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The Crisis of Climate Displaced People: Two Reports to Guide Us

by Angel Valdez

This article was just quoted in the Brookings Register of South Dakota in an article by Carl Kline entitled, “It’s Time to Act on Climate Change.” https://brookingsregister.com/article/its-time-to-act-on-climate-change

When hurricanes Iota and Eta devastated Honduras and parts of Guatemala last year, causing massive flooding and rain and the loss of places to live and many livelihoods, Central Americans living in Houston came to Casa Juan Diego to ask for assistance to send to their families who were left with nothing. We began to help, giving each family a bit to send to their relatives. However, we had to quickly stop that effort, because dozens, if not hundreds, of people formed lines at Casa Juan Diego begging for help. With our small staff and the already long lines of people coming for food, we simply could not handle the situation. In the process, however, the families in Houston, poor themselves, discovered our food distribution and  the long lines that formed for food continue today. We are glad that we can help with food and hope that each family can use their resources to send help to Central America.

The families whose living situations were completely destroyed by the hurricanes in Central America are many of the ones coming to the border here in Texas, trying to cross into the United States. It is heartbreaking to know that so many are being quickly deported under Title 42. In many cases the parents in families that have been quickly deported from the U. S. are the ones who have been sending their children across the border as unaccompanied minors. The parents know there is no hope for the children back home, no going back, as they say.

Similar conditions affect people across Mexico in the poorest states.

These families are a part of what we can only describe as climate displaced people – a worldwide phenomenon. Natural disasters, such as hurricanes, terrible floods, droughts, or water scarcity make their living places uninhabitable and destroy the possibilities for work. Not only sudden disasters, but slow-onset weather events related to climate change such as rising temperatures and sea level rise are also uprooting people. These problems have especially affected small farmers and agricultural workers, including those producing coffee, corn, and beans.

Not Only Here

News reports of so many people trying to cross the border into the United States give the impression that everyone in the world is trying to come here.

We tend to forget that people who are displaced do not by any means all come to the United States. Countries around the world are receiving large numbers of migrants and refugees, including the poorest countries. And often the very poor who cannot travel in any safety across rivers and oceans move within their own countries or to nearby countries.

Who Should Receive Asylum?

Current asylum laws do not reflect these realities. The world has changed since World War II, but our courts are still using the definition of refugees developed after that war (Refugee Convention 1951). The outdated asylum definition excludes not only many of those fleeing death threats from gangs or drug dealers, but also the numbers of people uprooted by climate change.

The Northern Triangle: Central American Climate Displaced People

   Central America is close to us geographically and the history of U. S. intervention there means that we have a special responsibility to those who are uprooted.

A new report addressing climate change and Central American migration to the United States, especially from Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador), is entitled Shelter From the Storm: Policy Options to Address Climate Induced Displacement from the Northern Triangle. It was recently published as a joint effort by the University Network for Human Rights, Harvard Law School’s Immigration and Refugee Clinic, Harvard Law School’s Immigration Project, students from Yale Law School’s Environmental Law Association, and the Yale Immigrant Justice Project. The report emphasizes how “an unprecedented number of families and unaccompanied minors have been forced to flee their homes and seek asylum in the United States,” and notes that the Northern Triangle is one of the most vulnerable regions for displacing people because of climate change. Shelter From the Storm “recognizes that as severe weather patterns intensify, climate change will continue to displace more communities across the globe.” The report cites experts who project that climate change will displace up to 3.9 million people across Mexico and Central America by 2050.

The uprooting of Central Americans cannot be separated from the history of the U. S. military involvement in Central America and Mexico in support of U. S. companies over the years which added not only to violence and economic equality in the region, but mining and commercial development of the land undermining local agriculture and living spaces. (Noted examples go back to the United Fruit Company in Guatemala).

Shelter From the Storm points out also the role that the United States plays in climate change affecting the region: “As one of the world’s greatest emitters of greenhouse gases, the United States has disproportionately contributed to the world’s climate crisis,” and suggests that the United States should help fund climate change adaptation measures for highly vulnerable countries.

Here are a few of the actions that Shelter From the Storm recommends:

  1. Create a new climate visa and integrate climate change in the current asylum framework
  2. Expand temporary emergency programs to individuals outside the United States to help people not to have to migrate
  3. Broaden the definition of the public/national interest
  4. Restore and strengthen the asylum system in the United States.


The publication can be found here:

Shelter From the Storm: Policy Options to Address Climate Induced Displacement from the Northern Triangle. Executive Summary.https://clinics.law.harvard.edu/blog/2021/04/shelter-from-the-storm-policy-options-to-address-climate-induced-displacement-from-the-northern-triangle/. April 23, 2021.


“One thing I do know is that I was blind and now I see” (John 9:25).

A new document from the Vatican, Pastoral Guidelines on Climate Displaced People, tells us that blindness about the issues of people being displaced because of climate crises is widespread. It not only shows in detail how climate change is a major cause of uprooting people around the world, but also presents guidelines for Catholics and all people of good will on how to respond to the climate crisis and the people being uprooted by it.

