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Fossil Fuels and Immigration: What is the Connection?

Trump’s Energy and Immigration Policy

In his 2016 presidential campaign, Donald Trump highlighted that immigration policy and illegal immigration in general were two of the signature issues that he would address as president of the United States. Similarly, Trump also vowed that he would strongly advocate for fewer environmental regulations and more fossil fuel drilling, while also promising to cancel the Paris climate agreement. However, unbeknownst to Trump, his energy policies may end up fueling even more immigration-related tension around the U.S. borders.

The vast majority of scientists staunchly agree that increased fossil fuel consumption has contributed to an increase in global warming. Moreover, Petteri Taalas, the secretary-general for the United Nations World Meteorological Organization, has publicly revealed that there are no signs that global carbon emissions will slow down or even decline at all in the coming years.

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Carbon Emissions

A recent report from the World Meteorological Organization that was released in November 2019 emphasized how average levels of carbon dioxide emissions reached 407.8 parts per million in 2018, which crosses the threshold that many environmentalists claim is necessary to limit the most severe impacts from global warming (Carrington, 2019). The continued increase in greenhouse gas emissions is expected to raise global temperatures significantly over the coming decades. This temperature increase will speed up the melting of glaciers, increase the severity of inclement weather, raise sea levels, and ultimately force the migration of upwards of a billion people from all around the world (Leahy, 2019).

The alteration of normal weather patterns is expected to become more evident in the future as increasing levels of climate-warning gases are released into the atmosphere. The issue of climate change can be directly attributed to global warming. As humans have continued to burn fossil fuels like oil, coal, and natural gas, the emissions from these sources of energy are released into the atmosphere. The accumulation of these carbon emissions, more commonly known as greenhouse gas emissions, trap the heat from the sun’s rays from being able to be released into space. Instead of being reflected back into space, greenhouse gas emissions have enabled a larger portion of the sun’s energy to remain on Earth.

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Unpredictable Weather Patterns

As fossil fuel emissions continue to increase, so does the planet’s overall temperature. The effects of rising global temperatures can have a variety of outcomes. However, when it comes to climate change, one thing is well known: weather patterns can become progressively unpredictable.  When weather patterns are unpredictable, this often makes it more challenging for farmers to grow crops. For example, in existing arid regions of Earth, the impacts of climate change will not only increase average annual surface temperatures, but they may contribute to more periods of prolonged droughts, as has been the case throughout the American southwest in recent years. Conversely, historically wet regions may see even more wet weather, which could contribute to a rise in severe flood events.

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Climate Migration

Carbon-fueled climate change has started to initiate a wave of climate migrants from regions that are experiencing water scarcity, dwindling agricultural yields, and sea-level rise. While the immediate and more visible impacts of climate change can be seen from the increasing severity and frequency of damaging storm events, the surge in climate migrants has come as a result of a gradual process in which climate change has affected a wide array of ecological processes that are adversely impacting local communities and entire regions around the world.

Most of the climate migrants are projected to originate from sub-Saharan Africa, Southeast Asia, and Latin America, where much of the world’s developing populations will experience the deleterious effects of climate change (Parker, 2018). The impacts of climate change can both immediately displace a community or can initiate a prolonged migration. It’s easy to recognize how visibly dramatic events like a severe hurricane, wildfire, or flood event can cause an immediate displacement within a community. However, the slow-moving climate change epidemic that leads to desertification, crop failures, and sea level rise is a less recognizable driver of outward migration.

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Gradual Displacement

The gradual displacement of communities from the impacts of climate change can be viewed as a form of slow violence, which is a term coined by Rob Nixon, a Harvard Professor of Humanities and the Environment. The term refers to a threat that is seldom visible and driven by something that incrementally causes an adverse impact to part of the environment or society in general. Slow violence is a phenomenon where the negative impacts are delayed and traditionally ignored by leaders of capitalist societies (Nixon, 2011). The impacts of slow violence are particularly severe because they are usually only noticed after preventable action can no longer be taken to address the issue.

The temporal complexity of fossil fuel consumption and climate change is a unique phenomenon that has been ignored by the Trump administration. The impacts of climate change can suddenly displace entire communities through significant storm events, while also stimulating long-term cross-border migration issues as environmental conditions continually worsen and climate patterns become permanently altered. Furthermore, the deterioration of environmental conditions is often challenging to detect until the issue finally becomes visible enough to trigger massive waves of human migration.             

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Major Driver of Human Migration

The International Organization for Migration has emphasized that climate change has become a major driver of human migration (Mahnke, 2013). As a direct result of the extraction and burning of fossil fuels, climate change is expected to force over 143 million people to become climate migrants within the next few decades alone (Parker, 2018). These impacts are incrementally becoming more apparent. For example, climate change has pushed farmers in Syria to move to already overcrowded cities because extreme drought conditions have had a detrimental impact on the production of agriculture in the region (Lawrence, 2017).

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Sea Level Rise

Increases in sea level rise and the growth of storm surges have already started to displace communities in low-lying nations such as Bangladesh and within the island chains of the Pacific and Oceania. Additionally, a recent World Bank report has revealed that the most impoverished people in the least developed countries will bear the brunt of the adverse impacts from climate change-induced migration.

