A new report by the US Government’s General Accountability Office (GAO) criticizes actions of the administration of President Donald J Trump which, by rescinding Obama-era executive orders and strategies, have reduced the capacity of the country’s diplomats to prepare for destabilizing mass migration events caused by climate change.
The January 17 report “Climate Change: Activities of Selected Agencies to Address Potential Impact on Global Migration” says that "Without clear guidance, (the Department of) State may miss opportunities to identify and address issues related to climate change as a potential driver of migration”. Responding to Congressional requesters, the report draws on assessments provided by the US Department of State, the US Agency for International Development and the US Department of Defense.
The GAO is a legislative branch US government agency that provides auditing, evaluation, and investigative services for the United States Congress and is the supreme audit institution of the US federal government.
The GAO notes that “According to international and US government sources, climate change poses serious risks to many of the physical and ecological systems upon which society depends, although the exact details of these impacts are uncertain. Climate change may intensify slow-onset disasters, such as drought, crop failure, and sea level rise. Climate change is also increasing the frequency and intensity of extreme weather events, including sudden- onset disasters, such as floods, according to key scientific assessments. These effects of climate change may alter existing migration trends across the globe”.
An Appendix to the GAO report “Regional Focus on Climate Change as a Driver of Global Migration” notes case examples of climate-driven migration from seven geographies around the world.
“Sea level rise, a slow-onset disaster, may result in the salinization of soil and drinking water, thereby undermining a country or community’s ability to sustain livelihoods and maintain critical services, which could cause some people to migrate”, the report notes.
“Sudden-onset disasters may also contribute to migration as people flee natural disasters, in most cases leading to temporary displacement. For example, people may either voluntarily migrate, or be forced to migrate, to earn money needed to rebuild damaged homes after flooding, especially as extreme weather events increase in intensity and number. If unable or unwilling to migrate, people may find themselves trapped or choosing to stay in deteriorating conditions”.
The GAO notes that from fiscal years 2014 through 2018, a variety of US executive branch actions related to climate change—such as executive orders and strategies—affected the Department of State (State), the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), and the Department of Defense (DOD), including their activities that could potentially address the nexus of climate change and migration. For example, a fiscal year 2016 presidential memorandum—rescinded by the Trump administration in 2017— required agencies to develop implementation plans to identify the potential impact of climate change on human mobility, among other things. In general, however, climate change as a driver of migration was not a focus of the executive branch actions. For example, a fiscal year 2014 executive order—also rescinded by the Trump administration in 2017—requiring agencies to prepare for the impacts of climate change did not highlight migration as a particular concern”.
“Estimates vary considerably of how many people are migrating because of climate change-fueled events or might be displaced in the future, because of the lack consistent data. Still, the decisions by the State Department to stop providing climate guidance have occurred as migration has risen worldwide. Globally, about 244 million people are international migrants, and an additional 740 million people are migrants within their home countries, according to the International Organization for Migration's 2018 World Report…Further, the IOM found that since 2008, an average of 25.3 million people have been newly displaced annually, the vast majority due to disasters rather than violence”.
A joint strategic plan between the State Department and USAID in 2015 described climate change as "an urgent and growing threat to US national security, contributing to increased natural disasters, refugee flows and conflicts over basic resources like food and water”. The Trump administration’s 2017 joint plan does not take climate change into account, the report said.
Drought caused by climate change is also associated with the migration of thousands of people from Central America towards the US in recent months, a driver of Trump’s “border wall” proposal which, in turn, has caused the longest ever closure of the US federal government.
Trump And Domestic US Climate Impacts
Regarding domestic US impacts of climate change, The US released its fourth National Climate Assessment Report in November 2018.
That Congressionally mandated Assessment summarized the impacts of climate change on the US, now and in the future. More than 300 experts guided by a 60-member Federal Advisory Committee produced the report, which was extensively reviewed by the public and experts, including federal agencies and a panel of the US National Academy of Sciences.
The authors reported that the quality and quantity of water available for use by people and ecosystems across the country are being affected by climate change, increasing risks and costs to agriculture, energy production, industry, recreation, and the environment.
The administration of Donald Trump came under fire for attempting to “bury” the report by releasing it November 23, during the US Thanksgiving holiday period. The famously climate-change-denying President subsequently told reporters that he doesn’t believe his own government’s climate change findings. “I’ve seen it, I’ve read some of it, and it’s fine,” he said outside the White House November 26. “I don’t believe it".