By Annie H. Hartnett
In one of my earliest memories, I am standing in front of my house on the coast of Mississippi watching the waves roil and swell, surging further and further up the beach toward me. The sky has already begun to bruise a purplish green and the wind is picking up. My father calls me by my nickname—“Herky!”—and I run to clamber into the back seat with my sister and our Siamese cat. My father pulls out of the driveway and heads north. It is 1969, just hours before Hurricane Camille makes landfall, and we are the last family on our street to evacuate.
For weeks after the storm, we lived with my grandmother. Eventually, we moved into a FEMA trailer until our home was livable again. Moves to Great Britain, Japan, and California followed. I estimate we moved approximately once every two to three years, going wherever my father’s job opportunities led.
Once retired, my parents returned to their home on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, only to be forced by Hurricane Katrina to move one final time. After that storm swept our house away completely, my mother decided to cut her losses and sell the oceanfront property my family had owned for almost one hundred years. I didn’t argue with her decision—despite the fact that it broke my heart—because I knew even then that climate change would cause sea levels to rise and hurricanes to become even more severe. I did not think of my family as climate migrants at the time.
Eventually, almost all of us settled in Texas; I’ve lived here for over thirty years now. And because I live in Texas, I find myself at the geographic center of what’s been referred to as the “immigration crisis.”
Fears about caravans of migrants crossing our southern border have been planted and exacerbated by the political rhetoric of state and national leaders. The president of the United States has held rallies during which he inspired and egged on cries of “Send them back!” and “Build the wall!” In fact, just since March, President Trump has spent $1.25 million on immigration-related Facebook ads warning of an “invasion.” Almost 10 percent of those ads were aimed at Texans.
On August 2, Governor Abbott sent a fundraising letter in which he told supporters “If we’re going to DEFEND Texas, we’ll need to take matters into our own hands” (emphasis his). This call to action was followed by statistics about the number of illegal immigrants apprehended crossing into Texas.
Predictably, on August 3, a young white man from a wealthy suburb of Dallas acted on the fears and hatred fomented by elected officials, driving 600 miles to a Walmart in El Paso where he shot more than 40 people—22 of whom have died. In a manifesto he posted shortly before the massacre, the shooter explained that he wanted to stop what he described as the “Hispanic invasion of Texas.”
In addition to fears of “white decline” and “race-mixing,” he expressed deep concerns about environmental degradation. Observing that Americans seem unwilling to reign in their overblown lifestyles, he concluded that “the next logical step is to decrease the number of people in America using resources.” He managed to decrease that number by 22.
As discussed previously on this site, the El Paso terrorist could be characterized based on his manifesto as an eco-fascist. Eco-fascism is an ideology that marries white supremacy with environmentalism and traces its roots to neo-Nazism. Favoring Third Reich rhetorics of “Blut und Boden” (“Blood and Soil,” chanted at the August 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville), eco-fascists oppose multiculturalism and migration, believing that “races” of people should live separately in the regions where they originated.
Like the El Paso shooter, many eco-fascists believe that reducing the population—specifically non-white groups—is the only way to ensure Earth’s survival. While not all eco-fascists support mass murder and genocide, many stridently oppose migration and advocate deportation of immigrants.
Eco-fascism, then, is the mirror opposite of environmental justice, which maintains that no group of people–historically people of color and poor people generally–should bear a disproportionate share of the negative environmental consequences resulting from industrial operations and governmental policies.
Eco-fascists, in fact, seem to hold that those who have been least responsible for climate change, i.e. those in developing nations, should suffer its effects the most.
While eco-fascists—with their regressive views, fetishization of Norse mythology, and Twitter profiles bristling with fir tree emojis—might seem laughable, their ideology is thriving. And as we saw in El Paso, any ideology that inclines people to see mass murder as the “next logical step” is dangerous.
