US President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw from a global agreement to fight climate change hinders efforts to tackle environmental challenges in Latin America and the Caribbean, which have compounded longstanding problems related to organized crime.
Trump announced on June 1 that the United States would back out of the so-called Paris Agreement, a landmark 2015 deal signed by 195 countries that aims to “undertake ambitious efforts to combat climate change and adapt to its effects, with enhanced support to assist developing countries to do so.” The decision led to immediate rebuke by politicians and business leaders alike.
On the day of the announcement, a spokesperson for the United Nations Secretary-General called the move a “major disappointment for global efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and promote global security.”
In keeping with his “America First” doctrine, Trump said the Paris deal imposed unfair burdens on the United States that would harm its economy and do little to mitigate the dangers of climate change.
Few mentioned crime, but the reality is that mitigating climate change is a key part of addressing major global security challenges, including in the Americas.
According to a recent report by the advocacy group Germanwatch, four of the ten countries most affected by climate change over the past decade are in Latin America and the Caribbean: Honduras, Haiti, Nicaragua and Guatemala.
However, experts say that throughout the region, planning for climate-related security risks has been insufficient.
“Politicians need to start to factor into their policymaking the environment. And they’re not presently doing that,” Oliver Leighton Barrett, a retired Navy lieutenant who has worked with the Pentagon on efforts to assess the security implications of climate change in Latin America and Caribbean, told InSight Crime.
“There are two kinds of emergencies,” he explained, “Slow onset [like hurricanes] and rapid onset [like sea-level rise or long-term drought].”
He added: “It’s hard for people to get their head around and to organize a response to the slow-moving one, the slow onset-type scenario, because it kind of just creeps on you.”
Cities are particularly vulnerable to climate change, primarily because cities are where most people live and where most of the violent crime is occurring.
“Cities simply cannot afford to delay action. There is a real risk that the fastest-growing cities adopt outdated planning models that lead to resource-intensive plans and infrastructure,” Robert Muggah, the director of the Igarapé Institute think tank, wrote in a 2016 article for the World Economic Forum. “Ultimately, the future of climate change resides in decisions taken by cities in areas with the most rapidly growing economies and population.”
Upheavals in the environment mean chaos, and chaos opens the door to crime. The US military itself described climate change as a “threat multiplier” in a July 2015 report to Congress.
“Global climate change will have wide-ranging implications for US national security interests over the foreseeable future because it will aggravate existing problems — such as poverty, social tensions, environmental degradation, ineffectual leadership, and weak political institutions — that threaten domestic stability in a number of countries,” the report reads.
This notion was echoed by Barrett. He calls climate a “stressor upon a host of other stressors already, and that can be the straw that breaks the camel’s back.”
Many countries in the region, he added, “have no resiliency whatsoever” to climate change, making them particularly vulnerable to its negative effects.
“They’re politically fragile. They have very weak institutions, fractured populations — poor populations in particular — and then you have the security concerns fueled by drug-related activities. And the thing is they all converge,” he explained.
“It’s not just climate change. It’s all these trends coming together — overpopulation, urbanization and also poor governance — and those by themselves are bad enough. And then you throw on top of that a long dry spell? Then there you have your seeds for disaster,” he said.
In certain cases, even when governments in the region have attempted to respond to climate-related disasters, organized crime has found a way to profit. In one remarkable instance, the Honduran crime group known as the Cachiros was allegedly able to use the relief effort following a devastating 2010 hurricane to launder an estimated $6.4 million of illegal earnings.
Criminal networks in Honduras have also been known to use violence against environmental activists seeking to protect areas of the country from potential environmental harm related to economic development projects.
Brazil, the largest country in the region, is a particularly illustrative example of how organized crime itself can contribute to climate change, which can in turn create a feedback loop that exacerbates existing security problems.
After decades of deforestation fueled in large part by organized crime activities, experts say that the world’s biggest rainforest, the Amazon, may be at a “tipping point“: continued deforestation could lead to a vicious cycle of drought like the one seen in the United States during the infamous “Dust Bowl” of the 1930s.
Drought related to deforestation poses risks not only to the largely uninhabited Amazon, but also to some of the most important urban areas in the region. For instance, the largest city in the Americas, São Paulo, like much of Brazil’s heavily-populated southeast, suffered a severe drought between 2014 and 2016 that was linked to Amazon deforestation. During that time, there was widespread public unrest in Brazil over myriad issues, including economic challenges that were brought into stark display when the government enforced rationing of the water supply.
The drought — combined with a broader economic slowdown and an increased burden on security forces due to mass protests and an influx of tourists for the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympic Games — complicated efforts to address underlying causes of crime and violence in Brazil’s major urban centers. Indeed, after years of declines, violence has been rising recently in both São Paulo and Brazil’s second largest city, Rio de Janeiro.
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The drug trade, as well as other illicit industries like illegal mining and eco trafficking, also contribute to deforestation and other forms of environmental damage. This only leads to more migration to the cities where most of the crime is occurring.
Ceding Space to Other Countries
Dealing with both slow and rapid onset events related to climate change will require multilateral coordination that the US could help lead. Collaborative efforts on this front gained steam under the administration of Trump’s predecessor, Barack Obama, which called combating climate change “a top US priority.”
But Trump’s team seems disinclined to take any action at all to fight climate change, much less in conjunction with international partners. This could not only hamper the rest of the world’s efforts to head off a climate catastrophe, but it could also hinder efforts by the United States to cooperate with partner nations on a host of other challenges, including in the security realm.
In particular, Barrett said, “the symbolism of America abdicating its ‘Big Boy’ seat at the global climate change mitigation table is significant. It leaves a leadership vacuum for America’s premier peer competitor, China, to fill.
“President Trump’s decision yesterday makes it politically easier for traditional US partners in the region to make the pivot towards China as their ‘partner of choice’ for a range of issues,” he said. “If there was ever any question in their minds about which superpower has their best interests at heart, yesterday’s ill-advised decision provided clarity.”