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Standing at the Climate Justice Struggle Forefront

from the Nov. 23, 2022 Bulletin

environmental issues

Gabriella Baldonado — part of today’s new rising generation of climate experts and activists — can trace her family’s lineage back to Apache/Spanish ancestors living in México before their lands became part of New Mexico after annexation in 1848. Baldonado earned her bachelors degree this past spring from Cal State Monterey Bay, and she’s researched extensively how US media have been framing climate-induced human migration from the Northern Triangle of Central America. Gabriella hopes to take part in reshaping the international protocol for receiving migrants into a compassionate and collaborative global network that recognizes and defends the autonomy of all migrants. 

When did you start focusing on climate change?


My epiphany moment about climate change — as something not distant in time or space — came in my high school senior year in 2013. Smoke from the Rim Fire in California’s Sierra Nevada mountains had spread for miles and closed my school. Then, in 2020, a severe drought in Santa Cruz led to a wildfire that made it pitch black at 2 p.m. The smoke made it impossible to breathe, and we had to stuff towels under our door jamb to keep the smoke out. Really scary!

Many Californians are relocating as a result of conditions like these. But we don’t call relocations “climate migration” when wealthier families are doing the moving. Record numbers of people from the US are moving to México, an 86 percent increase over the last few years. Could climate change be one factor?


Migration gets caused by both “pull” factors from the receiving country and “push” factors from the country of origin. Which do you now see as the stronger factor, and what role does climate change play in the equation? 

Smoke from the Rim Fire. Max Whittaker/Reuters

Most migration to the US in the past reflected economic “pull” factors. Most migrants have been Mexican men looking for seasonal agricultural work. But “push” factors have become stronger over the last 10 years. We now see poverty, violence, and food insecurity pushing families and unaccompanied minors to leave Central America.


So how does climate change factor in? Climate change operates as a threat multiplier, exacerbating people’s vulnerabilities. If a flood or drought happens and you have no savings, you’ll become poor and food insecure.


Unfortunately, we have no refugee or asylee protocol for climate migrants, and that leaves migrants likely to be turned back or deported later.


The countries of the Northern Triangle Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras appear especially vulnerable. What about México? What responsibility does México have for the migrants passing through?


México also has climate vulnerabilities. But México also has a stronger economy that increases the Mexican government’s adaptive capacity.


Trump put responsibility on México for the Central American migrants. In issuing Title 42, or the “Stay in México” policy, he used the excuse that the migrants posed a public health threat. This opportunistic ploy to avoid US responsibility used fear of Covid to justify closing the border. Trump, a pandemic denier, was blaming migrants moving through México for Covid’s spread!


But, of course, México does not bear sole responsibility, in either of responsibility’s two aspects. First, who should pay for mitigation and adaptation in the poorer countries affected by the climate disaster high-emission countries are causing? The US emits 25 percent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. The countries of the Northern Triangle emit just 0.1 percent. This question of financial burden came up big at COP 27.


The second question: Who should receive climate migrants? This question needs far more attention.

You find the concept of “slow violence” useful. Can you explain?


This term, first used by Rob Nixon, expands our conceptual understanding of violence.


We usually think in terms of an identifiable perpetrator and a victim. But what about things like an oil spill, Agent Orange, or drought? Sickness and death come slowly in these cases and at a large scale. 

Photo: Shutterstock

To me, “slow violence” fits climate change perfectly. To gain asylum, you have to prove you have or will have experienced persecution in your home country. But if climate change’s slow violence forced you to migrate, you would not qualify you as a valid asylum seeker. That’s why we need new protocols.


How does the US frame migration? How should we frame migration?


The US media use a language for migration that mimics climate disaster! The media speak about migration with non-human terms: a “flood” of mirants, a “surge,” an “explosion.” We need to de-politicize migration. We should see this migration as normal climate adaptation, something humans have been doing forever.


We also see “border security” used as a frame. In the literature, the more we see “security,” the less we see mentions of climate change. This “security” frame will not help us solve the problem.

Young people stand at the forefront of the global climate justice movement. Why?


Greta Thunberg has been a big influence and inspiration for young people. Her “Fridays for the Future” became a global movement. In India, one activist started protesting outside parliament at age six! Young people have stood up for indigenous rights at Standing Rock, water rights in South America, land management in Africa. 

Greta Thunberg, left, at a UN climate protest. Photo: WION 

The younger generation has been able to tackle climate change because we grew up in a globalized world order. The young people of Generation Z are constantly communicating with each other across the globe. We know climate change will be our future. And we will be the future for the world’s climate.