With more than 1.7 million encounters reported by U.S. Customs and Border Protection—the highest tally in two decades—2021 was an exceptional year for irregular migration to the U.S. southern border. Although that number includes citizens from at least 121 countries, some 43 percent of those apprehended by U.S. authorities hailed from Central America.
For more than a decade, migration from Mexico’s southern neighbors was on the rise, but the COVID-19 pandemic and associated economic recession triggered unprecedented levels of cross-border flow, prompting the Joe Biden administration to prioritize U.S. programs aimed at addressing the socioeconomic, political, and security drivers of migration. In the process, the Biden administration refocused the U.S. government’s efforts to factor climate change risks as catalysts for regional displacement. Indeed, the effects of climate change on migration could no longer be ignored after back-to-back category 4 and category 5 hurricanes, Eta and Iota, pummeled the Caribbean coast of Central America in November 2020. The ruin left by the two cyclones gave rise to a new period of climate-induced instability in Central America.
In addition to extreme weather events, irregular precipitation patterns, deforestation, and high temperatures increasingly contribute to upended livelihoods and rampant food insecurity. From 2018 to 2021, the number of people going hungry in Central America nearly quadrupled, topping out at close to eight million. A 2017 study ranked Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua among the ten countries in the world most vulnerable to climate-based risks, with those living along the Pacific Coast in the region’s Dry Corridor especially susceptible. The Notre Dame Global Adaptation Initiative, a leading research program that ranks countries by their preparedness for addressing climate vulnerability, listed the countries of Central America among the worst performers in the world due to the magnitude of challenges and the incapacity of regional governments to respond, with Honduras taking the group’s lowest position at 139 out of 182 countries assessed. Despite contributing less than 0.2 percent of global carbon emissions, the low-income countries of Central America shoulder a disproportionate environmental burden imposed by the world’s most prosperous and carbon-emitting countries.
Barring massive shifts in policy and human behavior around the world, environmental degradation due to climate change will fuel volatility in Central America for decades to come, with disruptive spillover effects for neighboring Mexico and the United States. Halting the flow of people northward from Central America is neither feasible nor desirable, especially given growing labor demands in the United States and Mexico. But ensuring migration remains an option, not a necessity, requires long-range planning and international cooperation to alleviate the impending climate fallout.
This Discussion Paper was made possible by a grant from the Carnegie Corporation of New York. The statements made and views expressed are solely the responsibility of the author.
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