In order to deal with the future rise in climate migration, it is imperative that world leaders start to develop appropriate action plans. If carbon emissions from the production of fossil fuels continue to escalate in the coming years, then many regions around the world will ultimately experience an increase in the frequency of extreme weather events, a dramatic decline in agricultural productivity, and higher levels of sea-level rise, which will only exacerbate the climate migration problem.    

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UC Berkeley Report

A groundbreaking report on climate migration was released by University of California Berkeley researchers in 2019. This report concluded that the burning of fossil fuels and the accumulation of other sources of greenhouse gas emissions in the Earth’s atmosphere have already started to transform the climate and have put the world’s most vulnerable populations at risk of being forcibly displaced. The report stressed that the global dependence on oil, coal, and natural gas, as well as traditional global investment patterns, have gravely threatened island nations, low-lying population centers, and climate-vulnerable nations that depend on increasingly challenged agricultural conditions.

Across international humanitarian law, refugee law, human rights law, and other areas of international law, the existing protections for people forced to cross international borders because of climate-related displacement are extremely limited, and often not legally binding (Ayazi & Elsheikh, 2019). Therefore, the consequences of slow-moving climate disasters, like people having to leave a nation that is no longer habitable, would result in very limited legal mechanisms for people to permanently migrate to a new region.

Lack of Legal Migration Mechanisms

The premise of Donald Trump’s immigration policy is to ensure that migrants are using proper legal mechanisms to enter the United States. However, as the U.S. and the world as a whole continues to burn fossil fuels, which in turn fuels more climate-related migration, future presidential administrations may be forced to deal with waves of migrants at all American borders, not just along the southern border with Mexico. Moreover, while Trump stresses the importance of legal migration, there are no current international migration laws that address migrants fleeing from long-term disasters, unless a state has enacted certain provisions of support (Ayazi & Elsheikh, 2019). Since the U.S. only offers migration following short-term disasters through the Temporary Protected Status designation, how would the Trump administration respond to increasing numbers of climate migrants at U.S. borders?

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Migration Headlines

In recent years, international media headlines have been filled with stories of forced migration in countries around the world. In Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia, the influx of people seeking asylum due to war and armed conflicts, natural disasters, and political instability has risen sharply. Moreover, the media has also covered the issue of unauthorized immigration at the U.S. southern border because migrants from Mexico, Central America, and South America have been fleeing drug-related conflicts. However, researchers and scientists say that this may be just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to future migration-related challenges.

According to the Norwegian Refugee Council’s Internal Displacement Monitoring Center, more than 253.7 million people were displaced by natural disasters between 2008 to 2018 (Ayazi & Elsheikh, 2019). As the impacts of climate change continue to worsen, this number is expected to rise dramatically in the coming decades. As the global sea level has been rising, so has the number of people living in coastal regions. Over the past three decades, the number of people living in coastal regions has increased from 1.6 billion to over 2.5 billion, which now accounts for just over 38 percent of the world’s population. In New York City, sea levels are expected to rise by 11 to 21 inches by the middle of this century, 18 to 39 inches by the first half of the 2080s, and up to six feet by 2100 (Ayazi & Elsheikh, 2019). This amount of sea level rise poses a tremendous risk to the world’s coastal residents.

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The Looming Migration Crisis

The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says that fossil fuel consumption and human migration is a vastly overlooked issue. As greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise and the impacts from climate change continue to be escalated, the number of people displaced globally from short-term and long-term natural disasters will put enormous pressure on international borders. The looming prevalence of climate-induced migration will cause global leaders to have to take action on a comprehensive and legally binding international framework to address the resettlement of displaced populations.

Current gaps in the political and economic understanding of climate-induced migration will pose as a serious risk to political stability, even in developed nations. Since the global dependence on coal, oil, and natural gas doesn’t appear to be slowing, the world’s leaders will have to identify opportunities to work collaboratively to address a wave of future climate migrants. Although, while efforts are mounting to reduce global dependence on fossil fuels, some scientists argue that there are already enough greenhouse gases in the atmosphere to ensure that a serious level of global warming will take place no matter what level of alternative energy efforts are implemented. Therefore, many scientists and progressive global leaders argue that even with investments aimed at reducing fossil fuel dependence, it will be essential to also continue reviewing plans to tackle the migrant crisis.  


Ayazi, H., & Elsheikh, E. (2019). “Climate Refugees: The Climate Crisis and Rights Denied.” University of California Berkeley: Othering & Belonging Institute.

Brown, T. (2019). “Climate Refugees.” National Geographic.

Carrington, D. (2019). “Climate-heating greenhouse gases hit new high, UN reports.” The Guardian.

Lawrence, Jennifer. (2017). Fossil-Fueling Vulnerability: Rationalities of Extraction and Resilience in an age of Extreme Energy. Virginia Tech. 1-39.

Leahy, S. (2019). “Dangerous levels of warming locked in by planned jump in fossil fuels output.” National Geographic.

Mahnke, Eva. (2013). Climate migration ‘a complex problem.’ Deutsche Welle.

NEU. (2015). The Unpredictable Relationship Between Migration and Climate Change. Newsletter for the European Union.

Nixon, Rob. (2011). Slow violence and the environmentalism of the poor. Harvard University Press. Cambridge, Mass

Parker, Laura. (2018). 143 Million People may soon Become Climate Migrants. National Geographic.

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