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Climate Change Displacement: The Case of Latin America and a Call to Action for International Law

Article by Isabel Cortes,

Violence, poverty, political unrest, and economic instability are contributing factors that have led to the migration of many Latin Americans. While these factors are critically important in understanding migration patterns, one of the most significant factors missing from the analysis is climate change. From an international law perspective, the nexus between climate change and climate migration has been of scholarly debate, especially in recent years. Nonetheless, significant work is necessary to clarify how to label people affected by the climate crisis, to develop international migration or refugee programs, and to ensure that those most affected by climate change are not disproportionately impacted when seeking refuge.

Finding a Common Definition for People Impacted by Climate Change

Immigrants, particularly those from Latin America, have often been criminalized for beginning their migration. Various actors refer to this journey north as a “wave” or a “caravan”. Although these words are not necessarily bad, they miss the mark in identifying the human element–fathers, mothers, children, brothers, and sisters–who make up those “waves” and those “caravans.” Grouping immigrants into such pejorative language curbs the opportunity to unpack the factors that contribute to their migration. Many victims of violence in their native countries are also victims of climate change. Maxine Burkett, a Berkeley Law alumna and expert in the law and policy of climate change, argues that one of the first barriers in addressing climate-induced migration is how to define people impacted by climate change displacement. Language such as “climate refugees,” “climate migrants,” and “climate displaced persons” is used interchangeably by the media, scholars, and political leaders alike. The lack of consistency in and agreement on a common definition prevents the international community from adopting once and for all a definition that can be used universally, helping to ensure that people receive the legal recognition that can bring them legal protection. A common definition is particularly important for Latin American immigrants who have been impacted by the climate crisis.

Climate Change and Climate Migration in Latin America

The Great Migration, a 2020 publication in partnership between ProPublica and The New York Times Magazine, highlights that severe droughts, flooding, and lack of agricultural productivity in many Latin American countries has contributed to migration and displacement. In the publication, a particularly important projection is that, as the climate continues to change over the course of the next 30 years, more than 30 million Latin American migrants will head toward the U.S. The Great Migration is not the only publication drawing a connection between climate change and climate migration. In 2018, the ‘Dry Corridor’ was of particular focus in a Univision publication that described how climate change plays a role in Central American migration. The inability to grow fruitful harvests, to make productive agricultural products, and to limit environmental degradation is only making life more difficult for migrants. In many instances, Latin Americans are faced with a harsh choice–whether to leave their home countries and migrate north where they will face an uncertain future, or remain in their home countries where they will inevitably battle the uncertainty of droughts, excessive rains, and severe flooding.

International law must look closely at how climate change is exacerbating migration movements in Latin America. Because this body of law is intersectional and dynamic, the international legal community has a timely opportunity to shape the future of international immigration policies. The United Nations (UN), in collaboration with other international agencies, is currently working on a Climate Change Task Force on Displacement who will analyze the relationship between climate change and migration; but the task force has not yet demanded enough action by countries around the world, leaving much practical work to be done. The International Organization for Migration, a UN Migration Agency, published a policy brief focused on Central and North America and the impact of natural disasters and environmental change. Since it was publicized in 2018, the climate change situation in Latin America has only gotten worse. As the nexus between climate change and climate migration continues to receive cover, international law practitioners must rethink how they can respond in a way that accounts for the oft-neglected human element of the daunting issue of climate change.

The Global South and the World’s Poor Will Suffer Most

One of the unfortunate truths about climate change is that the world’s poor and the Global South will face the greatest consequences. Countries in the Global South contributed less to climate change, including in the form of carbon emissions, than did the U.S. and other developed countries. Yet, due to limited resources for climate change adaptation and disaster response, they will suffer disparate dangers and harms from natural disasters enhanced by climate change. As climate change continues to play out, severe changes will continue to exacerbate displacement and migration from residents of Latin America. It is important to identify that migration is indeed connected to climate change; but the influence of that identification on international policies and solutions is minimal. The UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) needs concrete solutions to the issue. The UNFCCC centralizes climate change on the global stage, but since the UNFCCC’s establishment in 1994, no global and mandatory policies have arisen. Similarly, the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement is a voluntary, politically encouraged agreement that is not legally enforceable. In fact, the Trump Administration has demonstrated that a country can easily withdraw from the agreement. Although mandatory policies are incredibly difficult to establish internationally, more can be done to support people disproportionately impacted by climate change. Frameworks and conventions rely on more than just climate change reports–we need solutions that are founded in equity and responsibility.

A Path Forward and the Danger in Not Acting

Poverty, political conflict, violence, and economic instability will continue to take place in the years to come. Many Latin Americans will continue to migrate north, and as the connection between climate change and poverty becomes more prominent, the international legal community will need to offer solutions to address the social inequality of climate change or to address the fractured global policies relating to immigrants. The solution is a coordinated effort between climate scholars, international agencies, countries affected by climate change, and countries who will become host countries. A joint effort to finalize a legal definition for climate migrants and a framework of international legal protections will help advance solutions to protect those affected by climate crisis and climate displacement. The International Organization for Migration (IOM) has adopted “climate displaced persons” as the official term when referring to people affected by climate change and have defined climate displaced persons as “persons or groups of persons who, for compelling reasons of sudden or progressive changes in the environment as a result of climate change that adversely affect their lives or living conditions are obliged to leave their habitual homes, or choose to do so, either temporarily or permanently, and who move either within their own country or abroad.” The IOM’s definition is by far the most comprehensive definition which the international community should adopt.

We are in a pivotal moment and the danger in not acting is severe–human lives will be lost, entire communities will be displaced, and loss of land and natural resources will continue to be depleted. The path forward for climate change must be central in collaboration, accountability, and, to the extent possible, must be required by international law. Three years ago, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees estimated that about 44,400 new displacements were occurring every day. The development of new international law principles regarding migration has the potential to change this number and set migration in a new direction. However, not acting, not establishing an official definition for people affected by climate change, and not setting concrete international policies will only exacerbate the danger of widespread and disparate suffering, contributing to inequality and continued displacement. The state of climate change makes a proactive approach necessary. It goes without saying that the responsibility to act is a shared one that must start from international law and encompassing individual countries, corporate stakeholders, state and local governments, and most importantly, a call to countries who have contributed the most to our climate crisis.

There is no time left; this planet is all the time we have. Collective inaction is reckless.


Isabel Cortes is a second-year law student at Berkeley Law. She is interested in exploring the interdisciplinary and intersectional issues of climate change, climate crisis, and equitable energy law. Isabel holds a B.A. in Political, Legal, and Economic Analysis and a B.A. in Ethnic Studies from Mills College. Prior to law school, Isabel received a Master of Public Policy and worked at the California State Senate and Energy Foundation.



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