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The Myth of Climate Refugees

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of Townhall.com.
AP Photo/Andrew Harnik

Thousands of illegal immigrants are streaming across the United States’ southern border every day under President Joe Biden.

In response, climate alarmists are following former Chicago Mayor and President Obama’s Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel’s shameful advice to “never let a crisis go to waste” by repeating the false claim that many of the immigrants are “climate refugees.” Meaning they are being forced to flee their homelands by disasters caused by anthropogenic global warming.


Research shows this claim is false. Millions of people flee their homelands each year. But the causes are what they have always been: war, political persecution, crime, and poverty. Refugees now, as they always have, are leaving their countries in pursuit of a better life for their children and themselves. Not because of climate change.

A recent International Policy Digest (IPD) article titled “It’s Time to Recognize Climate Refugees” falsely claims “refugees are … fleeing climate change.”

“In the face of warmer temperatures, reduced precipitation, and blighted crops—struggling farmers from Guatemala and El Salvador are giving up and fleeing to the U.S. border,” says IPD.

“Climate change will submerge American communities like Isle de Jean Charles, Louisiana, and entire countries like the Maldives.”

The problem is the narrative doesn’t fit the facts. Guatemala’s top agricultural products are coffee and sugar cane. Since 1988, when James Hansen famously declared, in a carefully staged Senate hearing, that humans were definitely causing dangerous global warming, data from theUnited Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO)show Guatemala’s coffee production has set new records in nine separate years. Coffee production increased by more than 34 percent from 1998 to 2018. Guatemala’s sugar production has boomed even more over the past 33 years of modest warming, setting new records for production 19 times since 1998 and increasing by more than 284 percent.


FAO data for El Salvador is equally positive. Rather than crops failing amidst modest warming, farmers are doing better. Corn and sugar cane are two of El Salvador’s most important agricultural products. Since 1988, El Salvador’s corn harvest has set new records six times. Despite yearly ups and downs typical of crop production anywhere, El Salvador’s corn production has not fallen below its 1998 production levels since 2003, and corn production has grown 46 percent.

El Salvador’s sugar cane production has increased 162 percent since 1998, setting new records for production in 11 separate years.

FAO data show that what’s true for El Salvador and Guatemala is true for the world as a whole, with global crop yields, especially for the world’s most important cereal crops—corn, rice, and wheat—setting new records almost every year.The truth is almost all nations asserted to be shedding climate refugees due to crop failures, have been benefiting from steadily increasing crop yields over the past decades.

For instance, climate alarmists disgustingly asserted in the past that warming-induced crop failure was a reason for the Syrian civil war and the mass exodus of Syrian refugees. Syria is part of an arid, desert region of the world where, for thousands of years, droughts have been the norm, not the exception. In fact, the entire region experienced the same drought as Syria, yet war did not break out in Iran, Israel, Jordan, or Saudi Arabia.


The battle for freedom against continued tyranny, not food shortages, was responsible for the “Arab Spring” revolutions in Syria and other countries around the same time. Indeed, FAO data show Syrian crop production grew by approximately 50 percent since 1995, and the Arab Spring democracy uprisings in Syria and elsewhere, occurred in 2011, a year in which Syria produced its eighth highest crop yields in history.

The claim that rising seas due to climate change are creating refugees from American coastal cities and small island nations is equally false. Demographic data show population, property values, and development continues to increase each year along America’s coasts.

And, multiple studies conducted over the past two decades confirm, the majority of islands predicted to shed climate refugees due to sea-level rise are growing, not shrinking, as are their populations and related infrastructure.

For example,one recent peer-reviewed study found eight out of Tuvalu’s nine coral atolls have grown in size during recent decades, and 3/4ths of Tuvalu’s 101 reef islands have similarly grown in size. Also, Tuvalu is experiencing net immigration rather than net emigration. There are 20 percent more people living in Tuvalu now than 30 years ago. Tuvalu’s population has doubled since 1970.

Also, whereas30 years ago, the Canberra Times claimed all 1,196 islands that comprise the Maldives could be completely underwater by now. Not only are all 1,196 islands still there, but the Maldives population has doubled during the past 20 years. People are flocking to the Maldives islands, not fleeing them.


The constant attempt to link illegal immigration to climate change is part and parcel of what one author referred to as “the endless, fruitless search for climate refugees.” Climate refugees, if they exist at all, are few and far between, and provide no justification for authoritarian policies to fight climate change or open border immigration.

H. Sterling Burnett, Ph.D. (hburnett@heartland.org )is a senior fellow on energy and the environment at The Heartland Institute, a nonpartisan, nonprofit research center headquartered in Arlington Heights, Illinois.

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