Thursday, December 07, 2017

"There Was No Rain"

Climate change refugees are on the march and they're coming not just from Africa or the Middle East or some low-lying atoll in the South Pacific, they're migrating poleward in the Americas too.

Todd Miller went to southern Mexico to interview climate migrants. Where are they from? Where are they headed? Given the dangers, why?

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-change refugees. We were 20 miles from the border with Guatemala at a rail yard where Central American refugees often congregated to try to board La Bestia (“the Beast”), the nickname given to the infamous train that has proven so deadly for those traveling north toward the United States.

 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 neither crops, nor a harvest, nor food for their families, an increasingly common phenomenon in Central America. In 2015, for instance, 400,000 people living in what has become Honduras’s “dry corridor” planted their 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.

For Central America, this was not an anomaly. Not only had the region been experiencing increasing mid-summer droughts, but also, as the best climate forecasting models predict, a “much greater occurrence of very dry seasons” lies in its future. Central America is, in fact, “ground zero” for climate change in the Americas, as University of Arizona hydrology and atmospheric sciences professor Chris Castro told me. And on that isthmus, the scrambling of the seasons, an increasingly deadly combination of drenching hurricanes and parching droughts, will hit people already living in the most precarious economic and political situations. Across Honduras, for example, more than76% of the population lives in conditions of acute poverty. The coming climate breakdowns will only worsen that or will, as Castro put it, be part of a global situation in which “the wet gets wetter, the dry gets drier, the rich get richer, the poor get poorer. Everything gets more extreme.”

“Although the exact number of people that will be on the move by mid-century 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.” And here’s the sad reality of our moment: for such developments, the world is remarkably unprepared. There isn’t even a legal framework for dealing with climate refugees, either in international law or the laws of specific countries. The only possible exception: New Zealand’s “special refugee visas” for small numbers of Pacific Islanders displaced by rising seas.

The only real preparations for such a world are grim ones: walls and the surveillance technology that goes with them. Most climate-displaced people travelling internationally without authorization will sooner or later run up against those walls and the armed border guards meant to turn them back. And if the United States or the European Union is their destination, any possible doors such migrants might enter will be slammed shut by countries that, historically, are the world’s largest greenhouse gas polluters and so most implicated in climate change. (Between 1850 and 2011, the United States was responsible for 27% of the world’s emissions and the countries of the European Union, 25%.)


I was just east of Agua Prieta in the Mexican state of Sonora, a mere 25 feet from the U.S.-Mexican border. I could clearly see the barrier there and a U.S. Border Patrol agent in a green-striped truck looking back at me from the other side of the divide. Perhaps a quarter mile from where I stood, I could also spot an Integrated Fixed Tower, one of 52 new high-tech surveillance platforms built in the last two years in southern Arizona by the Israeli company Elbit Systems. Since that tower’s cameras are capable of spotting objects and people seven miles away, I had little doubt that agents in a nearby command and control center were watching me as well. There, they would also have had access to the video feeds from Predator B drones, once used on the battlefields of the Greater Middle East, but now flying surveillance missions in the skies above the border. There, too, the beeping alarms of thousands of motion sensors implanted throughout the U.S. border zone would ring if you dared cross the international divide.

Only 15 years ago, very little of this existed. Now, the whole region -- and most of this preceded Donald Trump’s election victory -- has become a de facto war zone. Climate refugees, having made their way through the checkpoints and perils of Mexico, will now enter a land where people without papers are tracked in complex, high-tech electronic ways, hunted, arrested, incarcerated, and expelled, sometimes with unfathomable cruelty. To a border agent, the circumstances behind the flight of those three Honduran farmers would not matter. Only one thing would -- not how or why you had come, but if you were in the United States without the proper documentation.

Climate change, increased global migration, and expanding border enforcement are three linked phenomena guaranteed to come to an explosive head in this century. In the United States, the annual budgets for border and immigration policing regimes have already skyrocketed from about $1.5 billion in the early 1990s to $20 billion in 2017, a number that represents the combined budgets of Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and Immigration and Customs Enforcement. During that period, the number of Border Patrol agents quintupled, 700 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.

Such massive border fortification isn’t just a U.S. phenomenon. In 1988, 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 you’re talking about the Americas, Africa, the Middle East, or Asia.

As Paul Currion points out, even some countries that are only comparatively wealthy are building such “walls,” often under pressure and with considerable financial help. Take Turkey. Its new “smart border” with drought-stricken and conflict-embroiled Syria is one of many examples globally. It now has a new tower every 1,000 feet, a three-language alarm system, and “automated firing zones” supported by hovering zeppelin drones. “It appears that we’ve entered a new arms race,” writes Currion, “one appropriate for an age of asymmetric warfare, with border walls replacing ICBMs [intercontinental ballistic missiles].”

