Green New Deal Migrant Justice

Migrant Justice is Climate Justice

As the world approaches a climate catastrophe, proposals have been made to transition off our dependence on fossil fuels, stop current deforestation practices, and move towards sustainable living practices. Climate legislation like the Green New Deal represents the best chance we currently have to drive this systemic change. The Green New Deal was a signature platform of the Green Party in the 2010s.

The idea of a Green New Deal first arose during the 2007-2008 financial crisis roughly simultaneously in the US and the UK. The  bill was then adopted by the Democratic party in 2019. Although unable to push through Congress in 2019, the Green New Deal’s resolution has been formally reintroduced in the House and Senate by progressive lawmakers led by Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.).

The resolution proposes a framework to transition off fossil fuels to a 100 percent carbon-free economy- all within the next 10 years. Some new and sustained elements of the proposal include:

  • Create 20 million jobs in several sectors, along with the creation of the Civilian Conservation Corps, which would provide employment to a diverse group of 1.5 million Americans over 5 years with jobs on climate change projects that come with strong benefits
  • Achieve net-zero greenhouse gas emissions through a transition fair and just for all communities
  • Invest in the infrastructure and industry of the United States to sustainably meet the challenges of the 21st century
  • Lower costs of energy bills, access to affordable wind and solar power, and more reliable and affordable public transit options
  • Promote justice and equity by stopping current, preventing future, and repairing historic oppression of indigenous peoples, communities of color, migrant communities, deindustrialized communities, depopulated rural communities, and low-income workers through job opportunities, cost savings, pollution cleanup projects, and climate resilience initiatives.

At the current rate of global climate change, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has projected that temperatures will average 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels in the next decades. Extremely hot zones, like in the Sahara, currently cover less than 1 percent of the earth’s land surface, but by 2070 could cover nearly a fifth of the land. By 2100, temperatures could rise so much that going outside for a few hours in these hot zones would potentially result in death, even for the fittest humans. 


Phoenix, Arizona. People at a cooling center during Arizona’s record-setting heat wave— Meridith Kohut/NYTimes.


This increase will raise sea levels, impact land and ocean and productive systems, expand drylands, and cause many more effects as a result of global climate change. The Green New Deal looks to transform the economy, not just the energy sector, but also how we produce and consume, and the energy that fuels that consumption. Researchers and advocacy groups have warned that climate change will cause mass migration because of spiraling impacts on agriculture, water resources, and infrastructure, particularly in the Global South.

Although it is difficult to estimate what climate change will mean for human population distribution, the general estimate is between 25 million and 1 billion people moving as a result of climate change impacts by 2050. Other estimates, such as the World Bank, believe that the three regions (Latin America, sub-Saharan Africa, and Southeast Asia) will generate 143 million more climate migrants by 2050. 


Cows just north of Santiago, Chile, where the region is experiencing severe droughts that have compromised livestock and agricultural production— Martin Bernetti.


Yet, as estimates evolve, climate adaptation and mitigation are already occurring. Climate patterns in the last century have triggered more extreme hurricanes, heat waves, floods, and droughts. Climate-related risks to health, livelihoods, food security, water supply, human security, and economic growth are projected to increase with global warming of 1.5°C and increase further with 2°C. The IPCC exposes the effects of current climate change trends around the world:

“Limiting warming to 1.5°C compared with 2°C is projected to result in smaller net reductions in yields of maize, rice, wheat, and potentially other cereal crops, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa, Southeast Asia, and Central and South America, and in the CO2-dependent nutritional quality of rice and wheat. Reductions in projected food availability are larger at 2°C than at 1.5°C of global warming in the Sahel, southern Africa, the Mediterranean, central Europe, and the Amazon. Livestock are projected to be adversely affected with rising temperatures, depending on the extent of changes in feed quality, spread of diseases, and water resource availability.”

These threatening impacts of climate change are currently being felt most by Central and South America, the Middle East, North Africa, India, and Southeast Asia. On top of agricultural losses, recent influxes of migrants from the South have been in part due to climate disasters that are increasing in frequency. Migrants from the South have been more exposed to environmental stressors that have caused the destruction of their infrastructure, jobs, and crops. The story of a Guatemalan family has become the reality for many, and is soon to be the reality for most in the region:

“A year before the world shut its borders completely, Jorge A. knew he had to get out of Guatemala. The land was turning against him. For five years, it almost never rained. Then it did rain, and Jorge rushed his last seeds into the ground. The corn sprouted into healthy green stalks, and there was hope — until, without warning, the river flooded. Jorge waded chest-deep into his fields searching in vain for cobs he could still eat. Soon he made a last desperate bet, signing away the tin-roof hut where he lived with his wife and three children against a $1,500 advance in okra seed. But after the flood, the rain stopped again, and everything died. Jorge knew then that if he didn’t get out of Guatemala, his family might die, too.”


Alta Verapaz, Guatemala. An Indigenous agricultural worker on farmland that is too dry to plant in anymore— Meridith Kohut/NYTimes.


The increasing frequent droughts, floods, starvation, and bankruptcy in the state Alta Verapaz has caused many Guatemalans to flee North toward the United States. As the planet warms, droughts and sudden storms are soon to be more frequent and harsher. In Guatemala, semiarid parts will become deserts, rainfall is expected to decrease by 60 percent in many regions, and water replenishing streams will drop by as much as 83 percent. By 2070, researchers project that the yields of staple crops in the state where Jorge lives will decline by a third. 


