Could America’s immigration “crisis” also be a climate change opportunity?
The problems on America’s southern border provide a chance for the Biden administration to show how government can help solve two problems at once
The Biden administration has indicated that any effort to solve the immigration problem on America’s southern border long-term requires the United States to deal with the factors that are pushing people to leave the so-called “Northern Triangle” countries of Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador. These so-called “push factors” include extreme violence and economic insecurity, with the former being strongly linked to the latter.
President Biden himself made clear he understands the forces driving people to leave the region during his recent press conference. Referring to his decision to assign Vice President Harris the task of “focusing on the fundamental reasons why people leave Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador in the first place,” he then added that in his view “It’s because of earthquakes, floods. It’s because of lack of food. It’s because of gang violence.”
The Biden administration has also signaled its intent to make climate change central in all its major policy initiatives, consistently referring to the problem as an “existential threat” that requires an “all of government approach.” In naming former Secretary of State John Kerry as his special envoy for climate issues during the presidential transition, the then President-elect’s transition team issued a statement that read in part, “This marks the first time that the NSC (National Security Council) will include an official dedicated to climate change, reflecting the president-elect’s commitment to addressing climate change as an urgent national security issue.”
Given the current administration’s commitment to such a comprehensive approach to dealing with the climate crisis, how might its additional commitment to dealing with the factors pushing people to leave their native countries in Central America be coupled with the struggle against climate change? For an answer to that question, it might be worth considering Costa Rica, a Central American country where the citizens are prospering relative to their neighbors and are showing little desire to leave.
Costa Rica’s Payments for Environmental Services (PES) program is a winner of the United Nation’s 2020 Global Climate Action Award. According to the UN, this program “is a financial mechanism that promotes forest ecosystem conservation and combats land degradation — the first scheme of its type in the country and the region.”
The PES program achieves its success by combining both public and private money, including resources provided by conservation organizations and through revenues generated by carbon offset purchases, to pay landowners to conserve existing healthy forested landscapes and restore degraded ones. As a result of ending subsidies and other incentives driving deforestation, overgrazing, and other destructive practices and redirecting its efforts toward more sustainable development, Costa Rica has seen an increase in forest cover “from just 21% in 1987 to over 50% by 2005.”
Like Costa Rica, its neighbors to the north share a tropical climate with forests rich in biodiversity. In addition, this region boasts a distinctive culture as well as an abundance of archaeological sites, all of which provide the area with resources of vital importance from both an environmental and cultural point of view. While their degradation impacts the people living in these countries most directly, their decline is a loss to all of humanity.
Any attempt to address the factors pushing people to make the treacherous trek north through Mexico from Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador will necessarily have to address the endemic poverty the people of this region have long endured. It is clear from Costa Rica’s success with its PES program much can be done that can both bring needed jobs and financial resources to the region while also enhancing ecological conditions, fostering development and building the area’s attractiveness to increasingly environmentally conscious travelers.
In just over two decades the UN reports that Costa Rica’s PES program has benefited over “18,000 families…including 2,788 women, 6,888 men, 19 indigenous communities (303 projects), and 8,712 family associations.” Altogether, “Around 100,000 indigenous people in total benefit from the incentive received through the Program.”
As the person charged with taking on the current immigration problem at America’s southern border, Vice President Harris should begin the development of a U.S. partnership with Central American countries that expands upon Costa Rica’s efforts. While there is no quick fix to the challenges facing Central America and its people, Costa Rica has demonstrated that these problems are far from insurmountable and can generate considerable positive results within a single generation.
Corporations eager to offset their carbon emissions and conservation groups working to protect the world’s dwindling tropical forests can together be brought into the effort, generating the resources needed to immediately begin building a program that will pay farmers, other land-owners, and communities to initiate the vital work of preservation and restoration. Universities and other research institutions can also bring people to the region to both document the existing resources and help develop new techniques for bringing the ecosystem back to its former glory.
For too long we have viewed problems like immigration and climate change as though they are in separate silos, refusing to consider the possibility of hidden connections or the potential for finding novel solutions by considering complex issues together instead of separately. The Biden administration has a chance to demonstrate how creative and effective government can be when it sees complexity as an opportunity to be seized instead of as an obstacle to be avoided.