No, the Border Crisis Isn’t about Climate Change

Dozens of asylum-seeking migrants from Central America walk north before surrendering to the U.S. Border Patrol after crossing the Rio Grande River into the United States from Mexico in La Joya, Texas, May 7, 2021. (Adrees Latif/Reuters)
It’s about economics — and the Biden administration’s immigration policies.

There seem to be two rules in American political life: Everything is a crisis, and every crisis is actually another, different, crisis. Outlets across America tell readers that we are facing an energy crisis, a debt crisis, and a health-care crisis. From there, one “crisis” is frequently conflated with another, until it’s hard to keep America’s problems straight.

In the latest example of this troublesome trend, news outlets have begun conflating climate change and the border crisis. In April, a CNBC story quoted the claims of numerous experts that climate change is a “major factor” in immigration trends. Then, on Monday, Politico published an article arguing that our border crisis is actually about climate change.

The Politico article asserts that many residents of Guatemala struggle with food insecurity and malnutrition as a result of the changing climate. It cites a study from the International Organization for Migration, which asked Guatemalan migrants why they’d left their homes, and notes that 20 percent of respondents cited natural disasters or climate change as the reason for their departure. It then reports that:

Climate change, in the coming years, will only continue to exacerbate an already dire situation for millions of Guatemalans, analysts say. In the long term, the number of people in the region displaced by climate change is only expected to grow dramatically — leading many to migrate to more urban areas in Guatemala or head north to Mexico or the U.S. in search of jobs, money and security.

The article’s argument might seem plausible at first glance. But a closer look at the IOM’s study shows that economic concerns, rather than climate change, are the biggest reason migrants are leaving Guatemala. Seventy-seven percent of survey respondents cited better employment opportunities as a reason for leaving. The next three most-cited reasons were better living conditions (76 percent), unemployment (39 percent), and to send home remittances (34 percent). “Natural disasters or climate change” (20 percent) came in fifth — and that fact becomes even harder to use as evidence of a link between climate change and immigration when one remembers that “natural disasters” and “climate change” are not the same thing. (Natural disasters existed long before industrialization began changing the climate, though there is evidence that they have been exacerbated by climate change.)

If, as seems clear, some migrants have left their home countries as a result of climate change, that is indeed lamentable. But there’s good reason to affirmatively reject the notion that climate change is a driving force behind immigration more broadly.

If climate change were why so many traveled to the U.S. border, one would expect migration patterns to be relatively inelastic. We would certainly not expect to see any dramatic increase or decrease in immigration when control of the White House changed parties; after all, the president doesn’t control rainfall or hurricane frequency. Yet the numbers indicate a significant increase in crossings at the beginning of the Biden administration. Has the climate dramatically worsened since Biden was sworn in, or are people merely acting based on the incentives the Biden administration has given them by relaxing President Trump’s hard-line border policies? The answer seems obvious.

In general, illegal border crossings can be traced to any number of factors: job opportunities, drug trafficking, political shifts, and, yes, climate change. There’s nothing wrong with bringing attention to these issues by examining them in print. But to solve a problem, you have to properly define it first. We can and should address the border crisis and climate change at the same time. But conflating the two only makes that task more difficult.


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Colin Powell, R.I.P.

Colin Powell, R.I.P.

We had substantial disagreements but recognize that he will be remembered for a long, consequential career of service to a country that he loved.