Climate change may increase immigration problems

As most climate scientists have kept their focuses on the environmental effects of climate change, there have been researchers from other fields who have connected the dots to discover the effects the issue may have on people.

From a sociological standpoint, the issue of people’s cultures and environment being stomped on has become rather significant as people cope with the effects of their denigrating environment, Cristina Bradatan, associate professor of sociology, said. And it has been within the political sphere that fights around climate change has come up.

What has spurred from that are debates over people moving from place to place and trying to find refuge in lands that are not their own, Bradatan said. In West Texas and parts of South Texas, this fight against immigration has risen sharply, especially since the election of President Donald Trump.

“Climate science has become one of the most polarized topics in the entire United States,” Katharine Hayhoe, associate professor of political science and director of the Climate Science Center at Texas Tech, said. “The best predictor of whether we think the climate is changing and whether we believe humans are responsible is not how much we know about the science, it’s simply where we fall on the political spectrum.”

As one of the directors of the Climate Science Center, Hayhoe said those who are within the program, Bradatan included, are trying to connect people with the problems they may face because of climate change. So, it has been within Bradatan’s research, she has seen connections to how climate change is having an impact on immigration.

The people affected are the “new-wave migrants,” a term that refers to the people who leave their native lands because of what is happening to the environment around them, Bradatan said.

The Environmental Protection Agency has also highlighted these people, according to its website. Indigenous people are the primary targets of the harsh effects of climate change, and they mainly consist of those who live in rural areas, depend on the land to survive, have little access to health care and are of low socioeconomic status.

“There is some literature looking to Mexico. So, for a long time, there is this wave of Mexicans coming to the United States for economic reason. This is well known,” Bradatan said. “Now, what’s happening with climate change is that climate change will affect the amount of rain that the land receives.”

Because the land these people live on gets little rain, they are unable to sustain themselves through agricultural means, she said. So, these people migrate to other places, and their decisions are usually influenced by the types of network they may have.

Therefore, many people move to places where there are groups of similar individuals who may be able to support them, Bradatan said.

“So, in the case of Mexican migration, Mexicans already have a large network in the United States,” Bradatan said. “With climate changes, it’s like another layer that pushes more of them, actually, to leave.”

It is not that this is happening only in the southern part of the U.S., but this is happening all around the world. But in the current political climate, she said this undoubtedly poses a problem as politicians have penned much crime and economic problems on immigrants who have come to the United States.

But even in places of refuge, these immigrants are not completely safe from problems that may come from the environment, she said. West Texas has a water problem in that there are ways of obtaining water for people and crops, but these ways, nonetheless, take a toll on the environment.

Most of the people around West Texas are invested in the agriculture industry and use water from the Ogallala aquifer, a large aquifer that spans from Nebraska and parts of Wyoming down to the panhandle of Texas. But, the area that siphons from that aquifer does not have enough rain and increases water uses on a frequent basis.

“So, we have this issue, again, where we don’t have enough water. We just live off of the aquifer, and the aquifer is actually depleting very fast,” Bradatan said. “And we built this great irrigation system. Everything is actually irrigated, but we are overusing this.”

As of 2015, around 30 percent of the Ogallala aquifer’s water had been pumped out of the ground and another 39 percent is expected to be gone in the next 50 years, according to Bloomberg magazine.

As a result, Hayhoe said, it is up to climate scientists like her to try and warn people of the problems that may come of the little water that is available to people around the region.

“So, for example, I work with water managers across the state of Texas. We plan for our water out not just 10 or 20 years. We plan for water up to 50, even 100 years,” Hayhoe said. “So we want to know in the future, is our rainfall changing? Are our evaporation rates changing?”

On top of problems with water and immigration, there is an age problem in rural West Texas, Bradatan said. Most of the aged population is in rural areas, while the younger workforce moves to urban areas. This creates a three-way problem when it comes to economic growth in the region.

This is one of the problems people are having in most of Latin America, which is the cause of people moving to northern, more urban regions, Bradatan said.

“But climate change, that’s something that we look to and seems to be one of the drivers in the increase in the number of immigrants coming to the United States,” Bradatan said.

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Immigration, climate change and the environment are related to each other. Because, environmental changes and disasters may cause immigration, movement of people can also entail significant effects on surrounding ecosystems.
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