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Government watchdog to State Department: quit ignoring climate change

The State Department “has dropped the ball” on climate migration issues, the Government Accountability Office says.

The Government Accountability Office on Thursday criticized the State Department for ignoring climate change in its work on migration.
The Government Accountability Office on Thursday criticized the State Department for ignoring climate change in its work on migration.
Umair Irfan is a correspondent at Vox writing about climate change, Covid-19, and energy policy. Irfan is also a regular contributor to the radio program Science Friday. Prior to Vox, he was a reporter for ClimateWire at E&E News.

Researchers, aid groups, and diplomats have been warning for years that climate change is a key driver behind the growing global crisis of migration and displacement.

The Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre reported that there were 24.2 million people displaced by climate and weather disasters in 2016. Last year, the World Bank estimated that number would rise to 143 million people by the middle of the century if climate change is left unchecked.

These mass movements can in turn threaten fragile governments and economies, potentially leading to conflicts. Rising sea levels, drought, more severe weather, and extreme heat are already fueling famines and creating refugees.

And the consequences can ripple back to the United States. “The worsening of climate change effects around the world, particularly in low-income countries, may increase the number of people wanting to immigrate to the United States,” the Government Accountability Office wrote in a report released Thursday.

But the US State Department has been alarmingly lax in addressing how rising temperatures are fueling human movements around the world, according to the GAO. By overlooking climate change, the agency may be unprepared to handle events that impact US security.

“The State Department has dropped the ball on providing [climate change] guidance to its missions,” said David Gootnick, director of international affairs and trade at the GAO. “We recommended that they build that guidance back in.”

Shortly after taking office, Trump rescinded a 2016 presidential memorandum on climate change and national security as well as a 2013 executive order requiring federal agencies to prepare for the impacts of climate change.

But one Obama-era climate action remains in place: Executive Order 13677 signed in 2014 directs federal agencies to incorporate climate change and resilience planning into international development work. This affects the State Department as well as the United States Agency for International Development.

As the GAO report points out, these agencies are still required by the White House to address how climate change will impact their work. And if they don’t, they stand to be ill prepared to cope with humanitarian disasters and migrations that affect millions of people.

Climate change has started to affect diplomacy but the State Department isn’t giving its people on the ground the guidance they need

In 2017, Democratic Sens. Dianne Feinstein (CA), Sheldon Whitehouse (RI), Jeff Merkley (OR), Elizabeth Warren (MA), and Ed Markey (MA) requested that the GAO look into how the government is addressing the impacts of climate change on migration in light of the Trump administration’s retreat on climate policy.

The government watchdog examined how this was playing out the Department of Defense, USAID, and the State Department, the agencies on the front lines. While the Defense Department isn’t covered by EO 13677, it continues to incorporate climate change into its planning. Military and intelligence officials, including those appointed by Trump, have long identified climate change as a threat multiplier.

On Thursday, the Defense Department sent its own report to Congress on how climate change would impact its operations in compliance with the National Defense Authorization Act. “The effects of a changing climate are a national security issue with potential impacts to Department of Defense missions, operational plans, and installations,” according to the report.

However, the State Department is giving climate change less attention than it used to. “State changed its approach in 2017, no longer providing missions with guidance on whether and how to include climate change risks in their integrated country strategies,” GAO wrote in its report.

The Trump administration in its budget requests to Congress also zeroed out funding for many of the State Department’s climate programs, including the Global Climate Change Initiative and the United Nations Green Climate Fund.

“This is a manifestation of the shift in priorities on climate change,” Gootnick said.

He explained that prior to the Trump administration, the State Department climate change impacts on migration was a key element in much of the agency’s work with other countries. This included work with the UN Global Compact on Migration, which is shaping up to be the first comprehensive international agreement on international migration. The United States announced in 2017 it would withdraw from the negotiations for the agreement.

Work on other activities like helping small island countries adapt to rising sea levels and migrate away from high-risk areas also stalled after the change in administrations. The GAO found that climate change risks would impact the State Department’s development assistance work. Of the three agencies GAO examined in this report, the State Department lagged furthest behind in complying with White House directives on climate change.

A sampling of some of the US State Department’s work relating to climate change and migration.
A sampling of some of the US State Department’s work relating to climate change and migration.

Without a clear agenda on climate change, the State Department could miss critical risks and threats that could affect the movement of populations around the world. Failing to address how factors like rising average temperatures increase the risk of crop failures could leave diplomats unprepared for the ensuing migrations.

For its part, the State Department wasn’t hostile to the GAO’s findings. “The Department does not oppose this recommendation,” the State Department wrote in its response to the GAO report, adding that the agency will update its guidance documents to its missions by June to incorporate issues like climate resilience. However, the agency also said they will also start examining whether to recommend that the White House rescind EO 136777.

“It’s an unusual response,” Gootnick said.