State Department can’t ignore climate refugees, GAO report says

Survivors of 2008’s Cyclone Nargis shelter in the ruins of their destroyed home in War Chaun, a village in Myanmar’s Ayeyarwaddy Division. Photo: UNHCR/Taw Naw Htoo

Climate change is already drastically altering our planet and for millions of people around the world, this has meant that they’ve had to flee their homes and seek asylum in other countries. As the UN explained, scarce natural resources such as drinking water are likely to become even more limited. Many crops and some livestock are unlikely to survive in certain locations if conditions become too hot and dry, or too cold and wet. Food security, already a concern, will become even more challenging.

In a recent piece, Vox reported that the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre estimated that there were 24.2 million people displaced by climate and weather disasters in 2016. Last year, the World Bank estimated that number would rise to 143 million people by the middle of the century if climate change is left unchecked. These mass movements can, in turn, threaten fragile governments and economies, potentially leading to conflicts. The consequences can ripple back to the United States. “The worsening of climate change effects around the world, particularly in low-income countries, may increase the number of people wanting to immigrate to the United States,” the Government Accountability Office wrote in a report released last Thursday. The GAO called on federal agencies like the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development to account for how climate change will fuel global conflicts. The State Department under the Trump administration has stopped giving climate change the credence it deserves and the GAO report stated that “State changed its approach in 2017, no longer providing missions with guidance on whether and how to include climate change risks in their integrated country strategies.” 

Why This Matters: Since taking office, President Trump has not only ignored his own government’s warnings on climate change but also has dropped climate threats from his national security strategy and as a result, the federal agencies tasked with predicting and preparing for new developments overseas have failed to adequately do so. People don’t often connect climate change to immigration and refugee crises but the two are very closely linked. Especially as climate change leads to more conflicts around the world, it’s reckless for our government to ignore the threat based on misguided politics and not equip their staff to address the problem, as the GAO report pointed out the State Department has been doing.

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