India is typical in constructing a steel wall along its lengthy border with Bangladesh, a country expected to have millions of displaced people in the decades to come, thanks to sea level rise and storm surges. In these years, with so many people on the move from the embattled Greater Middle East and Africa, the countries of the European Union have also been doubling down on border protection, with enforcement budgets soaring to 50 times what they were in 2005.

The trends are already clear: the world will be increasingly carved up into highly monitored border surveillance zones. Market projections show that global border and homeland security industries are already booming across the planet. The broader global security market is poised to nearly double between 2011 and 2022 (from $305 billion to $546 billion). And, not so surprisingly, a market geared to climate-related catastrophes is already on the verge of surpassing $150 billion.

This is the world that Gwynne Dyer described a decade ago in his book, "Climate Wars: The Fight for Survival As the World Overheats." In it, the author describes how the Pentagon plans to militarize America's coasts and land borders (to the south anyway). He also notes that American military planners are looking at ideas such as robotic, free fire killing zones where, out of sight and out of mind, would be migrants will be slaughtered.

It's fair to say that many Americans, perhaps most, are already conditioned, pre-disposed to see the brown peoples to their south as a peril. Trump tells them these illegals are rapists and worse. The time-honoured steps to dehumanize a targeted group are well underway and they're finding a receptive audience.

Also bear in mind what is happening in American society. The nation is being fractured, left (or what passes for left down there) and right. Some claim the American people haven't been so deeply divided since the Civil War. Social cohesion is being undermined and, to some extent, deliberately. The US has the highest rates of inequality - of wealth, income and opportunity - among the developed nations. There is a gaping divide between the plutocracy on one side and the precariat on the other. Some see in this the emergence of a true aristocracy and the evolution of a state of neo-feudalism. White supremacists and fascists now march freely through America's streets. These shifts do not a welcoming society engender.

Another powerful factor that will come into play will be the climate change plight that will be experienced by the American people across the southern states. Climatically everything is worsening. Severe storm events, hurricanes and tornadoes of worsening intensity. Severe weather events, floods and droughts, of increasing frequency, duration and intensity. The depletion of once abundant groundwater resources. Worsening heat events and fires. Sea level rise, storm surges and saltwater inundation. America is facing the real prospect of dealing with an internally displaced population, IDPs. In a country with America's standard of living that can be a hugely costly burden on the state, especially one that is now in the process of being defunded through tax "reform" and other bleed off mechanisms. If the society has to struggle to resettle its own IDPs, how likely is it to be welcoming to climate migrants from other lands?


Anonymous said...

Reading your last paragraph, I can readily foresee that Americans, despite denying entry to others from the south, will want free entry here into ‘cold’ Canada. We better start building our own wall. Now to get the Americans to pay for it. Mac

The Mound of Sound said...

There are plenty of Canadians who share your concerns, Mac.

Toby said...

I'm not ready to put up a wall or to ban immigration although I would like those seeking entry to do so through proper entry gates. I would very much like our government to tell us what their plans are when the mass migration escalates. As with the rest of the global warming issue, this seems to be ignored. As much as I can understand, there is no plan at all.

We are long past the days of free-for-all land development, or we should be. Much of what looks like empty land consists of rather delicate ecosystems. It is no longer acceptable to kill all the buffalo and move all the indigenous population onto reserves in order to make room for homesteading immigrants. There has to be more of a plan than showing up ant an airport and taking selfies.

Trailblazer said...

I'm not ready to put up a wall or to ban immigration although I would like those seeking entry to do so through proper entry gates. I would very much like our government to tell us what their plans are when the mass migration escalates.............................

I believe that the mass migration to worry about is not the political and climate change refugees from sub USA but the gun toting southern Americans who will be driven from their homes by climate change.
Oregon State is already seeing the results of such.
The USA has just passed legislation so that one can conceal a weapon and travel unhindered from state to state.
How soon before they demand the same access to Canada?
What we call their , American, lowest common denominator is quite acceptable within the USA but quite unacceptable in Canada.
When the southern radicals are moved north by climate change; expect guns and bibles at your door.
The JW's will look tame by contrast.


Trailblazer said...

For starters.


Toby said...

Trailblazer, I agree with you. Is anyone in our government making preparations for this? Has anyone even thought about it?

Trailblazer said...

If Oregon is concerned then so should we.

So far we have accommodated the deluge and may I say in a dignified way.
Touch wood; those that entered for the USA illegally have, so far, not created a problem.

The legal immigrants ( refugees) are ,with difficulty, blending in and from what I hear very grateful.

We , Canada , have and not without problems have welcomed immigrants much more generously and heartfelt than the USA who I think , in modern terms, have used immigration for cheap labour to prop up an economy and lifestyle for the rich and famous only for the middle classes!
The American dream!
Using cheap labour has always elevated the middle class Americans..