The document is a pastoral plan to especially help Catholic schools and parishes become aware of climate displaced people, provide alternatives to displacement, plan for action, and extend pastoral care to the migrants.  The Guidelines reminds us of the miracle Jesus worked, suggesting that if we bring awareness to this reality, many will be able to say as did the blind man who was cured in the Bible story, “One thing I do know is that I was blind and now I see.” As with the blind man’s encounter with Jesus, however, “God gives the means to see, but human beings must be willing to journey from blindness to awareness.”

   In his Introduction to Pastoral Guidelines, Pope Francis writes: “I think here of God speaking through the prophet Isaiah, with some words updated: Come, let us talk this over. If you are ready to listen, we can still have a great future. But if you refuse to listen and to act, you will be devoured by the heat and the pollution, by droughts here and rising waters there (cf Isaiah 1:18-20).

  The Holy Father continues:When we look, what do we see? Many are being devoured in conditions that make it impossible to survive. Forced to abandon fields and shorelines, homes and villages, people flee in haste carrying just a few souvenirs and treasures, scraps of their culture and heritage. They set out in hope, meaning to restart their lives in a place of safety. But where they mostly end up are dangerously overcrowded slums or makeshift settlements, waiting on fate.

“Those driven from their homes by the climate crisis need to be welcomed, protected, promoted and integrated. They want to start over. To create a new future for their children, they need to be allowed to do so, and to be helped. Welcoming, protecting, promoting and integrating are all verbs of helpful action. Let us remove, one by one, those boulders that block the way of the displaced, what represses and sidelines them, prevents them from working and going to school, whatever renders them invisible and denies their dignity.”

Largest Group of Migrants and Refugees

The displacement of people through climate and environmental crises is not so very new. The new Vatican document shows how prophetic Pope Benedict was on this issue as early as 2010: “Pope Benedict XVI asked: ‘Can we disregard the growing phenomenon of “environmental refugees,” people who are forced by the degradation of their natural habitat to forsake it – and often their possessions as well – in order to face the dangers and uncertainties of forced displacement?’”.

As the climate crisis worsens, even though climate displaced people are not officially recognized as refugees, around the world they are now the largest group of migrants and displaced people. Natural disasters, whether short-term or long, are driving them from their homes. Pastoral Guidelines gives us the worldwide statistics which show the urgency of responding on an individual level, but also on a policy level:

“In the course of 2019 alone, more than 33 million people were newly displaced, bringing the total number to almost 51 million, the highest number ever recorded; and of these, 8.5 million as a result of conflict and violence and 24.9 million due to natural disasters. It is estimated that over 253.7 million people were displaced by natural disasters from 2008 to 2018, with such disasters displacing three to 10 times more people than armed conflict worldwide, depending on the region in question.”

As the climate crisis affects and uproots more and more people, it is also a cause of conflict, violence and new wars, uprooting more people.

We Are Called to Respond

Pastoral Guidelines calls us to respond: “The Catholic Church is called to engage society and to prepare and encourage people to be welcoming, ready and eager to extend their solidarity, providing climate displaced migrants with shelter and conditions for survival, protecting their rights and dignity, promoting their integral human development, and facilitating social, labor and cultural integration processes.”

Assisting Migrants in the United States

Recommended practical ways to help migrants in our country in addition to receiving them when they arrive, include:

-Investing in employment-generating projects, with a special attention to agriculture (e.g. small-scale and community farming), and promoting innovative entrepreneurship so as to enhance the possibilities of employment of Climate Displaced People.

– Empowering Climate Displaced People to navigate basic social functions successfully through capacity building programs such as language tutoring, cultural education, courses on active citizenship, and providing spaces for mutual listening and cultural exchange, while engaging locally available resources (people/groups) as much as possible to provide such programs.

Interventions So People Will Not Have to Migrate


by Angel Valdez

Equally important are the ways that the international community can assist so that people will not have to migrate: This can be done through:

-Promoting adaptation in the home communities to avoid displacement, by encouraging maintenance or reconnection with relevant traditional or indigenous ways of relating to land, nature, and living sustainably on the earth.

-Facilitating creative and ecology-friendly development programs aimed at supporting people at risk of displacement, and protecting and strengthening alternative livelihoods, such as agro-ecology, community conservation, education, eco-tourism, and the sustainable use of land and water.

-Working to ensure, to the extent possible, that individuals can continue to remain in their homes leading lives with dignity by mitigating the push factors such as conflicts and natural devastations caused by the climate crisis.

See many more suggestions and recommendations in the Vatican document itself:

Vatican. Migrants and Refugees Section of the Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development. Pastoral Guidelines on Climate Displaced People, March 30, 2021. https://press.vatican.va/content/salastampa/en/bollettino/pubblico/2021/03/30/210330b.html


Are We Fiddling While the World Burns?

As the earth and its people suffer from climate change and its effects uproot more people each day, those speaking about secular politics and Church politics seem to be oblivious or blind. The polarized arguments and the distractions and division in Church and society as we are being “devoured by the heat and the pollution, by droughts here and rising waters there” remind us of the stories of Nero fiddling as Rome burned.

We encourage our readers to study the documents discussed here. As Pastoral Guidelines tells us, “Responding to the challenge of the climate crisis and displacement is today at the heart of being a credible and witnessing Church.”

This is the work the Lord asks now of us, and there is great joy in it. – Pope Francis