1650 AD. Furthermore, the World Bank has already pointed to millions of people who have moved towards the Middle East, Europe, and North America and predicts that up to 140 million people could become forcefully displaced each year by 2050.
Migration can also bring great opportunity, not only to the migrants, but also to the places they go to. As the US and other developed nations face a demographic decline due to its ageing population, an introduction of young migrants into the workforce could boost their labour market. However, these benefits can only be realised if these nations relieve pressures on the fastest warming countries and allow in more migrants to move across their borders. The other alternative would be to shut their borders and abandon hundreds of millions of people in places that slowly become unliveable.
President Joe Biden is planning to usher in a new era of climate change action. We have already seen his commitment to this as he has already signed multiple executive orders designed to tackle climate change by pausing oil and gas drilling leases and launching a review of existing ones while pushing towards renewable energies.
Therefore, we may expect a more welcoming approach towards new migrants. Biden is working to address the issue of climate migration legislation in the US by approving the Executive Order on Rebuilding and Enhancing Programs to Resettle Refugees and Planning for the Impact of Climate Change on Migration, put before him on the 4th of February, that would direct administrative officials to do a six-month research study of climate change’s impact on migration, including “options for protection and resettlement.” Originally designed for people fleeing persecution and armed conflict, the current international refugee system is not equipped to assist people displaced due to climate change. In fact, it even struggles to define them as climate migrants due to climate change being an indirect factor to the causes of migration such as floods, droughts, and other extreme weather events that are the leading causes of forced displacement. Biden’s order directs his administration on how to analyse and identify, protect and resettle migrants who have been directly or indirectly displaced by climate impacts.
With this issue getting insufficient attention globally, (climate migration isn’t even mentioned in the Paris Agreement) and the Global Compact on Refugee and Migration, the first inter-governmentally negotiated agreement covering all dimensions of international migration in a holistic and comprehensive manner, it is extremely important for influential countries like the US to start with such strong action. Biden has also described this as his strategy to pressure other nations to act more urgently on climate change and to tackle this issue of climate migration, saying, “We’re taking steps led by the example of integrating climate objectives across all of our diplomacy and rais[ing] the ambition of our climate targets,” he said.
However, Biden will face opposition to his climate policies, and certainly any plans to create legislation on climate migration in the US will be met with apprehension. If he is to make more permanent legislative changes, it will be met with difficulties. This is because Biden has a very slim Democratic majority in the Senate. The Senate is split 50-50, leaving the Democrats 10 votes short of securing the 60 votes that are necessary to pass the climate bills. Without new legislation during Biden’s presidency, future ones can reverse his climate orders, as Biden did with Trump’s.
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