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Preparing for the Impacts of Climate Migration

“Pacific Island states do not need to be underwater before triggering human rights obligations to protect the right to life.” – Kate Schuetze, Pacific Researcher with Amnesty International

This is a quote in reference to a landmark human rights case brought to the UN Human Rights Committee (HRC) in February 2016. Ioane Teitiota of the island nation of Kiribati was originally refused asylum as a ‘climate refugee’ by New Zealand’s authorities and was subsequently deported. While the HRC did not rule this action unlawful, the committee did set a global precedent in recognizing the serious threat to the right to life that climate change poses on many communities globally. Furthermore, the HRC urged governments to consider the broader effects of climate change in future cases, essentially validating the concept of a ‘climate refugee’ outside the context of a natural disaster.

As the impacts of climate change become more severe and widespread, the United States must prepare for the resulting surge of human migration. Climate scientists are currently predicting that both primary and secondary impacts of climate change will collectively produce 140–200 million climate refugees by 2050. This sharp increase, if mismanaged, would likely overwhelm refugee processing systems, flood points of entry to the United States and strain both society and the economy. In order to protect the United States from these potential shocks, the government must begin to prepare the appropriate infrastructure, processes, and funding for integrating climate refugees into the population. As the coronavirus ravages the country, it is highlighting many of the systemic failures that occur when the government is not adequately prepared or pro-active.

In 1990, the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) recognized human migration as the biggest impact of climate change. The IPCC predicted that primary impacts like shoreline erosion, coastal flooding, and agricultural disruptions would create massive disruptions to the livelihoods of millions. The resulting secondary impacts relate to the effects on society globally; such as political unrest, food insecurity, and mass migrations. As four out of five refugees flee on foot to nations bordering their home country, most human migration is localized to areas affected by conflict. However, as climate change affects communities globally, the flows of refugees will no longer be concentrated to conflict zones and their surrounding nations, bringing the issue to U.S. borders. The sheer scale of migration that the IPCC is predicting renders any previous methods of dealing with refugees unsuitable for this impending crisis.

In terms of physical processing capacity, the United States is currently severely unprepared. Presently, it takes between eighteen to twenty-four months for a refugee to be screened and vetted before being approved to be resettled. This process involves in-person interviews, ongoing vetting by various intelligence agencies, health screening, and application reviews. These are all important and necessary steps to take in order to safeguard domestic security and safety of American citizens. However, expanding the capacity of these processes is necessary to prevent overwhelmed systems and employees, as it can result in errors or oversights. The administration must begin to work with sector experts and employees to determine the most efficient and effective way to expand these services.

These initial consultations are a necessary first step to creating a cohesive plan of action for the imminent refugee crisis. It would be irresponsible to simply increase the refugee intake limit without first establishing an effective process, as this would generate fragmented and disjointed state-level responses. A unified federal approach to intake climate refugees will standardize the procedure for smooth resettlement and promote economic growth.

Ensuring a legal framework is in place, with clear and inclusive classifications and resettlement plans will allow migrants to fully participate and enrich society. Unpreparedness will strain the U.S. economy, systems and society. According to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), admitting migrants is beneficial for a domestic economy because they add human capital and boost the working-age population. The United States has an aging population, as people over the age of sixty-five are projected to outnumber children in the United States population by 2030. If this gap continues to grow, it will cause the number of dependent individuals to be greater than those contributing to the economy. Accepting more migrants into the United States can alleviate this problem, provided that sufficient processing and resettlement programs exist to direct migrants into the workforce effectively.

The benefits of accepting more migrants goes far beyond economics. Studies show that increasing immigration quotas improves both economic innovation and community resilience, proving that diversity and inclusion make the United States stronger. In view of the abundant challenges ahead for the United States, as highlighted by the current pandemic, uniting communities and reinforcing the economy to maintain employment levels will be key to survival. As a global leader in developing methods for climate change adaptation, the United States must be prepared to take these first steps.