Unfortunately, while their beliefs are dangerous and morally reprehensible, their fears about climate crisis are not baseless. The climate is changing, and resources of every kind will undoubtedly become scarcer. As a recent United Nations report warns, many people around the world will be forced to choose between starvation and migration. Some, including many of the migrants crossing our southern border in the last few years, have already been forced to make that choice.
In 2016, the United Nations estimated that more than 1.6 million people in Central America faced constant food insecurity because of climate change. In 2017, a survey of Central American migrant families conducted by the World Food Program found that nearly 50 percent had chosen to leave their homes and migrate because of a lack of food. The number of climate refugees from Central and South America will undoubtedly only increase.
Ironically, many of those in Texas clamoring to curtail migration from Central America by tightening border security and deporting those who do make it across the Rio Grande may soon be forced to migrate themselves. And for exactly the same reasons—climate and economics.
In thirty years, three cities in Texas—McAllen, Laredo, and Brownsville—are projected to see more dangerously hot days than any other U.S. cities. Other Texas cities do not fare much better. Projections also indicate that by 2050, Texans will live with the worst overall wildfire threat. Meanwhile, Galveston and other coastal cities are expected to be vulnerable to both rising sea levels and increased risk of hurricanes.
Most significant, however, is Texas’s susceptibility to drought. Our state is projected to face the worst widespread summer droughts in the nation. A 2018 report from the United States Global Change Research Program predicts that droughts could bring “future conditions possibly drier than anything experienced by the region during at least the past 1,000 years.”
The report also warns that such droughts could deplete Texas water resources. “Drought more persistent than that experienced in the region’s recent history would trigger large social and economic consequences, including shifting agriculture, migration, rising commodity prices, and rising utility costs,” reports the Fourth National Climate Assessment.
Although predictions vary, and you should always do your own research, many climate scientists agree that Texas will experience the most days of dangerous heat, the worst overall wildfire threat, and the worst threat of widespread drought in the entire nation. Yet, we have done little to prepare for any of these climate emergencies.
In fact, in terms of actions taken to mitigate and prepare for climate-related threats, Texas is way behind other states. We have failed to conduct a statewide climate change assessment and have no plan in place.
Obviously, not only Texans’ quality of life but also our economy will be affected by the climate crisis. Health, crop yields, infrastructure, and the power grid will all be negatively affected by climate change and the attendant heat, wildfires, storms, and drought. A recent government report estimates that U.S. GDP could take a 10 percent hit by the end of this century.
But that figure reflects GDP across the entire United States. Texas—due to its greater vulnerability both in terms of climate realities and failure to plan ahead—will be hit much harder. A Stanford Study is even bleaker, estimating that there is a 50 percent likelihood that overall GDP in the U.S. will decline by 28 percent by 2100. The outlook for Central and South America is even worse.
So, what are we to do? Obviously, we should recommit to the Paris Climate Accord and do everything in our power to reduce emissions, to plan, and to prepare. But should we also close our borders and turn our country into a giant fortress protected by a steel and concrete wall, as our president, governor, and eco-fascists like the El Paso shooter would have us do?
In answer, another memory comes to mind. After Hurricane Camille had forced my family to evacuate, we had taken shelter in a Best Western motel. The rooms all had picture windows, and the first thing my engineer father did when we walked into ours was to pull the mattress off the bed and wedge it up against that big sheet of glass.
Within hours the sky had darkened to almost black and the wind had not only ripped up palm trees, it had also shattered a majority of those picture windows—but not ours. Pretty soon, people started knocking on our door. And every time someone knocked, my father opened that door and let them in—until in addition to the four of us, more than 20 people and a standard poodle somehow found space for the night in our double room.
My father had assessed the situation and prepared for the worst by making our room as safe as he could with what he had. And then he welcomed in anyone who needed shelter from the coming storm.
Annie H Hartnett is a writer, activist, volunteer with the Sierra Club Borderlands Team, and Editorial Director of Why Are You Marching, Texas? Previously, she has published essays and op-eds in Salon, the Austin American-Statesman, and Texas Parks and Wildlife Magazine, among others. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Texas State University. Follow her on Twitter @anniehnet.