Border Walls As Murder: On Climate Change, Migration, & Misdirection

border crosser
Aspiring migrant at the Tijuana-San Diego border. The crosses represent the deaths of failed attempts. Credit: Tomas Castelazo

Back in 2010, I wrote of the potential of sustained ignorance about climate change to become so willful that it “becomes criminal.” Back then Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott was only a high-profile obstructionist making his living suing the federal government to, among other things, stop the regulation of greenhouse gases in Texas.

greg abbott

Now as Perry’s anointed replacement, I’d suggest Abbott (right) should be disqualified from higher office for passing off a well-engineered campaign to protect the state’s fossil-fuel industry as an exercise in scientific illiteracy. How else to explain his decision to hang his argument against regulation of greenhouse gases on the baseless teapot tempest known as ClimateGate?

Differences of opinion and matters of faith are one thing, but, it has been said, no one is entitled to their own facts. And a man like Abbott is intelligent enough to survey the contemporary scientific literature on climate change to find that all of the major scientific bodies on the planet agree with the basic tenet of human-caused global warming, as do virtually all of the peer-reviewed published scientific papers on the subject.

The only excuse remaining is that he has been purposefully manipulative of the facts to support an ideologically driven agenda. And that contortion will cost human lives in Texas and beyond.

border fence
United States Border Patrol at Algodones Sand Dunes, California, USA. Image: U.S. Department of Homeland Security, courtesy of WikiCommons.

That Princeton team of researchers, I wrote at the time, suggested “that climate-induced crop failures in Mexico could force one in 10 residents of that country to flee to the United States as climate refugees in coming decades.”

Concurrent with such dire predictions of climate-induced displacement, Abbot and Bryan Shaw, outgoing chairman of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, wrote to the U.S. EPA that Texas has no intention of regulating greenhouse gas emissions responsible for altering the planet’s weather patterns and locking in higher temps and more extreme weather.

Carbon dioxide, the pair said, was merely a “trace constituent of clean air, vital to all life, that is emitted by all productive activities on Earth.” And that’s true. Just like that other life-giving molecule, H2O, is great until you’re submerged in the stuff for more than a few minutes without an air tank. (Those needing a primer on the basic science behind climate change, please see NASA’s Global Climate Change site.)

Some protested the publication of the Princeton paper, arguing that it had the potential to spark “xenophobia,” as if that fire of racism weren’t already alive and well on Capital Hill. As Congress debates finishing out a great wall across the nation’s southern boundary, it’s worth looking at the issue of human suffering and migration anew.

That Princeton team wrote:

Depending on the severity of crop losses, between 1.4 million and 6.7 million people would migrate to the United States by 2080. At the high end, that would represent a doubling of the current number of Mexican nationals already living and working in the United States. And, yet, the team’s numbers are likely low considering expected crop losses from climate change “are considerably larger” than those observed between 1995 and 2005, the years from which data was derived for the study’s methodology, the report concludes.

That paper’s findings have been repeated elsewhere and found support earlier this year in a more nuanced paper released by the Royal United Services Institute, “Climate Change, Migration, and Security: Best Practice Policy and Operational Options for Mexico (pdf).”

The RUSI authors restate the available climate projections from the Centre for Atmospheric Sciences (UNAM) that suggest a devastating 7.2-degree rise (Fahrenheit) in average temperatures in Mexico this century (as is expected globally under present policies). There’s also a concurrent decline in rainfall — particularly in Northern Mexico — of an estimated 11 percent.

Already an about 20 million people in Mexico are considered “food insecure” and as much as 400 square miles of farmland are lost to desertification in that country every year.

According to RUSI:

Empirical work on the topic is starting to suggest that the evidence base behind the phenomenon of CIM [Climate Induced Migration] is growing … [and] depending on how migrants are received in destination areas, tensions in social or political systems could emerge or be exacerbated; the most exposed systems being labour, water, food, energy supplies and health. … Migrating as adaptation to slow-onset disasters or rising sea levels could be long or short term, seasonal or permanent, internal or cross-border.

It’s not the time to avoid talking about migration. What is needed is plain talk about the inevitable hardship that today’s greenhouse-gas concentrations mean across political boundaries.

Like President Obama, Mexico’s President Enrique Peña Nieto recently unveiled the country’s proposed climate response plan that includes increased energy efficiency, greener cities, and more sustainable agriculture. The very first point of the plan, however, reducing the vulnerability of Mexicans living at risk, first put in motion in 2012, is already running far behind schedule.

According to the Inter Press Service:

Towns on Mexico’s Caribbean coast are behind schedule on the design and implementation of plans to face the challenges of climate change, in spite of the urgency of measures to reduce vulnerability.

The country’s 2012 General Law on Climate Change requires state and municipal governments to implement programmes addressing issues like greenhouse gas inventories and adaptation and mitigation policies.

IPS visited 37 coastal municipalities in the southeastern states of Tabasco, Campeche, Yucatán and Quintana Roo, and found that only six had specific programmes, 10 were in the process of creating them, and the rest said they were unaware of the requirement.

“The municipalities are waiting for the federal government to act, because they are completely overwhelmed,” said Lourdes Rodríguez, the founder of Marea Azul, an NGO working since 1992 to protect the ecosystem of Laguna de Términos, part of the country’s largest river basin, in Campeche. “They are doing very little; it’s all pretence,” she told IPS.

“The worst problems are on the coast, where there is erosion. There is a very serious demographic problem, because a lot of people are coming to work in the oil industry, and they are invading mangrove swamps to build houses and using just any materials as infill,” said the activist.

Of course the same climate that impacts Northern Mexico affects the Southwestern U.S. And the same climate risks that are bearing down on Mexico’s Gulf Coast are threatening the Gulf states in the U.S. (While Florida and Louisiana are actively seeking to protect their coastlines and coastal residents, Texas has done next to nothing, a recent paper found.)

We are all intensely vulnerable.

This unfolding monster generating so many dire predictions is increasingly being fingered in today’s extreme weather events.

Sadly, ideologically driven politicians like Abbott are playing dumb about the science while racist, anti-human security zealots are pressing for more walls and watchtowers.

What the science tells us is that from Texas to California, from Tamaulipas to Baja California, the scene of already intense militarization, more guns are not what is needed. What is needed are medical clinics, sustainable farming coops, places of shared humanity and support.

We don’t know for sure which way the displaced will be moving when the worst of what is built up in the atmosphere comes calling. But hopefully more of us will be like Los Diablos, those Mexican firefighters who regularly lend a hand inside the U.S. without so much as finding an official crossing.

Good neighbors are what make the best fences.


Today is the National Day of Action Against Border Militarization. Do something. Click the image above to find a way to lend your voice.

UPDATE (FRIDAY, JULY 19): Since publishing this post, a couple of you sent me this clip of the first feature-length documentary on the subject of climate refugees. According to The Video Project, Climate Refugees is “the first feature film to explore in-depth the global human impact of climate change and its serious destabilizing effect on international politics. The film turns the distant concept of global warming into a concrete human problem with enormous worldwide consequences.”