Environmental activists and government delegates are in New York this week for the U.N. Climate Action Summit, trying to build momentum for the upcoming U.N. Conference on Climate Change (COP25) in Chile this December.
As he prepares to host COP25, President Sebastián Piñera should use this opportunity to attempt to convince the Trump administration that it has a valuable partner in the region to address climate change, using its own experience and credibility on the issue to guide a stronger regional response. Action, at any level, will likely be the biggest take away at this week’s summit. Here, the U.S. should be challenged to act more aggressively for the shared interests of a stable, prosperous hemisphere.
The summit comes after last month’s Latin American and Caribbean Climate Week in Salvador, the capital of the Brazilian state of Bahia. Brazil’s environmental minister, Ricardo Salles, had threatened to cancel the meeting, calling it an excuse for attendees “to do tourism.” However, strong domestic and international pressure ended up convincing Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro to hold the event as planned, amid further backlash over the government’s response to increased deforestation and wildfires in the Amazon.
As countries look toward implementation of the Paris Climate Agreement in 2020, it’s become clear that voluntary commitments to lower greenhouse gas emissions won’t be enough. In Latin America, only Costa Rica, Chile and Uruguay have pledged carbon neutrality, with the Uruguayans holding the most ambitious target for 2030. Several U.N. reports suggest that future impacts of climate change could be decided by the level of emissions reduced over the course of the next decade. There is little indication that countries will actually be able to make the necessary changes in time.
President Donald Trump announced in 2017 his intention to withdraw the United States from the Paris Agreement entirely; formal proceedings could take place as soon as Nov. 4, when the country becomes eligible to leave. Convincing the U.S. to return to the fold will be difficult – but Chile is one country that may be up to the task.
To succeed in persuading Trump to take up a more progressive climate agenda, the Chileans could focus less on the need to lower emissions and more on how the administration’s national security and migration agenda would be affected by a warming planet.
Last year, Chile’s embassy in the U.S. hosted the launch of an agreement between the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and the Chilean Agency for International Development Cooperation (AGCI). The Strategic Framework for Chile-U.S. Trilateral Cooperation builds upon earlier agreements to provide technical assistance in third-party countries, with particular emphasis on Central America’s Northern Triangle.
This type of framework can and should focus on environmental issues and their relationship to other challenges such as citizen security, economic opportunity and extreme poverty. The nexus of climate change, water and food security will undoubtedly influence outbound migration from Central America in the near future. Yet there has been little executive leadership within the Trump administration to promote collaboration between U.S. government agencies and those tasked with national security policy planning in addressing the issue.
Planning for a future U.S. response to an influx of refugees given long-term environmental trends is more critical than ever. As efforts to mitigate climate change are stalled, adaptation could become a more realistic and agreeable approach for current U.S. foreign policy.
The current humanitarian crisis at the U.S.’ southern border is not solely based on high levels of crime and violence, poor governance and weak institutions, or the lack of economic opportunities in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. Of course, governments should be held accountable and pressed to address these issues. However, the natural environment and its relationship to the livelihoods of subsistence farmers is an often-underestimated reason why people move to urban centers or decide to make the dangerous journey north to the U.S. border.
The impact of climate change and related natural disasters may become an increasing factor in outbound migration from Northern Triangle countries, with regional governments ill prepared to address the issue effectively. Recent figures from the Global Index for Peace estimate that Latin America will experience an increase of 17 million migrants by 2050 due to the effects of climate change, with much larger figures in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia expected.
This challenge raises an important question: To what extent should the United States plan for and assist the region in dealing with climate change and resulting migration? How can the U.S. manage large flows of climate refugees whose governments are the least equipped to deal with the devastating effects that increased hurricanes, droughts and floods will have on agricultural crops and access to potable water?
If the dramatic food shortages in Venezuela are any indication of how migration flows have worked for the large diaspora of Venezuelans received by Colombia, Ecuador and Chile, then the prospect of even larger numbers of Central Americans seeking refuge in the United States is a contingency worth preparing for.
According to the United Nations, Central America’s dry corridor is one of the regions most vulnerable to extreme weather. Last year, the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization found that 2.2 million people there could be at risk of food insecurity – with El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras reporting major losses of staple crops, such as corn and beans. Consecutive years of drought have made it difficult for many rural farmers and the crops they depend on.
While past administrations considered climate change a critical issue for U.S. foreign policy, there is now increased debate as to what role the United States should play in developing policy that addresses the issue abroad. Under the first term of former President George W. Bush, the 2002 National Security Strategy stated it was within U.S. national interests to “remain committed to the basic U.N. Framework Convention for international cooperation.” In 2015, under then-President Barack Obama, the National Security Strategy stated climate change represented “an urgent and growing threat.” At the beginning of this year, former Director of National Intelligence, Daniel Coats, released the Worldwide Threat Assessment of the U.S. Intelligence Community stating that climate change is likely to “fuel competition for resources, economic distress and social discontent through 2019 and beyond.”
Chile, alongside other leading countries in the region, may continue to serve as a guiding beacon for those that wish to remain optimistic – despite cause for concern in the U.S., Brazil and elsewhere.
Beal is a program associate in the Wilson Center’s Latin American Program.