Turning to God in times of difficulty, Psalm 18 counsels the Christian believer, is a core feature of faith. “The Lord is my rock, and my fortress, and my deliverer,” it reads. But just as God is a loving figure who supplies a protective pillar, God is also the vengeful spirit who can crush the foundations upon which fortresses built. “Then the earth shook and trembled; the foundations also of the hills moved and were shaken, because he was wroth.”
Environmental catastrophe is nothing new. But climate change is newly testing humans’ willingness to respond to its consequences. In his captivating new book Storming the Wall: Climate Change, Migration, and Homeland Security, Todd Miller frames climate change as a frontal challenge to mutual assistance and emphatic love toward the downtrodden. What is left of the welcoming spirit of the Statue of Liberty if the tired, poor, huddled masses, “the homeless, tempest-tost,” are kept out of the United States? Can the statue continue to be called the “Mother of Exiles,” as Emma Lazarus wrote in her famous poem?
Miller offers a chilling look at the future of climate-induced migration, and pairs it with a damning review of the present that gives us much reason to doubt that, when islands sink and crops wilt, our better selves will win. In the simplest of words, a seventeen-year-old from Honduras who Miller meets in the southern Mexican town of Tenosique captures the catastrophic future. When asked why he left home headed for the United States, he said simply, “No hubo lluvia.” Without rain, there can be no crops; without crops, no food; and without food, no life. Is more explanation necessary? Only that rainless springs and ever-more-vicious storms are likely to increase. And when that happens, people are surely going to move in search of the possibility to live.
Climate refugees, as Miller and others describe people displaced by environmental catastrophes, will head to the United States and other industrialized nations. Not so much because we are unaffected by climate change, but because we have the money to insulate ourselves—technologically and militarily. Already we are trying to keep these spoils to ourselves. As Miller explains, the U.S. military and Department of Homeland Security don’t view climate change as a theoretical possibility. They view it as a present-day reality for which they have already spent years planning. To these government agencies, at least, climate change is a national-security threat that will only increase as dire climate news becomes routine. As with other national-security threats, the United States is poised to respond with surveillance and military might.
Others who have reviewed climate change’s likely impact on human migration turn to the law for comfort. Perhaps the universalizing principles of humanitarian law can be called upon to extend safe-harbor to climate refugees. I am skeptical, and Miller’s assessment illustrates why. As it currently stands, the law seems to offer little comfort. The international system of refugee protections developed in the aftermath of World War II. Since then, it has never lived up to its promise. Even the European Jews identified as the paradigmatic example of the worthy refugee did not receive protection. Clearly, they could not have benefited from a legal regime created in the Holocaust’s aftermath, but they might have benefited from the moral imperative to assist those in need. Whether through the concentration camp death lists or the passenger manifest of the St. Louis, a transatlantic ship carrying almost 1,000 German Jews turned away from U.S. shores in 1939, history recounts otherwise.
Besides, the refugee legal structure developed in the postwar spirit of cooperation is too narrow for the climate change challenge. As a legal matter, only people fleeing persecution for one of a short list—race, religion, nationality, social group membership, or political opinion—can be considered refugees. In the United States, asylum law imposes the same requirement. “To the on-the-ground immigration authorities…it means nothing that a new era of climate instability has begun,” Miller writes. “All that matters is whether or not a person has the proper documents.”
For asylum and refugee law to successfully accommodate the coming humanitarian crisis, it must evolve quickly—much faster than, say, human efforts to avoid climate change. New iterations of age-old crises suggest advocates have a lot of work to do. So much that calling people displaced by climate change “climate refugees,” might be counterproductive. Even if we were to add climate change to the list of reasons justifying safe harbor, would government adjudicators simply focus on the poverty that climate change will exacerbate in parts of the world to label those newcomers “economic migrants” unworthy of our welcome?
Rather than trying to jam the human face of climate change into existing asylum and refugee law that was not designed to recognize their experience, we might be better off turning to the possibility of collective organizing in opposition to nation-based parochialism. Instead of following the politics of insular tribalism that has given us climate change, might we face climate change’s effects with the universal humanitarianism that Emma Lazarus memorialized so beautifully? Here Miller runs short of examples. Perhaps that’s because there are so few. International borders are sites of violence—the avoidable type that comes at the end of a Border Patrol officer’s gun (and that the Supreme Court recently failed to tell us whether it can be remedied) or the inherent violence of dividing the world into discrete slices which largely dictate allocations of privilege and wealth, dignified living and inglorious dying.
In the era of climate change, the politics of migration are ripe for reexamination. Migration, Miller says, is a political act, and unauthorized migration an act of civil disobedience. As the industrialized nations lead the world into a permanent state of catastrophe, people who dare flout the legitimacy of legal regimes that seek to keep the spoils for the wealthiest are in effect engaging in a subversive politics.
Perhaps, but Miller may be making more of migration than is merited. Droughts, floods, more powerful storms, and their human impact are sure to increase the desire to leave the worst-affected parts of the globe. Perversely, climate change might also make it more difficult to do so. Migration requires enormous resources. A prospective migrant needs money to finance transportation and access to social networks that can lead the way. Currently, the most privileged—whether by wealth, gender, age, or race—are most likely to be able to tap these resources. The poorest are least able. As a report by the United Kingdom’s Government Office for Science declared in 2011, “Although women, the least educated and those with a low asset base are able to migrate, they have fewer options than asset-rich, educated males, and in some case are not able to migrate at all.” That disparity won’t disappear; it will instead sharpen.
Even within the wealthiest nations, there will continue to be a social hierarchy aligned along the familiar axes of privilege. Take the residents of Isle de Jean Charles. Tucked into Louisiana’s famous bayous, the sliver of land is fading into the Gulf of México. If they stay, its residents—about sixty members of the Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw tribe—face a bleak future of rising seas and more vicious storms. If they choose not to remain, they can partake of a $48-million pool of federal money to relocate. The people will survive, but the generations-old Native American community might not. “We’re going to lose all our heritage, all our culture,” the tribal chief said last year.
Pessimism runs deep and it is well-founded. Only this week, a chunk of Antarctica the size of Delaware broke free, creating one of the largest icebergs ever recorded. “Maps will need to be redrawn,” said the lead researcher for a team tracking its progress.
Still Miller insists on injecting hope into the dire narrative. With a religious-like commitment to the best features of the human spirit, he closes the book with a message to his young son. “It may be too late to organize for change,” he writes. “But, even so, you should not stop from daring to imagine something new. You should continue to be a counterforce for the common good…There has to be hope.”
It is a plea, a last attempt to grasp a lifeline. But perhaps not as doomed to failure as he suggests. Efforts to mitigate the toll of climate change are real. States and cities banding together to push the United States toward meeting its obligations under the modest Paris Agreement. People changing their farming practices to nurture water out of dry river beds. And, of course, there are the people who migrate and those who welcome the migrants. In these stories, most of which Miller recounts, there is hope.