The Great Threat Multiplier to Central America’s Humanitarian Crisis

October 26, 2018

A severe drought affected Central America in 2014. This bridge near the Pueblo Nuevo region of northern Nicaragua hadn’t seen water under it in months. Drought destroyed crops in El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua. The drought was believed to be the result of climate change. Photo: Sean Hawkey / ACT Alliance

By Jasmine Huggins

At press conference in Washington D.C. last week, Juan Orlando Hernandez, the Honduran President, spoke about the devastating impact of climate change on his country.

“Honduras right now is evaluating the impact of climate change, which has been very strong.”  He was referencing recent floods in early October, which had affected 18,000 families, forced more than 7,000 to be evacuated and displaced 6,000. Infrastructure and crops were devastated, leading to losses of more than $100 million in the agriculture sector alone, significant for a country of less than 10 million people.

But the president did not illustrate the full regional scale of the disaster: two low pressure systems, one on the Atlantic side and the other on the Pacific, caused flash floods also in Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala and Nicaragua. Across the region, an estimated 187 thousand people were affected. Twenty one people have died, and thousands are being accommodated in temporary shelters.

“.. [T]his will surely cause a new wave of migration” said the Honduran president.  In response, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo offered his condolences and emphasized that “The United States stands with our Central American friends during these challenging and difficult times.”

But does it, really?

Virtually all the policies agreed to by the Trump Administration in the last two years evince negligence, at best—and at worst, utter indifference—to the challenges faced by Central American leaders, and the impoverished communities over which they preside. In fact, the current U.S. administration has led the most dramatic overhaul of climate and environment related policy in recent memory, which, instead of making things better for Central America, could make things considerably worse.

This dismantlement of the United States’ erstwhile leadership on climate has been systematic:  Withdrawal from the 2015 international Paris Agreement; cancellation of the Clean Power Plan, which aimed to cut existing power sector emissions by 32 percent from 2005 levels by the year 2030 and replace with a new rule which proposes a 1 percent reduction; overturning of the requirement that the oil and gas industry capture methane, responsible for 9 percent of America’s greenhouse gases.

The administration has also announced aggressive oil and gas exploration, relaxed standards for mining companies, government support to the ailing coal industry and reopening of gas pipelines, while also concurrently attempting to undercut the growing locally based renewable energy sector and increase tariffs on imported solar cells.  It has ignored environmental assessments and expunged the term climate change from the government websites. Last August, it proposed lower, rather than higher, vehicle fuel efficiency standards.

What will the likely impact of these trends be, in climate terms? Until recently the United States was leading the way in cutting emissions. As the world’s second largest emitter, it is now on target to reduce its greenhouse gases by only 11-13 percent, or less than half of its pledge of 26-28 percent below 2005 levels made to the Paris Agreement and to which it remains legally bound—despite withdrawal—until the end of 2019.  At a time when the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has urged drastic action to keep the earth’s temperature to a maximum level of 1.5 degrees warming above industrial levels, the Trump Administration’s own environmental impact assessments predict minimum 4C degree warming.  Expert climate trackers, which monitor how quickly countries are implementing their Paris pledges, now rank America’s progress as “critically insufficient”.

This may be what Central American leaders were thinking, but could not say, last week when they mentioned climate change at a meeting presided over by climate skeptical U.S. officials.  The United States’ abrogation of responsibility for mitigation places an enormous and disproportionate burden on other groups that are considerably less resourced and powerful.

These disproportionate burdens, in turn, have several layers: A first one is government’s, whose capacity to manage multiple and repeated natural disasters has for several decades been uncommonly stretched.  Hurricane Mitch in 2009 was so devastating to Honduras and Nicaragua that the United States granted Temporary Protected Status to its citizens who were residing in the United States.  Flooding, mudslides, excessive rainfall, drought, disrupted seasons and severe loss of agricultural production have characterized the region since then, causing billions worth of damage. Despite this, and in yet further evidence of the United States’ shallow words about solidarity with its neighbors, it recently revoked TPS for Hondurans and Nicaraguans.

But indisputably, the greatest share of the climate burden is being felt by Central America’s despairing communities. They were already struggling against overwhelming obstacles: escalating human rights abuses, growing repression, corruption, impunity, and targeted, even state sponsored gang violence.  Across the region, domestic violence and targeted attacks against women are rife.  Seven of the ten countries in the world with highest murder rates of women are in Central America. Today, Honduras and El Salvador are grouped with Afghanistan, Syria and Venezuela as the top 5 most violent countries in the world; Guatemala is in the top 20.

As thousands of desperate Central Americas now march towards the U.S./Mexico border, many of whom have legitimate claims of asylum, the warnings issued by President Hernandez about climate change induced migration seem to be playing out in real time.  Climate disruption alone did not make them move—certainly, persecution and violence have played leading roles. But climate change is increasingly part of the complex mix which has pushed coping mechanisms to the brink of exhaustion.

Or, as the Pentagon itself puts it: climate change is a threat multiplier.

Reassuring rhetoric alone cannot assuage Central America allies. Nor will Mr. Trump’s threat to close the U.S. – Mexico border and cut aid prove friendship or solidarity. Central American governments need more, not less, foreign assistance to adapt to climate change, backed by urgent concerted efforts to curb U.S. emissions.  And in the interim, desperate migrants will need access to asylum and protection. Combined, U.S. belligerence towards migrants and a detrimental climate policy will ultimately severely test the United States’ relationships with its neighbors.  Left unchecked, it will corrode them.