The Rise of Walls in a Warming World
January 23, 2018
Todd Miller / San Francisco Chronicle
In 2015, 400,000 people living in what has become Honduras' "dry corridor" planted seeds and waited for rain that never came. What came instead was an extreme drought that stole their livelihoods. Central America has become ground zero for climate change in the Americas. The coming climate upheavals, which also include superstorms and sea level rise, are predicted to leave unprecedented numbers of people with no other choice but to move. And, increasingly, walls are rising to block their flight.
The Rise of Walls in a Warming World
Todd Miller / San Francisco Chronicle
(January 19, 2018) -- When I first talked to the three Honduran men in the train yard in the southern Mexican town of Tenosique, I had no idea that they were climate refugees. We were 20 miles from the border with Guatemala at a rail yard where Central American refugees often congregated before the long, dangerous haul to the United States.
The Hondurans told me that they had been stuck here for six long days avoiding Mexican immigration agents. Like many other countries across the globe, Mexico, with assistance from Washington, has been fortifying its southern border.
When I asked why they were heading for the United States, one responded simply, "No hubo lluvia." ("There was no rain.") In their community, without rain, there had been no crops, no harvest, no food for their families, an increasingly common phenomenon in Central America.
In 2015, for instance, 400,000 people living in what has become Honduras' "dry corridor" planted seeds and waited for rain that never came. As in a number of other places on this planet in this century, what came instead was an extreme drought that stole their livelihoods.
Central America was, in fact, ground zero for climate change in the Americas, University of Arizona climate scientist Chris Castro told me. According to the best forecasting models, a "much greater occurrence of the very dry seasons" lies in the future for the region. The coming climate upheavals, which also include superstorms and sea level rise, are predicted to leave unprecedented numbers of people with no other choice but to move.
And as it stands right now, there isn't a legal framework for dealing with climate refugees, neither in international law nor the laws of specific countries.
Instead, that moment in Tenosique was a grim glimpse into the future: young, unarmed farmers with failing harvests facing the only welcome this planet presently has to offer such victims of climate change -- expensive and expanding border regimes of surveillance, razor-wire walls, agents with guns and incarceration centers.
According to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre, the "impact and threat of climate-related hazards" displaced an average of 21.5 million people annually between 2008 and 2015.
The growing impact of intensifying droughts, rising seas and mega-storms is already adding to a host of other factors, including poverty, war and persecution. While many of the climate-displaced stay close to home, hoping to salvage both their lives and livelihoods, ever more are crossing international borders and joining what many are now calling a refugee crisis.
"Catastrophic convergence" is the term sociologist Christian Parenti uses to describe this 21st century turmoil of compounding ecological, political and economic crises. As Camila Minerva of Oxfam puts it, "The poorest and the most marginalized are five times more likely to be displaced and remain so for a longer time than people in higher-income countries, and it is increasing with climate change."
And it's only just beginning. The debated projections for future climate displacement range widely from 150 million to 1 billion people by 2050. Ten percent of all Mexicans between 15 and 65 might be heading north by that year, according to one report, thanks to rising temperatures, droughts and floods.
"Although the exact number of people that will be on the move by midcentury is uncertain," wrote the authors of the report "In Search of Shelter: Mapping the Effects of Climate Change on Human Migration and Displacement," "the scope and scale could vastly exceed anything that has occurred before."
Unless these dynamics change, climate change, increased global migration and expanding border enforcement are three linked phenomena guaranteed to come to an explosive head in this century.
For the world's largest historic greenhouse gas polluter, the United States, instead of thoughtful preparations designed to accommodate the displaced, annual budgets for border and immigration policing regimes have skyrocketed, from about $1.5 billion in the early 1990s to $20 billion in 2017.
During that period, the number of Border Patrol agents quintupled, 650 miles of walls and barriers were constructed (long before Donald Trump began talking about his "big, fat, beautiful wall"), and billions of dollars of technology were deployed in the border region.
The kerfuffle that Trump had this week with Chief of Staff John Kelly about the future vision of the border wall notwithstanding, all indications point to his administration further accelerating what has been this historic fortification of the US border with a similar recipe.
If those farmers from Honduras eventually cross into the United States, then they will enter a land where people without papers are tracked in complex, high-tech electronic ways, hunted, arrested, incarcerated and expelled, sometimes with unfathomable cruelty.
Such massive border fortification isn't just a US phenomenon. In 1989, when the Berlin Wall fell, there were 15 border walls in the world. Now, according to border scholar Elisabeth Vallet, there are 70.
These walls generally have risen between the richer countries and the poorer ones, between those that have the heavier carbon footprints and those plunged into Parenti's "catastrophic convergence" of political, economic and ecological crises. This is true whether talking about the Americas, Africa, the Middle East or Asia. Indeed, global border and homeland security industries are booming across the planet.
While the Trump administration is scrubbing government websites and policies clean of climate change, other parts of the federal government are in the business of preparing for it, big time. At both the Pentagon and the Department of Homeland Security, global warming is seen as a "threat multiplier" that must be factored into any long-term planning -- and that should surprise no one.
After all, the future time frame of a national security planner can be as much as 30 years, and there's no way planners are going to deny the 97 percent consensus of scientists around the future impacts of climate change in their risk analysis. It sometimes takes that long for a major weapons system to go "from the drawing board to the battlefield," according to former Assistant Deputy Secretary of State Kurt Campbell.
As one 2003 assessment from the Pentagon put it, imagining the US frontier as a "defensive fortress" in a worst-case climate scenario: "Borders will be strengthened around [the United States] to hold back unwanted starving immigrants from the Caribbean islands (an especially severe problem), Mexico and South America." This crude assessment was exactly the message sent to those climate refugees that day in the Tenosique train yard.
"It appears that we've entered a new arms race, one appropriate for an age of asymmetric warfare," humanitarian commentator Paul Currion observes, "with border walls replacing ICBMs [intercontinental ballistic missiles]."
This rings even more true as the Trump administration asked Congress for $18 billion to further construct a border wall. However, the strong suggestion in Currion's words is between the lines, especially in this daunting era of global warming: There are much better ways this money can be spent.
In 1989, when the 96-mile Berlin wall came down, there were 15 border walls. Today, there are 70. Here are some:
US-Mexico border walls and barriers: 650 miles (President Trump has called for a wall across the 1,954-mile border).
Israel's Separation Barrier: 400 miles
Moroccan Wall: 1,677-mile barrier that divides the Western Sahara.
Great Wall of Jordan: 275 miles (paid for by the United States).
Turkey-Syria Border Wall: 514-mile barrier built by Turkey.
India-Bangladesh: 2,500-mile border fence built by India.
Ecuador-Peru: 950-mile border wall, constructed by Ecuador.
Iran-Pakistan: 434-mile border wall built by Iran.
China-North Korea: 880-mile border fence built by China.
Todd Miller is the author of Storming the Wall: Climate Change, Migration, and Homeland Security. This commentary was adapted from an article first published at TomDispatch.
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