• Part I: US exporting water in-country
  • Part II:  Risks from abroad
  • Part III: Immigration/agriculture/gangs/links to poor governance
A farmer, whose family sowed the land for generations in Mexico, inspects his drying crop of maize. Courtesy photo

By Brianna Cunliffe, P.E.N. chief investigative reporter

October, 2020


If nothing is done to drastically alter our relationship with fossil fuels, in fifty years nearly a fifth of the world’s population will live in zones so hot and dangerous they will likely become uninhabitable. Thirty years will see over 150 million people displaced by rising seas that swallow up towns and cities.  Eight of the nation’s twenty largest metropolitan areas, New York chief among them, are under serious threat. Nowhere is immune. As wells dry up, crops fail, and violence rises — where will these climate refugees go? 

We’re beginning to find out. In 2020, wildfires raged across the west, causing the evacuation of hundreds of thousands. Some only escaped with their lives, losing all their earthly possessions. The climate crisis’ implications for Americans have finally drawn worldwide attention.

Globally, people have been forced into exile because of the climate crisis for years. The  consequences of these swells of migration are costing nations dearly.  Southern Mexico’s already-strained resources are on the verge of collapse with the influx of hundreds of thousands of immigrants from dought-stricken nations like Guatemala. 

In the African Sahel, already one of the harshest landscapes on the planet, brutal droughts and crop failures have driven desperate former farmers to cities and coasts, leaving their ancestral homes and livelihoods behind. 

In the United States, similar mass motion is not a distant dystopia. Data shows that one in twelve Americans living in the south will move west within 45 years because of the stressors of climate alone. This mass relocation to cities will widen the gaps between rich and poor and leave the most vulnerable stranded in inhospitable landscapes where their health and safety is degraded further each year. 

For U.S. interests abroad, the current outlook is startling. Military bases are overwhelmingly threatened by sea level rise: 128 are threatened with being totally submerged. Even a modest estimate of three foot rise will cost hundreds of billions in damaged property. More importantly, it would be a major blow to our national defense. 

As the planet warms, rising seas will pose a risk to hundreds of the United States’ coastal military sites – more than 200 already reporting effects from storm surges.

The same defense will be strained by other consequences of the climate crisis. With drought, disaster and displacement, water crises soon follow, and existing ones worsen. As a consequence, armed conflicts promise to rise. 

Water is a key driver of conflicts, especially in the Middle East and North Africa, where the combination of climate stressors, unstable regimes, and military conflict creates explosive conditions endangering civilians and soldiers alike. 

Conflict makes people move, en masse and almost instantaneously. The impact of that sort of migration is painfully clear in Europe, where the refugee crisis caused rifts in politics and in international relations, worsening even further as the coronavirus tore across the continent. A demographic shift of an even greater magnitude promises consequences for the planet, alongside its massive cost in human suffering. 

Water crises and the migrations they drive can unintentionally lead to chaos, strain, and violence, as systems and nations swell with populations beyond those they were built to hold and those left behind grow steadily more desperate. But equally as dangerous is the capacity of malicious actors to exploit this collective vulnerability. 

“When droughts worsen, farmers in the region are forced to find other ways to feed their families. They are often forced into terrorist organizations. I have experienced this firsthand in Iraq when my HUMVEE was hit by a roadside bomb planted by a former farmer,” said Alex Cornell du Houx, a former Maine state lawmaker, Marine combat veteran. “Our military and intelligence services take these issues seriously. It’s time the public learns more about these threat multipliers caused by climate change. Our national security is at risk.”

When extremists can further narrow the choices of already-desperate people, the entire planet’s security suffers. What happened that one afternoon in the desert is a microcosm of the consequences of failing to take action on the climate. Uncertainty self-perpetuates, multiplying the risk and making the world more dangerous for all its inhabitants. 

“The oceans are rising at alarming rates, ice sheets are melting, storms are extreme and too many people around the world are suffering. Communities uprooted, lives lost, all because the world has failed to act on climate change in a unified way. But it’s not too late, we can hold off the worst-case scenarios, we can save lives and our humanity in the process,” said former Illinois State Rep. Linda ChapaVia, Army veteran. “We need to act now by phasing out all fossil fuels. We’ve had systemic changes before. The industrial revolution brought us factories, FDR’s social revolution gave us the minimum wage, social security and workers rights. We’ve gone from lighting our street with whale oil to crude. It’s time for a green revolution.”

The massive instability a climate migration of the one anticipated will create, according to many elected officials who are veterans, is an unacceptable risk to Americans and to the world. 

 “We protect and serve our nation. Climate change is a national security threat,” said New York Assistant Speaker Assemblyman Felix Ortiz, EOPA Leadership Council member, Army veteran. “It’s not right to ask our men and women to put themselves in harm’s way when, if we act now, we can help those nations at risk develop regenerative agriculture, put up solar, wind, and help with their water infrastructure . . .  the list goes on. The point is: we have the technologies. I’d rather see our forces deployed to stabilize the world in these peaceful tasks now — instead of later when we’d be forced to fight.”

Progress and prosperity stalling on a planet growing steadily more dangerous: It’s a vision of the future all ought to fear. So why, in the face of the overwhelming evidence of disaster already upon us, has the United States failed to act? 

“The world looks to America for leadership, in areas that will have impacts that might disrupt global economies, in areas of humanitarian relief, in areas where traditionally we helped to defuse conflicts,” said Oregon State Representative Major Paul L. Evans USAF (Ret.). “Our mostly honorable past does not speak of our present. At times our nation is challenged within. We clearly need a directive from the White House that unequivocally says climate change is a reality, and a mandate to act on that truth so the world isn’t put in jeopardy.”

The projections are grim, but the world is not yet locked into this future. Bold action can lessen the blows, preserve the homes of hundreds of thousands, and quell vicious squabbles over water and land before they even begin. For New Mexico State Representative Debbie Sariñana, Air Force veteran, it’s not now a matter of should or shouldn’t: abandoning fossil fuels is a moral obligation, and the only way to preserve the progress, prosperity, and peace of our planet, before we lose it all. 

“At every stage of our nation’s progress we’ve had upheavals. There will always be interests that wish to hold back time, because the old ways benefit them,” said Rep. Sariñana, Air Force veteran. “We have a moral obligation to the world to lead in the transition to clean, renewable energy. If we don’t, we’ll be sending men and women overseas to war zones because conflicts are destined to increase. I served proudly; my son was deployed twice to the middle east. We need to rid the world of fossil fuel dependency, so nations can live in peace.”