In the face of political turmoil following the assassination of the country’s president, a 7.2-magnitude earthquake that killed more than 1,000 people and a tropical storm, Haitians are fleeing their country.
More than 10,000 migrants from Haiti converged on the US border at Del Rio, Texas, this week and up to 30,000 may also be seeking to travel north. Their experiences are similar to those of migrants from Central and South America, where political and economic instability and climate change are threatening their livelihoods.
In conversations with CNN, Haitians have pointed to social unrest, poverty and earthquakes among the reasons for their migration. The present border crisis paints a picture of how natural disasters — and their trickle-down effects — can push people to leave their homes, even if it means risking their lives.
“Haiti is one particular important case, but it is connected to a wider story of the dispossession of Black people, especially in the Caribbean,” Keston K. Perry, a political economist and assistant professor of Africana studies at Williams College, told CNN. “Making the connection between existing inequalities that are linked to colonialism and enslavement of African peoples is important for us to understand how these communities have become particularly vulnerable and exposed to climate change.”
Research has shown that climate migration will become more likely as the planet warms and people seek places they consider safer and more economically stable.
According to a UN report in April, weather disasters linked to climate change have pushed roughly 21.5 million people in countries already struggling with conflict to move each year, on average, since 2010. Though migrants don’t often cite it as their primary reason for leaving their homes, a 2020 study found connections between the climate crisis and its effects on safety, the economy and migrants’ livelihoods.
“Making a decision to leave their own country has to be the very last resort,” Perry said. “They are unable to meet the resources, recovery and relief needs on a yearly basis, when they experience calamities like landslides, flooding and hurricanes that we’re seeing happening more frequently – and so we’re going to be seeing more forms of migration.”
A political challenge
The impact of climate change on the US border crisis “should not surprise anyone,” Democratic Sen. Ben Ray Luján of New Mexico told CNN.
“The National Security Assessment has been clear from the very beginning on this,” Luján said. “The US and our allies have to take the climate crisis seriously in all aspects of this, or everything is going to get worse. The science is clear, we’re seeing it play out in front of our very eyes.”
President Joe Biden recently requested a national intelligence estimate, the intelligence community’s most significant intelligence product, to explore the security implications of the climate crisis, a senior State Department official told CNN.
The official said the concern about a global refugee crisis, triggered by more frequent extreme weather, is “really is the guiding force behind” the request for the report.
“The President wanted to make sure that we have a good understanding and a comprehensive understanding of this challenge,” the official said, speaking about the link between climate change and migration. “It is going to be so massive and we understand that and we want to make sure that we see the ramifications, the consequences, the risks, and also what kinds of policy options exist today that are working well.”
But Perry, who’s originally from Trinidad and Tobago himself, said the US is contributing to the problem with its rampant fossil fuel emissions, and because it has not provided necessary climate financing to assist developing nations.
“The United States is not being held responsible, given it is the largest contributor to greenhouse gas emissions globally,” he said. “It has not shown any form of interest in supporting these people, who are escaping various forms of climate and agricultural crises that are linked to forms of intervention that the US has taken in those countries.”
A spokesperson for the White House told CNN the US has “committed to bold, ambitious climate goals,” including Biden’s target to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by around 50% of 2005 levels by 2030.
“Simultaneously,” the spokesperson said, “the Biden Administration continues to implement a comprehensive strategy to address the factors that drive people to leave their countries, create legal channels to migrate, create protection for people in the region, reform our asylum system and deter irregular migration.”
The US is a ‘beacon’
As the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere, according to the World Bank, Haiti is extremely vulnerable to natural disasters with more than 90% of the population at risk. Across the Caribbean, climate change is expected to accelerate the frequency and intensity of extreme weather hazards, including hurricanes.
Central American countries including Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua have also been facing life-threatening levels of food insecurity as a result of years-long blistering drought and intensifying storms.
And much like vast swaths of the Western US, a 2020 study published in the journal Environmental Research Letters found that the frequency, length and intensity of droughts in these countries will increase as temperatures continue to warm through the end of the century.
Rep. Raúl Grijalva, an Arizona Democrat and chair of the House Natural Resources Committee, said climate migration isn’t unique to the United States, but it is in the country’s interest to lead since it’s already a destination for people who are fleeing their homelands.
“Like it or not, this beacon — ‘the US-of-A’ — is out there,” Grijalva told CNN. “People see that as a refuge, they see it as a new start, and they see it as an escape, and that force is not going away.”
Even if migrants achieve their goal of settling in the US, they still face impacts of the climate crisis. This summer alone, an unprecedented heatwave killed hundreds in the Northwest, and Hurricane Ida devastated the Gulf Coast and Northeast with flooding. The West is in the grips of a historic drought that has caused water shortages.
On the US-Mexico border, most migrants cross the Rio Grande Valley in Texas. The region is one of the fastest-growing places in the US, but it is also getting hotter and drier for people living there. The Rio Grande river, which provides drinking and irrigation water to 6 million people and 2 million acres of farmland for both countries, is draining as heatwaves become more severe and rainfall decreases.
Perry said developed nations like the US should expect to see more migrants and refugees attempting to escape intensifying disasters.
“These crises reveal what has been going on beneath the surface in terms of structural inequities,” Perry said. “At the end of the day, given what is happening in Haiti and in other parts of Latin America and the Caribbean, we are going to see future events of this kind, especially as the planet warms.”
CNN’s Ella Nilsen and Nicole Gaouette contributed to this report.