When stories are written about the Venezuelan crisis that has turned a tenth of the country's population into refugees, climate change isn't in the headlines.
But while global warming isn't in the foreground of the Venezuelan story, it may be part of the backdrop. That's because much of the country's last decade has been marked by a severe and persistent drought, an occurrence that scientists say will become more frequent due to warming. Venezuela has also lost four of its five glaciers since the 1990s.
Even many experts don't often talk about this part.
Several Washington, D.C., think tanks and the International Organization for Migration, an intergovernmental body that assists and advises on migration, had little to say about the role warming might have played in creating the humanitarian tragedy.
"We don't have information about this or studies," IOM replied to E&E News' inquiry.
They stressed instead the toll low oil prices have taken on Venezuela's petroleum-dependent, government-controlled economy, and they pointed to the gross mismanagement and corruption under Nicolás Maduro and Hugo Chávez before him. Last year's election was so badly compromised that the United States and its European and Latin American allies no longer recognize Maduro as Venezuela's legitimate president, and his once-wealthy country is careening toward failed-state status.
As the White House tweeted — and President Trump retweeted — on Jan. 30, "More than 3 million people have fled Venezuela since 2015. The United Nations estimates that number may swell to 5.3 million by the end of 2019." Those are U.N. numbers, and Venezuela's population is just over 30 million.
But aside from the political crisis, Venezuela got 50 to 65 percent less rainfall than the annual average from 2013 to 2016. That led to rationing of both water and electricity because Venezuela is heavily reliant on hydropower. A dry winter heading into 2016 led to low water levels at the Guri Dam in Bolívar, the nation's largest hydroelectric facility, and months of power shortages in Caracas and elsewhere. Maduro tried to cope with the outages through compulsory three-day weekends.
Piled on top of the devastating effects of Maduro's policies and declining global oil prices, these shortages helped to hamstring the Venezuelan economy, cut agricultural output and make the lives of ordinary people worse.
"Though much more research needs to be done to estimate how much of this humanitarian crisis has been exacerbated by the drought, what is obvious is that Venezuela's government's poor decision-making prior to, and in response to, water scarcity contributed significantly to millions of Venezuelans leaving their homeland in search of better lives in neighboring states," retired Lt. Cmdr. Oliver-Leighton Barrett, a senior research fellow at the Center for Climate and Security, wrote in a recent issue brief.
Venezuela illustrates that the relationship between climate change and instability isn't always straightforward.
Neighboring Brazil has also faced serious droughts in recent years; in his brief, Barrett suggests that water shortages in 2014 and 2015 might have "compounded dissatisfaction" with former President Dilma Rousseff prior to her 2015 impeachment. But Brazilians aren't fleeing their country as Venezuelans are.
When national security and defense agencies call climate change a "threat multiplier," this is what they mean, said Andrew Holland, chief operating officer of the American Security Project (Climatewire, Sept. 14, 2016).
"Climate change is never going to be the one thing that causes a war or that causes a government to fall or that drives migration, but it is a factor within that that makes all of the other factors more difficult," he said. "It makes other problems worse."
Holland blamed Maduro's many failures for the state of Venezuela's economy and for the fact it is hemorrhaging refugees — including his failure to adequately respond to drought.
"People are leaving because it's a failed state, but one of the symptoms of being a failed state is not being able to adapt to these changes in your environment," he said.
Venezuela's government hasn't added enough capacity to the electrical grid over the last two decades to allow it to cope with disruptions at its hydroelectric dams. Instead of using its fossil fuel resources to shore up its domestic supply, Holland noted, the state-owned oil and natural gas company wastes gas through flaring.
So Venezuelan refugees are fleeing to Colombia, Brazil, Ecuador, Peru and the Caribbean, where they compete for local jobs and resources. Climate change plays a supporting role in that story, too.
"These individuals who are moving are placing additional stress on a very fragile system that has already become fragile because of climate change," said retired Capt. Steve Brock, a senior adviser at the Council on Strategic Risks.
Some areas of Colombia and Brazil where Venezuelans are taking refuge have also experienced drought, and the newcomers are adding to the demands on water resources. Dan Stothart, who works on regional humanitarian issues in Latin America and the Caribbean for the U.N. Environment Programme, posted last April on the website ReliefWeb that in Brazil's northernmost border state, refugees were contributing to the depletion of the water table.
The Caribbean is receiving fewer Venezuelan refugees, but its countries are also smaller and less able to absorb them. And many Caribbean nations are still recovering from the devastating 2017 hurricane season that sent their own citizens temporarily abroad.
"These are some of the most climate-stressed countries in the world because of the vulnerability to natural disasters," Holland said.
The influx of impoverished Venezuelans may also create environmental problems in the regions where they settle, or they may even contribute to climate change.
Roraima, the Brazilian state from which Stothart posted, is in the Brazilian Amazon. The region, referred to as the "lungs of the planet" for its role in sequestering carbon dioxide, has seen deforestation rebound recently. Brock said there was concern that migrants looking for work may turn to illegal logging or other environmentally destructive activities to make a living. Roraima is a hotbed for illegal mining, which contributes to dangerous mercury contamination.
Stothart wrote in April of "increasing reports of Venezuelan migrants and refugees being forced into this dangerous industry to survive."
But the current crisis in Venezuela could have a silver lining for the climate if Maduro is replaced by a new government with different views on international cooperation and climate change.
Venezuelan delegates to U.N. climate talks have long argued that the global north is to blame for warming and should pay damages. Meanwhile, the nationalized petroleum sector produces some of the world's dirtiest crude oil: A Stanford University study last year estimated it was on average six times more carbon-intensive than Saudi product.
Venezuela is not only climate-vulnerable. Recent years have also shown the dangers of relying on petroleum for more than a quarter of its gross domestic product, Brock said.
"A global transition away from fossil fuels would hit Venezuela as hard as any oil-exporting state in the world," he said.
But a new government might be more open to economic diversification and foreign assistance.
Reprinted from Climatewire with permission from E&E News. E&E provides daily coverage of essential energy and environmental news at www.eenews.net.