Donald Trump has made two moves that will intensify the refugee crisis, but only one is on the public’s radar. The first high-profile move is Trump’s controversial ban on many Muslim refugees who seek asylum in the United States. But the second move exacerbating the plight of refugees came earlier in Trump’s first week in office, when he blindfolded and handcuffed the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and shoved it in a closet under the guard of climate change denier Scott Pruitt.
What does Trump’s dismantling of the EPA have to do with the refugee crisis? His anti-environmental agenda will hasten and worsen the climate crisis, which will displace hundreds of millions of people from their homes in coming decades.
Trump launched his assault on the EPA by freezing its grant-making and communications. He threatens to halve the agency’s staff and slash regulations protecting our clean air and water. As of February 17, 2017, the implementer of this agenda is officially Scott Pruitt, who once tweeted that climate alarmists should be sued for fraud.
This attack on the EPA marks just the first of many below-the-belt hits to our planet and its citizens from this administration. We already see fast-tracked pipeline construction. Cancelled payments to the UN Green Climate Fund and the rise of oxymoronic “clean coal” will surely follow.
This anti-environmental agenda will directly accelerate the onset of climate-related rising sea levels, drought and disasters that will make many regions uninhabitable in the near future. The ocean will swallow up whole island nations and coastal communities, from the atolls of the Pacific, to the shorelines of Florida and Alaska. Meanwhile, desert areas like Dubai, Eastern Africa and the American Southwest will suffer historic droughts.
Most experts agree that by 2050, we’ll see a staggering 200 million people displaced by the climate crisis. Some fear that as many as 1 billion will be forced to move. For perspective, in 2016, 65.3 million people were displaced by all causes from their homes. Meanwhile, the Syrian conflict, which has resulted in nearly 5 million refugees (UNHCR), managed to shake the world, inciting fence-building, hate and neglect of Refugee Convention obligations. Imagine four times as many refugees and an increasingly destabilized environment.
Climate change’s indirect impacts could drive up these displacement projections even further. New evidence shows that global warming could increase conflict, which will also contribute to population displacement. The US Pentagon has warned that climate change could have the effect of “compelling mass migration” and indirectly increase terrorism. Experts have even argued that the Syrian Civil War was in part triggered by a historic 2006-2009 drought. As Trump justifies his refugee ban as a means of reducing terrorism, he acts in ways that may ultimately exacerbate such violence.
In President Obama’s farewell speech, he called attention to this issue: “… without bolder action, our children won’t have time to debate the existence of climate change; they’ll be busy dealing with its effects: environmental disasters, economic disruptions, and waves of climate refugees seeking sanctuary.”
Whether we see 200 million or a billion climate-displaced people by 2050, not one of these victims will be successful in their pursuit of sanctuary. This is because they are not legally protected under the current UN Refugee Convention. Presently, the Convention defines refugees as individuals fleeing violence or persecution — not an uninhabitable environment. Without international legal protection, these future unofficial refugees risk disenfranchisement, landlessness and a dark future. And as a civilization, we face the erosion or disappearance of entire nations and ancient cultures.
This massive migration is already unfolding. Residents of I-Kiribati, Takuu and many other Pacific islands are already fleeing rising seas as their governments purchase land abroad to secure national futures.
In the Carteret Islands of Papua New Guinea, Ursula Rakova is helping her people orchestrate resettlement to Bougainville to escape their drowning homeland. They have named their resettlement project Tulele Peisa, or “sailing the waves on our own.” The name conjures up a solitary canoe that the islanders must navigate to higher ground without any help from the people, corporations and countries that emitted the greenhouse gases sealing their fate.
This image of islanders independently “sailing the waves” of the Pacific to safeguard their future exemplifies resilience and action. But President Trump’s xenophobic refugee policies and total disregard of the climate crisis disturb the waters the Carteret Islanders travel.
Ursula Rakova has issued an announcement to the world: “We are climate refugees. And we are fighting for our lives.”
Trump has proven himself a direct adversary of these climate refugees and their fight. And many of us are complicit spectators. Now more than ever, we all need to act as allies of these earliest and most deeply affected victims of climate change.