Skip to content Skip to footer

From California to El Salvador, Climate-Driven Displacement Is on the Rise

Climate disruption is shaping migration patterns — of humans and birds alike.

Health care workers evacuate residents from the Riverside Heights Healthcare Center as the Hill Fire grows dangerously close to the facility on October 30, 2019, in Jurupa Valley, California.

Part of the Series

As part of the push for a Green New Deal, Democrats in both chambers of Congress have introduced legislation to support international refugees displaced by environmental disasters and climate disruption, and are continuing to challenge the Trump administration’s immigration crackdown and ongoing quest to unravel what little progress the government has made on climate.

The bills would create a “global resilience strategy” and a new humanitarian program for people displaced by environmental disasters or climate disruption. “Climate-displaced persons,” as they are known, currently have no protections under domestic or international law, and the legislation would allow up to 50,000 people to resettle in the United States beginning in 2020. Meanwhile, as right-wing pundits railed against Democrats using climate fears to “import” foreigners and joked about the very idea of climate refugees, hundreds of thousands of people were forced to evacuate their homes due to raging fires in California.

Unless powerful countries take meaningful action on climate, more than 143 million people across sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia and Latin America could be displaced from their homes by 2050, according to the World Bank. The poorest and most environmentally vulnerable will be hardest hit as sea levels rise, storms intensify and droughts and unpredictable weather patterns rob farmers of their livelihoods. They will become refugees in their own countries, further driving international migration across the world. Researchers also predict that large coastal cities in these regions and others could be wiped off the map.

The Democrats’ legislation has virtually no chance of becoming law as long as President Trump occupies the Oval Office. Last month, the Trump administration came under fire for suppressing an internal report suggesting that climate change is contributing to food shortages in Guatemala that are driving record numbers of migrants to the southern border, while freezing foreign aid to Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala including money earmarked for small farms impacted by climate change. Democrats also demanded answers after reports suggested that the State Department threatened to withhold aid from the International Organization for Migration if it crossed the administration’s political lines on climate.

The issue has become a rallying cry for Democrats backing the Green New Deal, and they are eager to challenge Trump on climate issues and resist his racist efforts to slash the number of refugees allowed to resettle in the U.S. It’s an emerging issue not only faced by the U.S., but countries across the world.

“Sadly, governments are being very reluctant to acknowledge the power of climate change as a factor that is leading more and more people to make the sad decision to go from their own countries to somewhere else,” said Oscar Chacón, executive director of Alianza Americas, a network of Latin American and Caribbean immigrant organizations in the U.S., in an interview with Truthout.

The United Nations recognizes that disasters and environmental degradation associated with climate disruption increasingly react with other factors to drive migration across the world, including in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, where droughts and unpredictable rainfall are pushing low-income families away from agricultural areas and into cities. Climate disruption’s contributions to extreme weather and food insecurity are now recognized as one factor behind the surge of migrants to the United States that Trump has used to rouse his nativist base and justify brutal immigration policies built around mass incarceration.

Chacón is from El Salvador, and he travels to Central America regularly to meet with advocates and investigate what is pushing so many people in the Northern Triangle of El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala away from their homes. In rural areas, problems linked to climate change are often a “trigger factor” forcing low-income people from the countryside to search of economic opportunity in cities or even leave the country. It’s a compounding factor in the Northern Triangle’s various struggles, including poverty and gang violence.

“I’m not saying climate change is the leading reason why people are leaving, but clearly climate change is one rapidly changing factor,” Chacón said. “I would dare to say if we think about the next 10 or 15 years, it will become a significant factor in why people decide that there is no other choice for them than to go seek a better life in a foreign land.”


As a teenager living in El Salvador during the 1970s, Chacón remembers his grandparents planting crops at their farm every April and holding various harvests throughout the year on a fairly steady schedule.

“Now it’s completely different: We no longer know for sure when there will be rain and when there will be sun for communities in the countryside,” Chacón said.

