This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com.
Texas, Florida, Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands. The U.S. got clobbered. Three category 4 or 5 Atlantic hurricanes of startling intensity, a record for any single season, whacked the country. Records were also set for rainfall and destruction. Two of those mega-storms, Irma and Maria, their power intensified by waters growing ever warmer thanks to fossil fuel emissions that continue to heat the atmosphere and the oceans, hit Puerto Rico, one glancingly, one full force. Then another hurricane (this time, a mega-storm of incompetence and negligence) completed the job. That, of course, was Hurricane Donald. As a result, three months after Irma first knocked out Puerto Rico's power and two and a half months after Maria completely trashed the place, only 66% of that population has had its electricity restored. The latest estimate: the whole island won't have it and other utilities fully up and working until at least February. (And if recent history is any judge, that's probably an optimistic estimate.) The conservative guess is that $94 billion in damage has been done to Puerto Rico, giving the term "the dark ages" a new meaning in the twenty-first century. All of this should remind us that we're living, as Todd Miller points out today, in an increasingly threatening new era.
Mind you, even as the planet's temperature rises, humanity continues to set records when it comes to dumping carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. And here's the grim irony that TomDispatch regular Miller explores in his latest post, as well as in his striking new book, Storming the Wall: Climate Change, Migration, and Homeland Security (which Dahr Jamail calls "essential reading" and Kirkus Review says is "a galvanizing forecast of global warming's endgame and a powerful indictment of America's current stance"): those least responsible for the damage, whether living in Bangladesh, Central America, or Syria, are feeling its brunt first. They're the ones who will be uprooted and turned into climate-change refugees. Then, in their desperate journeys in search of safety, they'll find doors slammed shut on them, walls built to stop them, and fingers pointed at them as if they were the plague, the worst of the worst.
That disparity in cause and effect can be felt even inside the United States. After all, Donald Trump would never have treated Hurricane Harvey's flooding in the Houston area the way he did the damage in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, whose governor he identified as its "president." (No, Donald, you are the president of the Virgin Islands and it is not a foreign land!) Behind such reactions lies a deep sense that "those" people are obviously not real Americans. Consider it an irony, then, that the inability to deal with damaged Puerto Rico like damaged Houston has led to the generation of this country's first true onslaught of climate refugees (though others have preceded them) -- tens of thousands of desperate islanders fleeing a home that has essentially ceased to function for the mainland U.S., especially Florida. Consider it a further irony that these are the only kinds of refugees Donald Trump can't even try to stop from "coming" to this country because, of course, they're already here. As for such refugees elsewhere, Todd Miller explains just what kind of dystopian nightmare is in store for them and, in a sense, for us all. As Bill McKibben says of Storming the Wall, "as this book makes crystal clear, people on the move from rising waters, spreading deserts, and endless storms could profoundly destabilize our civilizations unless we seize the chance to reimagine our relationships to each other." Tom
The Era of Walls
Greeting Climate-Change Victims With a Man-Made Dystopia
By Todd Miller
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.
The men hid momentarily as a Mexican army truck with masked, heavily armed soldiers drove by. Given Washington's pressure on Mexico to fortify its southern border, U.S. Border Patrol agents might have trained those very soldiers. As soon as they were gone, the Hondurans told me that they had been stuck here for six long days. The night before, they had tried to jump on La Bestia, but it was moving too fast.
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 than 76% 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."
Talking with those farmers in the Tenosique train yard felt, in a way, like a scene from a sequel to the movie The Road in which a father and son walk across a post-apocalyptic North America devastated by an unknown cataclysm. In reality, though, I was just in a typical border zone of the Anthropocene, the proposed new geologic era characterized by human activity as the dominant force on the climate and environment. And these young, unarmed farmers with failing harvests are now facing the only welcome this planet presently has to offer for such victims of climate change: expanding border regimes of surveillance, razor-wire walls, guns, and incarceration centers.
As they keep heading north, they will have to be on guard against ever more army and police patrols, while enduring hunger and thirst as well as painful separations from their families. They will have to evade endless roadside checkpoints, which Fray Toma's Tómas Gonza'lez Castillo, director of a nearby shelter for migrants in Tenosique, told me were almost "impossible" to avoid, at a time when, he noted, "organized crime" controlled the trains.
Such a predicament is hardly unique to the Mexico-Guatemalan border region or even the U.S.-Mexican version of the same. Think of the maritime divide between North Africa and the European Union or the Jordanian border where patrols now reportedly shoot at "anything that moves" coming from Syria -- or so a Jordanian official who prefers to remain anonymous told me. And Syria was just one of the places where the ever-increasing impacts of climate change, migration, and tightly enforced border zones intersected.
Now, homeland security regimes are increasingly unleashing their wrath on the world's growing numbers of displaced people, sharpening the divide between the secure and the dispossessed. Whether in Mexico or on the Mediterranean Sea, as ever more human beings find themselves uprooted from their homes and desperate, such dynamics will only intensify in the decades to come. In the process, the geopolitics and potentially the very geography of the globe will be reshaped. It's not just Donald Trump. Everywhere on Planet Earth, we seem to be entering the era of the wall.
According to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre, the "impact and threat of climate-related hazards" displaced an average of 21.5 million people annually between 2008 and 2015. The growing impact of the Anthropocene -- of intensifying droughts, rising seas, and mega-storms -- is already adding to a host of other factors, including poverty, war, and persecution, that in these years have unsettled record numbers of people. While many of the climate-displaced stay close to home, hoping to salvage both their lives and livelihoods, ever more are crossing international borders in what many are now calling a "refugee crisis."
"Catastrophic convergence" is the term sociologist Christian Parenti uses to describe this twenty-first-century turmoil, since many of these factors combine to displace staggering numbers of people. As Camila Minerva of Oxfam puts it, "The poorest and the most marginalized are five times more likely to be displaced and to remain so for a longer time than people in higher income countries and it is increasing with climate change."