Government auditors explain why Trump’s policies will bring more refugees to the southern border

Climate change is driving a huge increase in migration, but Trump wants to stop doing anything about it.

A boy sits on an abandoned boat on what is left of Guatemala's Lake Atescatempa, which has dried up due to drought and high temperatures (CREDIT: MARVIN RECINOS/AFP/Getty Images)
A boy sits on an abandoned boat on what is left of Guatemala's Lake Atescatempa, which has dried up due to drought and high temperatures (CREDIT: MARVIN RECINOS/AFP/Getty Images)

Drought in Central America has helped spur refugees to our southern border, the U.S. General Accountability Office (GAO) said in a major report recently released to Congress.

But, as the GAO also warned, the Trump administration has stopped efforts by the State Department, begun under President Barack Obama, that were aimed at addressing the nexus between climate change and migration.

The GAO, which is Congress’s auditing arm, was asked by Senators Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), and other Democrats, “to review how U.S. agencies address climate change as a potential driver of global migration.”

It offered only one recommendation in its 65-page report published on January 17: “GAO recommends that State provide [foreign] missions with guidance that clearly documents its process for climate change risk assessments for country strategies.” This would mean, for instance, that embassies and consulates would have to consider how climate change will impact migration in their regions.


When the GAO asked the State Department to comment on the report, the department replied that it did not oppose the recommendation. But in an alarming turn, the department also said it would immediately begin a process that could rescind the one remaining Obama-era Executive Order requiring such risk assessments.

Such a response “was a highly unusual way for a federal department to signal potential policy initiatives,” Reuters noted late last week, citing David Gootnick, a GAO director of international affairs.

Tragically, warming-worsened droughts, floods, and sea-level rise around the world will drive tens of millions from their homes in the coming years and decades. That humanitarian disaster will dwarf the Syrian refugee crisis, which itself was spurred in part by a record mega-drought that hit the region from 2005 to 2010.

The “most widely cited estimate” for climate change induced migration by 2050 is 200 million people, according to the International Organization on Migration.


And the impact on refuges to our southern border will be huge. In an appendix, “Regional Focus on Climate Change as a Driver of Global Migration,” the GAO reviews the science of climate impacts for every region of the world, including Central America.

“The effects of climate change on Central America and the Caribbean may increase migration and exacerbate poverty rates, as the National Intelligence Council has reported,” the GAO explains. “The climate in Central America and the Caribbean is predicted to be warmer and dryer.”

How dry would the climate be? The report doesn’t go into such details, but here’s a 2015 NASA projection of what the normal climate would be by century’s end. The darkest areas have soil moisture comparable to that seen during the 1930s Dust Bowl.

This is a business-as-usual emissions path, which is where President Donald Trump’s policies to block or roll back domestic and global climate action would take us.

The GAO notes that “The Caribbean’s extensive coastlines and low-lying areas are vulnerable to sea level rise and an increase in sudden-onset disasters, including hurricanes and storm surges.”

Yet, under Trump’s policies, we’re facing sea level rise of several feet in the coming decades.

The result of all of this will be that millions of people from Mexico and Central America  —  Mexico alone is projected to have a population of 150 million by mid-century – will be trying to find a place to live that isn’t a hot and dry Dust Bowl, that has enough fresh water and food to go around, and that isn’t flooded. They aren’t going to be looking south.


A couple million Syrian refugees has turned global politics upside-down in recent years. What happens when that is multiplied 10-fold? Or 50-fold?

This isn’t some distant concern. Recent research links many current refugees to the United States’ southern border directly to drought in the Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras region.

“Drought is a particular concern in Central America, where declines in rainfall have reduced crop yields and threatened livelihoods in recent years,” the GAO notes. “Some evidence shows that drought in parts of Central America has contributed to migration north, including to the United States.”

The bottom line is clear: The worse climate change is the more refugees the United States will see, but Trump is not only pushing policies that will make climate change worse, he wants to stop federal agencies from even thinking about and planning for climate refugees.