US: More threats, more desperate refugees as climate warms

By JULIE WATSON, ELLEN KNICKMEYER and NOMAAN MERCHANT 22 October 2021, 12:00AM

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Earth's warming and resulting natural disasters are creating a more dangerous world of desperate leaders and peoples, the Biden administration said Thursday in the federal government's starkest assessments yet of security and migration challenges facing the United States as the climate worsens.

The Defense Department for years has called climate change a threat to U.S. national security. But Thursday's reports by the departments of Defense and Homeland Security, National Security Council and Director of National Intelligence provide one of the government’s deepest looks yet at the vast rippling effects on the world’s stability and resulting heightened threats to U.S. security, as well as its impact on migration.

They include a first-of-its-kind intelligence assessment on climate change that identified 11 nations of greatest concern, from Haiti to Afghanistan.

Another report, the first by the government focusing at length on climate and migration, recommends a number of steps, including 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 and wildfires and other climate-related reasons to be considered in granting refugee status.

The climate migration assessments urge the creation of a task force to coordinate U.S. management of climate change and migration across government, from climate scientists to aid and security officials.

Each year, storms, the failure of seasonal rains and other sudden natural disasters force an average of 21.5 million people from their homes around the world, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees says. Worsening climate from the burning of coal and gas already is intensifying a range of disasters, from wildfires overrunning towns in California, rising seas overtaking island nations and drought-aggravated conflict in some parts of the world.

“Policy and programming efforts made today and in coming years will impact estimates of people moving due to climate-related factors,” said the report, one of dozens of climate change assessments President Joe Biden ordered from federal agencies. “Tens of millions of people, however, are likely to be displaced over the next two to three decades due in large measure to climate change impacts.”

The Biden administration is eager to show itself confronting the impacts of climate change ahead of a crucial U.N. climate conference in Glasgow, Scotland, that starts late this month. That’s especially so as Biden struggles to get lawmakers to agree to multibillion-dollar measures to slow climate change, a key part of his domestic agenda.

As part of its push Thursday, the administration released the first-ever national intelligence estimate on climate change, a document intended to signal the importance placed on the issue. National intelligence estimates are benchmark documents created by U.S. intelligence agencies that are intended to inform decision-making and analysis across the government.

Notably, U.S. intelligence agencies concluded it was probably already too late to keep the warming of the planet at or below the level laid out in the 2015 U.N. Paris climate accord. While that level remains the official goal for the United States and United Nations, many scientists have concluded the Earth's temperature will rise at least several more tenths of a degree, a level of warming that brings even more damage and threatens some nations’ existence.

“Given current government policies and trends in technology development, we judge that collectively countries are unlikely to meet the Paris goals because high-emitting countries would have to make rapid progress toward decarbonizing their energy systems by transitioning away from fossil fuels within the next decade, whereas developing countries would need to rely on low-carbon energy sources for their economic development,” the intelligence report said.

No nation offers asylum or other legal protections to people displaced specifically because of climate change. The United States has the opportunity to change that, which could prompt others to follow suit, refugee advocates said.

The administration said it is not seeking to change international agreements on refugees but rather create U.S. laws that would allow climate change effects to be part of a valid claim for refugee status.

It noted that activists persecuted for speaking out against government inaction on climate change may also have plausible claims to refugee status.

Ama Francis, who has been helping the International Refugee Assistance Project find ways to protect climate refugees, applauded the administration's recognition that global warming should be taken into account as a reason why people flee.

“That’s a huge signal from the U.S. government that our refugee and asylum system can protect people right now, which is important because there are thousands of climate displaced people already on the move, including those showing up at the U.S. border,” she said.

It’s imperative the report turn into legislation that allows climate refugees the ability to resettle in the United States, and not just result in another task force, others said.

Krish O’Mara Vignarajah, president of the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, one of nine U.S. agencies working to resettle refugees, said action is needed because the current U.S. humanitarian protection system “wasn’t engineered for cascading natural disasters, mass aridification or large swath of lands consumed by rising seas."

According to the separate intelligence assessment, a warming planet could increase geopolitical tensions particularly as poorer countries grapple with droughts, rising seas and other effects, while they wait for richer, higher-polluting countries to change their behavior. Climate change will “increasingly exacerbate risks to U.S. national security interests,” according to the estimate.

The estimate identified 11 countries of particular concern: Afghanistan, Colombia, Guatemala, Haiti, Honduras, India, Iraq, Myanmar, Nicaragua, North Korea and Pakistan. It also lists two regions of concern: Central Africa and small island states in the Pacific Ocean.

Strains on land and water could push countries further toward conflict. In South Asia, much of Pakistan relies on surface water from rivers originating in India. The two countries are nuclear-armed rivals that have fought several wars since their founding in 1947. On India’s other side, about 10% of Bangladesh’s 160 million people already live in coastal areas vulnerable to rising seas and saltwater intrusion.

Intelligence officials who spoke on condition of anonymity under agency rules said climate change could indirectly affect counterterrorism by pushing people seeking food and shelter to violent groups.

The intelligence community needs more scientific expertise and to integrate climate change into its analysis of other countries, the officials said.

Rising temperatures could force almost 3% of the populations of Latin America, South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa — more than 143 million people — to move within their countries in the next 30 years, according to one forecast cited in the report.

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Watson reported from San Diego. AP Science Writer Seth Borenstein contributed.

By JULIE WATSON, ELLEN KNICKMEYER and NOMAAN MERCHANT 22 October 2021, 12:00AM

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