GAO: Agencies Must Do More to Address Climate Change Migration

As we recently reported, the effects of climate change, combined with other factors, may alter human migration trends across the globe. For example, climate change can increase the frequency and intensity of natural disasters, causing populations to move from an area. Climate change can also intensify slow-onset disasters, such as drought, crop failure, or sea level rise, potentially altering longer-term migration trends.

Extreme weather events—such as floods, drought, and hurricanes—are expected to increase or worsen because of climate change, according to the U.S. Global Change Research Program.

The ongoing conflict in Syria, in which migration due to climate change may have been a contributing factor, has caused large-scale migration to neighboring countries in the Middle East and to Europe. Leading up to the civil war, prolonged drought, among other factors, had increased migration to Syrian cities. Because of the drought, in 2009, over 800,000 Syrians lost their livelihoods in the agricultural sector, while nearly 1 million experienced food insecurity. In 2010, an estimated 200,000 people migrated from farms in rural areas to cities, according to a United Nations (UN) report. The conflict in Syria, which began in 2011, further displaced large numbers of people within the country and across the Middle East. At the beginning of the conflict, Syrians, as well as Iraqi and Palestinian refugees who had been residing in Syria, fled mainly to Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey. As the conflict persisted, refugees fled in larger numbers to Turkey, with the UN reporting that nearly 1 million Syrians sought protection in that country in 2015. Starting that year, a growing number of Syrians risked dangerous sea voyages to reach countries in Europe, such as Greece, Germany, and Sweden. As of June 2017, more than 5 million registered Syrian refugees were living in neighboring countries, including more than 3 million in Turkey, and more than 1 million in Lebanon.

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) was asked to review how U.S. agencies address climate change as a potential driver of global migration. GAO’s report focuses on the Department of State, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), and the Department of Defense (DOD). It describes executive branch actions related to climate change and migration from fiscal years 2014 through 2018; examines the extent to which the agencies discussed the potential effects of climate change on migration in their plans and risk assessments; and describes agency activities on the issue.

From fiscal years 2014 through 2018, a variety of executive branch actions related to climate change—such as executive orders and strategies—affected State, USAID and DOD, including their activities that could potentially address the nexus of climate change and migration. For example, a fiscal year 2016 presidential memorandum—rescinded in 2017—required agencies to develop implementation plans to identify the potential impact of climate change on human mobility, among other things. In general, however, climate change as a driver of migration was not a focus of the executive branch actions. For example, a fiscal year 2014 executive order—also rescinded in 2017—requiring agencies to prepare for the impacts of climate change did not highlight migration as a particular concern.

The previous administration cited climate change as a “top strategic risk” in its 2015 National Security Strategy and stated that climate change is an urgent and growing threat to U.S. national security, contributing to increased natural disasters, refugee flows, and conflicts over basic resources like food and water. The current administration does not discuss climate change in its 2017 National Security Strategy. Additionally, State and USAID have a Joint Strategic Plan to help the agencies achieve the objectives of the National Security Strategy. The previous State-USAID Joint Strategic Plan included a strategic goal on “promoting the transition to a low-emission, climate-resilient world” that proposed leading international actions to combat climate change. The current State-USAID Joint Strategic Plan does not have a climate change goal.

The GAO investigation found that State, USAID, and DOD have discussed the potential effects of climate change on migration in agency plans and risk assessments. For example, State and USAID required climate change risk assessments when developing country and regional strategies, and a few of the strategies reviewed by GAO identified the nexus of climate change and migration as a risk. However, State changed its approach in 2017, no longer providing missions with guidance on whether and how to include climate change risks in their integrated country strategies. In doing so, State did not include in its 2018 guidance to the missions any information on how to include climate change risks, should the missions choose to do so. Without clear guidance, State may miss opportunities to identify and address issues related to climate change as a potential driver of migration.

The three agencies have been involved in climate change related activities but none were specifically focused on the nexus with global migration. For example, USAID officials said that the agency’s adaptation efforts, such as its Pastoralist Areas Resilience Improvement through Market Expansion project in Ethiopia, were the most likely to include activities, such as enhancing resilience, that can indirectly address the issue of climate change as a driver of migration.

GAO recommends that State provide missions with guidance that clearly documents its process for climate change risk assessments for country strategies. In commenting on a draft of the GAO report, State indicated that it would update its integrated country strategy guidance and will specifically note that missions have the option to provide additional information on climate resilience and related topics. State also indicated that the agency will begin working with stakeholders to consider whether to recommend that the Secretary of State ask the President to rescind Executive Order 13677: Climate-Resilient International Development.

Much like the climate change debate itself, current leadership across the globe is not addressing the inevitable, massive changes around the corner for the world.  Given the impacts of these changes show no signs of slowing or stopping, millions of people will continue to migrate to find food and water, and policy makers will be sidelined for other more immediate action to address the masses at their gate.

Read the full report at GAO

Kylie Bull has 20 years' experience in reporting and editing a wide range of security topics, covering geopolitical and policy analysis to international and country-specific trends and events. She is an editor and contributor for Jane's by IHS Markit, a columnist for security and counter-terror publications, and a former managing editor for Homeland Security Today.

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