Alta Verapaz, Guatemala. An ear of maize from a failed crop— Meridith Kohut/NYTimes.


In Mexico, one in six people rely on farming for their livelihood, and as water availability decreases, crop yields in coastal regions may drop by a third. The loss of agricultural jobs and unlivable regions will push people towards where they see opportunity. Many migrants do not want to move away from their homes, so they make incremental movements from rural to urban areas in what is called stepwise migration


Tabasco, Mexico. Migrants from Central America riding north— Meridith Kohut/NYTimes.

Some who find themselves without agricultural jobs will move towards these urban areas, which will face a strain on infrastructure and resources and lead to increases in poverty and violence levels. About a little more than half of the world’s population lives in urban areas, but according to the World Bank, an estimated 67 percent will by the middle of the century.

Ninety-six percent of this growth could happen in the most fragile cities, which will also face the impacts of climate change. The World Bank also estimates that climate change will drive 68 million to 132 million into poverty by 2030. And as urbanization and poverty rise, more will continue to migrate towards physically safer and more economically stable regions, typically located North. 


Pimienta, Honduras. People board a boat to get to their flooded house during the passage of Storm Eta — Jorge Cabrera/Reuters.


Taking Action

The United States is the second-largest contributor to greenhouse gas emissions, putting them responsible for changing unsustainable practices and embracing those who are being affected by them. Current legal barriers are not structured towards stability being an inherent value to everyone, even non-citizens. On top of our foreign, economic, and military policy causing displacement, we need to include climate change in the conversation on the root causes of migration. 


San Diego, California. U.S. Marines on the U.S.-Mexico border fortifying border wall with concertina wire at the Otay Mesa Port of entry— Nelvin Cepeda/San Diego Union-Tribune.


Migration is often looked at as a security problem as opposed to a climate issue. Maxine Burkett, a law professor at the University of Hawaii, finds trouble with this premise: 

“This is really bright fuel for xenophobic undercurrents and in fact you see a lot of discussion about migration, especially the border, happening in hyper-securitized spaces. If you frame it as a security issue, all of your solutions will look like borders and those sorts of details.”

What the United States and other major global emission contributors choose to deploy through policy will determine how severe climate change will be and how much suffering those affected by it will face. 

The number of internal climate migrants can be reduced by as much as 80 percent by 2050 if action is taken in key areas. Global climate action is needed to meet the Paris Agreement’s goal of limiting the temperature increase to less than 2°C by the end of this century.

Yet even at this increase, internal and external climate migration will occur. The window of opportunity to reverse warming trends is quickly closing and requires action such as the Green New Deal. The Green New Deal frames a range of actions that fall under the data that the entire world needs to get to net-zero emissions by 2050, and the United States must take a “leading role” in achieving this. 

It proposes a 10-year mobilization plan that will reduce carbon emissions in the United States by sourcing 100 percent of the country’s electricity from renewable and zero-emissions power, making every building in the U.S. more energy-efficient, digitizing the nation’s power grid, and investing in electric vehicles and high-speed rail. The plan also would provide job training and new economic development.


Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez speaks as she and fellow Democraic lawmakers relaunch the “Green New Deal” resolution on April 20, 2021— Jonathan Ernst/Reuters.


Buckett says that in our current situation, the Green New Deal is the most promising vehicle in changing our relationship to climate change and its effects on migration. If governments take modest action to combat climate change, about 680,000 migrants might move from Central America and Mexico to the United States per year between now and 2050, however if emissions continue at this rate, this could be well over a million people a year. These numbers do not include undocumented migrations, which could increase the data by double. 

Where the migration is anticipated, the support of climate migration plans and policies will better help the local community and those adapting to climate change. Development planning needs to factor in influxes of migrants from nearby regions. The World Bank suggests that,

“National agencies need to integrate climate migration into all facets of policy. To secure resilience and development prospects for all those affected, action is needed at each phase of migration (before, during, and after moving). Governments will require guidance, technical assistance, and capacity building to develop national laws, policies, and strategies that are in line with international frameworks related to climate migration. The engagement of private actors, civil society, and international organizations is key to building policy frameworks and capacity.”


Students in the Sunrise movement, an progressive organization pushing for environmental policy, protesting the need for the Green New Deal resolution in 2019— Michael Brochstein/SOPA/Getty.


Migration is a natural and basic adaptation to a changing climate. Nations around the world are choosing “building-wall” agendas, which could lead to millions upon millions dying from heat, starvation, and conflicts over depleted resources. Strategies that look to fund development that modernizes agriculture and water infrastructure in places like Central America only buy us time. 

Countries must have the capacity to absorb — economically, environmentally, and socially — an influx of people, so that xenophobic policies, social and political divisions, and inequalities do not persist or further worsen. Even better, our climate mitigation efforts must look towards changing our economy and how we produce and consume, through huge action like the Green New Deal. If not, we will see increases in poverty, xenophobic rhetoric and policies, and if countries decide to close their borders, the suffering of those simply trying to adapt. 


Mitra Aflatooni | Washington State University
Mitra is a junior studying Political Science with a minor in Sociology at Washington State University. She was raised by a Latina mother and an Iranian-American father. Through her family’s experiences, she has seen the hardships of immigrants from all walks of life. Wanting to create progressive social change, she is pursuing a Master’s in Public Policy after her undergrad. She strongly believes that grassroots movements that amplify marginalized voices and push for policy change will be the foundation to a more just, equal world. She is passionate about social change and understanding how to better uplift the Latinx communities.