Photo from – Demonstration in the Philippines against a coal plant in Vietnam

Review of Storming the Wall—Climate Change, Migration, and Homeland Security

By Todd Miller, City Lights press, 2017  (Review by Jack Lucero Fleck)

“The refugee movement is the movement of the 21st century”—Angela Davis

“Solidarity is not an alternative, it is not an option, it is our only chance”–Yeb Saño       

Those of us in the climate movement know that we are way past the safe level of 350 parts per million of CO2 in the atmosphere (we hit 410ppm earlier this year), and this means we will have increasing heatwaves, droughts, floods, storms, sea level rise and global climate chaos.

We are also aware that, as the planet continues to warm, many places will become unlivable and there will be hundreds of millions of climate refugees by mid-century; some estimates reach as much as one billion.  Clearly, this will be a crisis unparalleled in human history.

Todd Miller takes a close and uncompromising look at this impending crisis in his excellent book, Storming the Wall.  He travels to his grandmother’s homeland, the Philippines, as well as Central America, Mexico and the U.S. border to capture the current frightening reality.  He also visits homeland security expos where the military response to climate chaos is on display.

The Military Solution to Climate Refugees

He argues that there are two possible responses to the crisis, and the one that is dominant now is militarization.  “One of the most reliable forecasts for our collective future is that vast numbers of people will be on the move, and vast numbers of agents will be trained, armed, and paid to stop them.”

Many in the climate movement have noted that the military is not in denial about climate change the way right wing politicians are.  But, Miller argues, “while military analysts are superb risk assessors”, their findings were not being used to prevent large-scale ecological crisis.  Instead, the security apparatus worked hard to keep things the same in terms of economic, political, and social centers of power.  “Indeed, the massive adjustments were like a climate adaptation program for the rich and powerful.”

The climate ‘adaptation’ plan that is rarely mentioned is the militarized security apparatus that is preparing to enforce ‘order.’ “Displacement caused by intensifying environmental destabilization . . . will be met with militarized borders, armed guards, surveillance, incarceration, and forced expulsions.”

In this scenario escalating crisis is inevitable and the three G’s are the answer–guns, guards, and gates.  Miller describes the frenzy of contractors bidding on border control weaponry—“the increasing shift to robots, drones, nanotechnology, lasers, microwave weapons, space-based systems and “customized” nuclear bombs.”

The budget for border control is soaring – the 2017 Customs & Border Patrol budget of $14 billion almost equals combined budgets of FBI, DEA, US Marshals, and ATF (15.7 billion). And this doesn’t even count $6B for ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement), for a total of $20 billion for border and immigration enforcement—a 12 fold increase since 1990s.

Miller makes the nightmarish world of climate chaos personal when he interviews people such as a Honduran refugee.  When asked why he left Honduras, the answer was simply, “No hay lluvia.” (“there is no rain”). In a world where people are scraping by, living in poverty, and under brutal U.S. imposed dictators, surrounded by gangs and corruption, the addition of drought makes living there impossible.

But the military solution is to make leaving impossible. “The Honduran National Police deployed roadside blockades in border areas to stop Honduran children from leaving their own country.” And likewise, all of Mexico has become a border zone, with checkpoints throughout the country.  And, of course, getting across the razor wire wall at the U.S.border, then all of the border patrols in the deadly desert, and finally living as a criminal in the U.S. under constant fear of deportation makes fleeing climate chaos incredibly difficult.

Likewise, the East Coast is a militarized border.  While Haitians were digging themselves out of the rubble that killed 230,000 people and displaced more than a million in 2010, the message from US Homeland Security was clear: “If you leave, you will be arrested and returned.”  Miller states, “Mass detention and deportation are now rehearsed like war games on the high, rising seas south of Florida.”

There are even precedents for creating borders on state lines, as California did to stop impoverished Okies fleeing the dust bowl in the 1930s.  While this sounds unconstitutional, the Supreme Court ruled at that time that a State may exclude “persons likely to become a public charge.”  What will happen as southern Florida is swamped by rising seas and increasingly deadly hurricanes?  This will mean not thousands of refugees like Katrina, but millions, like Syria.

Globally, border control is big business.  Miller lists the top ten countries for climate risk—based on extreme weather events and climate related deaths—Honduras, Myanmar, Haiti, the Philippines, Nicaragua, Bangladesh, Vietnam, Pakistan, Thailand, and Guatemala—noting that this is “a list that often overlaps with the roster of border enforcement flashpoints.”

He describes how Israel has deployed ‘robo-snipers’ in its operations against Palestinian communities and has made a series of ‘auto-kill zones’ that use remote-controlled machine guns, motion sensors, and drones.

A World Without Borders

Are you scared yet?  I am!

But Miller does not leave us without hope.  Another world is possible.

“The problem of global warming doesn’t call for the further fortification of borders between countries, between people, or between the rich and the poor.  If anything, it calls for a dissolution of those borders. . . . We need cross-border hospitality and grassroots solidarity.”

The numbers give us a glimpse of what climate justice might look like.  Given that the United states is responsible for 27 percent of the world’s total carbon dioxide emission, the European Union for 25%, China for 11%, and Russia for 8%, we can see who has to step up to take the hundreds of millions of refugees that are coming.  Miller quotes Michael Garrard of Columbia University’s Climate Change Law, who proposes that, based on their total emissions, “each country should be obligated to take in an equal percentage of climate refugees.”  If the billion refugee figure is correct, that would be 250 million for the U.S.!

Such a proposal may seem absurd given Donald Trump’s playing to fear of immigrants with many, many fewer people involved.

But Miller argues that one of the ultimate tension points between climate justice and climate security is “an innate belief in the goodness of others.”  He quotes Rebecca Solnit’s reference to “elite panic” and points out that, to the 1%, climate migrants are more dangerous than climate disruption.  He argues that, in contrast to the “buzzing corporate world making a mint selling techno-borders across the globe” is “the idea of strangers being friendly, extending hospitality, breaking breadtogether, offering a bed, seemed radical in this context, yet nothing could be more ancient.”

He contends, “It is in cross border organizing–which rejects the nation-state frame–the real hope for change is located, defying a world that is artificially divided, coming together in potentially miraculous ways.”  He adds, “There is a slight chance. . . that we can break the notion that we are threats to each other, and that we have to surround ourselves with militarized borders we have created for ourselves in the Anthropocene.”

He joins Filipino climate leader Jeb Saño on a Peoples Pilgrimage from Rome to Paris right before the COP21 talks in 2015.  Just the week before the Pilgrimage he attended a huge border security expo in Paris.  He states, “The real tension between climate justice and climate security was summed up by the massive differences between the homeland security expo and the People’s Pilgrimage:  transformation versus fear; solidarity versus the status quo.

If people really are trapped in their cocoons, and unable to feel sympathy toward humanity, we are indeed sunk.  However, if people can see human suffering and react with compassion and support, as people have always done in countless disasters throughout history, then there is hope for passing this impending test of our ability to survive.