In the 1970s, Chacón said, coffee, sugar and cotton were central to the Salvadorian economy. While things have changed decades since, agriculture still represents about 11 percent of El Salvador’s economy and employs about 20 percent of its labor force. In addition, many lower-income people living in the countryside rely on subsistence farming for their food. Climate change is a topic of discussion in the global media and halls of power, but little is being done to support rural areas populated by poor farmers, who have been caught off guard and are increasingly being forced to leave their homelands.

“I was in El Salvador three weeks ago, and they were having incredible rain coming down, which is completely out of season, and that was following months of [drought], which is completely off, because the dry season historically has always begun in mid to late September, and it went all the way through the end of March,” Chacón said. “That’s no longer the case.”

Chacón said Indigenous and Afro-descendant communities are among the hardest hit in Latin America, and they already face other forces of displacement, such as rapid mineral mining development in Honduras and Guatemala. Alianza Americas and other groups are working to educate impacted people about climate change and build a framework for advocacy on the national and international stage.

That effort intersects with a broad array of issues at home and abroad, from economic inequality and energy consumption to immigration policy and racial justice. Indeed, the world is changing before our eyes as climate disruption touches everything from public health to urban planning. It is our future, and scientists are scrambling to mitigate its impacts as disasters continue to strike.


El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala are not the only places experiencing climate displacement. Hundreds of thousands of residents have evacuated their homes to escape wildfires raging across California. Millions of residents have experienced rolling blackouts and power outages as energy utilities scramble to contain the damage and prevent more fires from breaking out.

On Tuesday, Truthout climate fellow Sharon Zhang told the story of one evacuee, Cynthia Boaz, who fled with her dogs and chickens to escape the Kincade Fire raging in northern California. It was the second time Boaz had evacuated the home she shares with her husband, having already fled from the Tubbs and Pocket fires in 2017. Power outages put disabled and elderly people at risk, Zhang reported. At least 200,000 people were forced from their homes from the Kincade Fire alone.

In an op-ed at The Guardian, climate activist Bill McKibben openly wondered whether the climate crisis has made sunny California, home to Hollywood and the world’s fifth largest economy, too dangerous to live in.

By Tuesday, firefighters were battling more than a dozen fires across California. Climate change doesn’t spark massive fires itself; they are often the result of accidents or human error, or even natural causes. However, the warming climate makes it more likely that fires will be more frequent and spread faster, as Zhang explained:

Indeed, increasingly hot and arid seasons in California are exacerbating fire risk, and it’s only going to keep worsening; hotter days only put more strain on already dated infrastructure. To avoid future catastrophes like the current state of emergency in the state, California Gov. Gavin Newsom said that “things will have to radically change,” reports The Sacramento Bee. “This can’t be the new normal.”


Much has been written about the disruption of glaciers and permafrost in colder parts of the world, where melting ice contributes to rising seas or releases stores of methane, a potent greenhouse gas. The “cryosphere,” as the Earth’s frozen parts are collectively known, also provides potable water for about half the world’s population, and the United Nation’s weather service warned this week that this water supply is becoming increasingly unpredictable as the world becomes warmer.

The World Meteorological Organization held a “high mountain summit” in Geneva this week, where researchers and experts from around the world gathered to discuss the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) latest report released last month. Over the past few decades, the IPCC reports, global warming has led to “widespread shrinking” of ice sheets, glaciers, Arctic sea ice and snow cover. This melting creates various feedback loops and in general contributes to warmer ocean temperatures and further surface warming in colder regions, causing escalating damage to the cryosphere and global temperature rise.

The UN’s weather service is concerned about sources of freshwater in the world’s mountains, and the ecosystems and human populations they sustain. Rising global temperatures are causing “unprecedented changes” in high mountain regions as the cryosphere shrinks and patterns of rainfall shift. Not only does this make sources of drinking water less predictable, it also increases the risks of hazards to property and human life, such as avalanches and glacial lake flooding. For example, in the Hindu Kush Himalayan region, floods already account for one third of natural disasters and are increasing in frequency, putting one billion people living downstream at great risk.


