Global Commons

We’re in the Endgame Now


Mass migration in Latin America is a regular occurrence, currently stemming from violence, crime, political instability, and humanitarian disasters. Climate change has been added to this list in recent decades, which further complicates the situation for migrants and host countries. By 2050, Latin America may see more than 17 million people (2.6 percent of the total population) migrate, both forced and voluntarily, in response to climate change. In fact, citizens from Central American countries, such as Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador, are starting to migrate to the U.S.-Mexico border, further fueling the border crisis. Rising debt, increased costs for pesticides and fertilizers, and malnutrition all contribute to this migration and are the result of climate change. Therefore, Latin America will need to address mass migration from climate change immediately. On a domestic level, countries will need to integrate climate change with their upcoming policy agendas. International cooperation is also needed and is necessary for creating adaptive and resilient climate-friendly infrastructure and initiatives.

California, 3/98: El Nino storms flood the Russian River.
Image courtesy of Dave Gatley/FEMA © 1998

Climate change is forcing migration throughout Latin America as evidenced by rising sea levels, an increase in warm temperatures, water cycle disruption, and stronger rainstorms. The rising sea levels not only force citizens inwards, they also increase the likelihood of coastal flooding. Higher temperatures alter safe zones for crop growth, which is essential for seasonal crops. Additionally, warmer temperatures damage soil quality, which destroys the opportunity for long-term use.

This makes rainfall all the more important. However, climate change’s disruption of the water cycle is altering normal patterns for rainfall, which both disturbs rain cycles and can induce droughts, as seen in Central America’s past decade. In fact, over the past decade, the severe droughts in the region have earned Central America the nickname, the Dry Corridor. As climate change continues to modify the region’s weather dynamics, Latin America will likely experience stronger storms in addition to droughts. These natural disasters can destroy needed infrastructure such as hospitals, schools, and roads. This rapidly encourages displacement, sending migrants fleeing to other Latin American countries or to the U.S. border. With this migration comes numerous issues for both migrants and their host countries.

A prime example is Central America, where 40 percent of arable land is slated to drop by 2050. Alongside disabling the agriculture sector, a significant portion of small farmers in the region are likely to lose their source of income. This forces them to search elsewhere for work and places to live, whether within the region or in the United States. The likeliest option includes moving to urban areas in their respective countries, meaning that jobs in these areas will become more competitive. Furthermore, it is doubtful that these migrants will possess the technical skills needed to be competitive for these jobs. Ultimately, with people looking for work, these factors contribute to poverty and leave migrants susceptible to the region’s current crises. Therefore, climate change migrants require immediate attention such as preemptive measures and planned relief efforts.

A combination of international, regional, and state cooperation is needed to assist in minimizing climate change migration. Since international cooperation is the key to reversing climate change, the same is necessary to address climate change-induced migration. Regional organizations such as the Organization for American States as well as Latin America’s array of existing groups can lead  upcoming efforts. They can be leaders in regional initiatives and provide a forum for climate change advocacy. Policymakers in countries whose current leadership does not support climate change policies can use regional organizations as a platform to draw international support and interest.  

Outside of international cooperation, countries will need to make climate change migration a part of their policy agendas. Their first step should be increasing awareness for climate change migration, including granting climate change migrants refugee status. Simultaneously, these countries must create adaptive and resilient measures. They can adapt by creating climate-smart infrastructure such as increasing solar power production, creating vertical farms, and building channels to divert flooding, which would help protect cities from flooding and increase crop sustainability. Countries can be resilient by investing in renewable energy and by diversifying their  economic portfolios, especially as climate change will likely destroy the agriculture sector.  Also, in the event that migrants are forced to move, whether from severe storms or uninhabitable land, relocation efforts and disaster-relief plans are needed. This will allow each state to provide assistance to farmers and others affected by the changing climate. Each day, climate change continues to irreparably damage the planet, leading to a likely increase in migration. Latin America must implement these policy initiatives soon because to put it simply – we’re in the endgame now.

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