SAN DIEGO – Shortly after taking office, President Joe Biden issued what was widely hailed as a landmark executive order calling for the U.S. government to study and plan for the impact of climate change on migration. And less than a year later, his administration released the first U.S. government assessment of the vast rippling effects of a warming Earth on international security and displacement of people.
Advocates praised both moves as bold steps toward the world finally recognizing the need to offer refuge to people fleeing not just wars and persecution but also climate calamities such as drought and rising seas.
Since then, however, the Biden administration has done little more than study the idea, advocates say.
The government has been slow to implement recommendations made a year ago by its own agencies, including the National Security Council, on how to address climate migration.
Key to progress on the issue was creation of an interagency working group to coordinate government response to both domestic and international climate migration.
But the group, which was supposed to oversee policies, strategies and budgets to help climate-displaced people, still has not been established, according to a person with knowledge of the administration’s efforts who was not authorized to speak publicly. The person said the group is expected to hold its first meeting later this fall. The administration declined to identify which agencies will participate in the working group.
Meanwhile, Biden's report to Congress about his plans for refugee admissions to the U.S. in the 2023 budget year made scant mention of climate change.
Advocates once energized by the administration’s promises to embrace climate-displaced people say they have grown disillusioned.
“It’s been really disappointing," said Ama Francis, climate migration expert at the International Refugee Assistance Project, a New York-based advocacy group. “We want to see real action. There are needs right now. But all we see is the administration move more slowly and staying in an exploratory phase, rather than doing something."
That's despite the government's reports by the departments of Defense and Homeland Security, National Security Council and Director of National Intelligence that highlighted “the urgency of expanding current protections and creating new legal pathways to safety for climate-displaced people," Francis pointed out.
Each year, natural disasters force an average of 21.5 million people from their homes around the world, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. And scientists predict migration will grow as the planet gets hotter. Over the next 30 years, 143 million people are likely to be uprooted by rising seas, drought, searing temperatures and other climate catastrophes, the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reported this year.
National security officials also recommended increasing U.S. aid to countries regularly pummeled by extreme weather and strengthening support for U.S. climate scientists and others to track these events.
To that end, the government recently released plans to work with Congress to provide billions of dollars annually to help countries adapt and manage impacts of climate change, especially to those vulnerable to the worst effects.
At the U.S.-Pacific Islands Summit, Biden announced $22 million in funding for climate forecasting and research, and setting up early warning systems in places like Africa, where 60% of nations lack such systems. The administration said it plans to announce more such funding to close that gap at the global COP27 climate summit in Egypt in November.
Environmental disasters now displace more people than conflict within their own countries, though no nation in the world offers asylum to climate migrants.
The White House's 37-page Report on the Impact of Climate Change on Migration was the first time the U.S. government outlined the inextricable links between climate change and migration.
Released in October 2021 as Biden headed to the U.N. climate conference in Glasgow, Scotland, the report recommended steps, such as monitoring the flows of people forced to leave their homes because of natural disasters and working with Congress on a groundbreaking plan that would add droughts, floods, wildfires and other climate-related reasons in considering refugee status.
The report came a year after the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees published legal guidance that opened the door for offering protection to people displaced by the effects of global warming.
The guidance said climate change should be taken into consideration in certain scenarios when it intersects with violence, though the document stopped short of redefining the 1951 Refugee Convention, which provides legal protection only to people fleeing persecution due to their race, religion, nationality, political opinion or social group.
The U.N. refugee agency acknowledged that temporary protection may be insufficient if a country becomes uninhabitable because of drought or rising seas, and suggested certain climate-displaced people could be eligible for resettlement.
Last month, more than a dozen humanitarian organizations sent a letter to the White House urging the government to give priority to refugee populations currently affected by climate change. The people include: South Sudanese and Ethiopians in Sudan where recurring drought and floods exacerbated by climate change threaten refugee camps. And Rohingya in Bangladesh where refugee camps are also at risk due to flooding.
But the Biden administration has not responded to the request, the organizations said.
“It was a positive step that the administration recognized that they should work on this issue, which is a first, so now they should make good on ... that promise,” said Kayly Ober of Refugees International.
Migration is part of humanity’s adaptation to climate change and will become one of many tools for survival, so governments need now to plan accordingly, advocates say.
Humanitarian organizations provided the administration with reports on how to train immigration officers to do a better job at taking climate change into account when interviewing people for asylum or refugee status. They also offered analysis of possible legal pathways, such as expanding temporary protective status and humanitarian parole, which have allowed people fleeing natural disasters and conflicts in a limited list of countries to live and work in the United States for a few years.
The U.S. should establish a resettlement category for migrants who do not meet the refugee definition but who are unable to return safely to their homelands due to environmental risks, according to experts.
Worsening weather conditions are exacerbating poverty, crime and political instability, fueling tensions over dwindling resources from Africa to Latin America. But often climate change is overlooked as a contributing factor for people fleeing their homelands. According to the U.N. refugee agency, 90% of refugees under its mandate are from countries “on the front lines of the climate emergency.”
But so far there has been slow progress in the U.S. adopting policies recognizing them.
“Where we have some movement unfortunately is only in the uptick of people forcibly displaced in the world," said Amali Tower, founder of the advocacy group Climate Refugees.
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