Birds nest in all sorts of different habitats, but most species also spend a lot of time in the air, especially if they migrate seasonally. Earlier this month, the Audubon Society warned of a “bird emergency”: Nearly two-thirds of North American bird species 389 species, to be exact are threatened with extinction if climate disruption continues unabated. The report from the Audubon Society comes on the tail of research released in September showing that North America lost about 30 percent of its bird population since the 1970s, or about 3 billion birds.

“A lot of people paid attention to last month’s report that North America has lost nearly a third of its birds,” said Audubon Society President David Yarnold, in a statement. “This new data pivots forward and imagines an even more frightening future.”

Audubon researchers used 140 million observations made by scientists and bird watchers to map out where 604 North American bird species live today, which is known as their “range.” Like other animals, specific bird species require certain conditions and habitats to survive, and researchers used the latest climate models to predict how the “range” occupied by various species would shift as climate disruption and related environmental impacts sweep across the continent. The results reveal that many bird species will be forced to search for more suitable habitats outside their traditional range, and some will not survive.

“Birds are [an] important indicator species, because if an ecosystem is broken for birds, it is or soon will be for people, too,” said Brooke Bateman, the senior climate scientist for the Audubon Society’s national office, in a statement.

Species at risk of climate-driven extinction include birds that have become icons in various regions of the U.S., including the American Robin, the Baltimore Oriole, the Common Loon and the Brown Pelican. With the Audubon Society’s online searchable database and “climate visualizer,” users can zero in on specific regions and areas to see which species of birds living in their communities could be impacted.

The Audubon Society estimates that 76 percent of threatened bird species in North American could be saved if carbon emissions are stabilized or reduced to keep global warming 1.5 degrees Celsius (1.5 °C) below pre-industrial levels, the gold standard established by the IPCC that has become a global goalpost for averting severe climate disruption. Achieving this goal may require broad changes in consumer habits and serious reductions in fossil fuel consumption, particularly in large or wealthy countries such as China or the U.S.

It also requires political will – something that simply does not exist within the Trump administration. Climate change is often framed as a global issue addressed by international summits and accords, processes Trump has shunned completely (along with the idea that climate disruption is a threat at all). However, climate disruptions are often regional or even local — droughts that lead to fire, a species of bird disappearing from a neighborhood, a farm family forced to pack up and move to a city slum. Solutions for these challenges are often then proposed and debated by political leaders, who put forth plans to address climate challenges from the top down.

Activists like Chacón say solutions must also come from the bottom up. We know the countries driving climate change are also the best suited to use their wealth to find solutions, Chacón said, naming the U.S., China and powerful countries in Europe as prime examples. Chacón said addressing the climate crisis is a “global collective responsibility,” yet the people who are most likely to fall victim to the crisis are not necessarily those who hold power in these countries.

The people most impacted, Chacón says, are “likely to be people of color, people in countries where there are already great, great problems when it comes to economic equality, and when it comes to longstanding racial discrimination structures.”

Grassroots solutions, according to Chacón, must also involve holding political leaders, who should be doing much more to address this crisis, to account. That goes for the U.S., which is a global leader in fossil fuel consumption and production. And it also goes for governments in Central America, which must do more to address economic inequality and develop alternatives for people who depend on agricultural lands impacted by climate change.

“I think we must really do a much better job organizing communities, not only to inject ways in which they can begin to prepare themselves, but in the ways that we hold decision-making individuals in our countries accountable,” Chacón said.

A critical message, before you scroll away

You may not know that Truthout’s journalism is funded overwhelmingly by individual supporters. Readers just like you ensure that unique stories like the one above make it to print – all from an uncompromised, independent perspective.

At this very moment, we’re conducting a fundraiser with a goal to raise $34,000 in the next 4 days. So, if you’ve found value in what you read today, please consider a tax-deductible donation in any size to ensure this work continues. We thank you kindly for your support.