Climate Migration in the Americas: building bridges instead of walls

In 2010, a research was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the study is one of the first studies trying to link scientific data on temperature rise and declining crop yields to climate-induced migration. The study focused on Mexico-US migration and its conclusion was that the impact of climate change on crop yields would potentially force up to seven million Mexicans to emigrate to the US over the next 70 years.

Effects of climate change in Latin America
Latin America is usually not mentioned as a ‘hot spot’ for climate-induced migration, South-East Asia, West Africa and low-lying islands in the Pacific are usually mentioned in this context. Though when taking a closer look, the region bears a combination of factors that could make it a ‘hot spot’ for climate-induced migration in the future. According to the WWF the impacts of a changing climate in Latin America range from melting Andean glaciers to devastating floods and droughts. Additionally, the two oceans that flank the continent are warming and becoming more acidic while sea level rises. Greater impact is in store for the region as both the atmosphere and oceans continue to rapidly change.

The World Bank commissioned a research on the effects of climate change in Latin America in 2014, predicting a scenario of what would happen when temperatures would rise by 4 degrees Celsius this century. Key findings are that:

  • Almost all land area in the region – 90% – will likely be subject to heat events that are currently experienced only every 700 years.
  • The Amazon basin and many highly inhabited areas are expected to experience extreme droughts.
  • The Andean glaciers will be gone by the end of the century. Glacial melt will at first raise the risks of floods and then result in drought for the communities that depend on them.
  • Category 4 or 5 hurricanes may occur more frequently and more powerfully. This, together with a one-meter sea-level rise will have devastating impacts, especially on the Caribbean.
  • A 4-degree world would mean that Rio de Janeiro and Barranquilla would have to cope with a massive 1.4-meter rise in sea level.

But already a two-degree rise would be highly damaging to Latin America and the Caribbean:

  • The number of severe hurricanes will increase by 40%, with double the energy of the current average.
  • Ecological changes would endanger up to 70% of Brazil’s soya bean and 45% of Mexico’s corn.

Taking a closer look at Mexico
Impoverished rural populations, whose livelihoods depend on rain-fed agriculture, primarily inhabit Northern Mexico. Crop yields in these regions have already been affected by land degradation. Additionally, changes in rain patterns have a further negative impact on crop yields, putting more pressure on the local population. Furthermore, Northern Mexico has been hit by financial hardship as a result of NAFTA, the free-trade agreement between Canada, the USA and Mexico. Though this article will not further iterate on either the positive or negative effects of this agreement, the adoption of NAFTA has placed farmers in Northern Mexico in an unequal competition with industrialised and subsidised farmers in the United States. These three circumstances create a need for migration and as Northern Mexico borders the USA, it is easy to decide where to go when migrating.

Build bridges, not walls
The U.S. National Research Council estimates that every degree Celsius of warming in global average temperatures means a 5-15% drop in yield, particularly for corn, in North America. With the inauguration of President-Elect Donald Trump and his statements on building a wall on the US-Mexican border to prevent ‘the Mexicans from coming in’, studies like these will put more pressure on diplomatic relations between the two countries. Though the USA and Mexico share strong economic and cultural ties, migration is a tough subject between the US, Mexico and Latin America as a whole. However, with temperatures being allowed to rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius, within this century, and possibly more when Trump’s climate agenda becomes reality, its time for the US and Latin American countries to discuss climate change, migration and declining crop yields.

Further reading on this topic can be found here.





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Rene Perey

Rene Perey