On the Front Lines of Climate Change

December 2, 2017   •   By Martha Pskowski

Storming the Wall

Todd Miller

IN 2015, as European nations repelled African and Middle Eastern migrants arriving on their shores, the United States was engaged in its own naval operations to ward off mass migration from the Caribbean. With current White House Chief of Staff John Kelly then at the helm of US Southern Command, more than 500 members of the joint military and homeland security task force ran a simulation designed to “prevent future mass migration.” In what the military described as “a migrant interdiction operation exercise,” the agents disguised themselves as immigrants attempting to enter the United States on rickety boats. As Todd Miller shows in his new book Storming the Wall, many nations are investing in border militarization to prepare for future population displacement caused by climate change, and the Caribbean and Sub-Saharan Africa are two of the most vulnerable sites for such transformations. The front lines of climate change overlap with the places where nations are fortifying their external borders and strengthening their internal security. Reporting from the Philippines, Southern Mexico, Honduras, Paris, and the US-Mexico borderlands, Miller weaves together the stories of displaced people and the militarization and securitization they encounter at national borders and within their own countries.

Storming the Wall is a highly personal, narrative-driven book. Miller’s reflections on the militarization of the US-Mexico border, for example, are vivid: in his hometown of Tucson, for example, the nearby Tohono O’odham indigenous people have been gradually fenced in on their own territory by US Customs and Border Protection. Miller’s examination of the aftermath of Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines is the most eye-opening section. When the Filipino government failed to reach rural areas devastated by the typhoon, local communities organized on their own, forming the “People Surge.” Yet, instead of welcoming this help, the central government began surveilling the activists, who were considered a threat to the regime. Then the military arrived and began murdering the movement’s leaders. Miller writes that his book’s meaning became clear to him when he interviewed the father of one activist who was extra-judicially killed in 2014: “I had come here following a story about climate change and militarization, but I don’t think I knew entirely what this meant, knew it with my body and my bones, until this interview.”

From the small towns of the Philippines, Miller traces the story of Haiyan survivors all the way to the 2015 UN climate negotiations in Paris, which took place in the shadow of the terror attacks just two weeks prior. The former climate negotiator for the Philippines, Yeb Saño, and his brother, who barely survived Typhoon Haiyan, arrived at the talks after a 60-day “People’s Pilgrimage” from Rome to Paris. They were greeted by a state of emergency declared after the attacks, with the full force of the French military and police on display in the streets. I too attended the Paris climate talks as a journalist. The scant discussion of climate migrancy was mostly organized by international social movements that had invited farmers from around the world to explain how droughts and storms were threatening their livelihoods. These groups also led marches in defiance of the state of emergency, while NGOs warned their members to stay away from protests. Two years after the Paris talks, the state anti-terror apparatus has only grown stronger, while international action on climate change has stalled.

Miller’s book brings the dilemmas of climate migrants and refugees out of the realm of policy makers and academics, painting a vivid picture of an increasingly stratified, fortified world. Climate change, often discussed in terms of degrees of temperature change and inches of sea-level rise, can often be hard to understand on an emotional level. Miller portrays the front lines of the issue in human terms: a young child on a low-lying island in the Philippines, a Honduran farmer whose crops have withered in a prolonged drought. Miller leads the reader through his own personal process of connecting the dots between militarization and climate change. Even while working on a different reporting project near Mexico’s southern border with Guatemala, he encounters climate refugees, interviewing a 17-year-old Honduran man who is heading north because the rainy season never materialized in his small farming town. As Miller’s book shows, the problem is ubiquitous, especially in the Global South.

Storming the Wall shows that even within the borders of the United States, weaponized authorities control mobility following natural disasters. He imagines what would happen if Phoenix, a city that by 2100 “can be expected to endure temperatures in excess of 100 degrees 163 days out of the year,” were to be evacuated due to a heat wave or deadly forest fires. He envisions Border Patrol checkpoints set up on the highway as the largely Latino population of Phoenix flees. “Borders,” he writes, “can be enacted quickly through road blockades and interrogating agents, and this has already begun.” The notion is not farfetched: Miller describes how people fleeing the Midwestern Dust Bowl in the 1930s were denied entry to California on the basis that the migrants were allegedly lazy and criminal and that California had already taken in too many people.

The book’s attempt to capture the complexity of climate-motivated migration around the world is hobbled somewhat by Miller’s failure to establish a rigorous definition of “refugees.” Miller likens victims of Hurricane Katrina and Sandy to climate refugees; yet, while I agree that some people may be criminalized within their own countries during climate crises, I think Miller would have been better off using the legal term for such populations: internally displaced peoples (IDPs). The difference between refugees and IDPs is not solely semantic, as development scholar Betsy Hartmann has argued in her 2017 book The America Syndrome. According to Hartmann, calling African Americans displaced by Katrina “America’s first climate refugees” is a highly racialized designation. “[W]e are being taught to fear the dark people global warming will supposedly set loose, on the move, whether from across the seas or within the borders of our own nation,” writes Hartmann. IDPs are not subject to the international laws protecting refugees, so understanding the distinct challenges they face is essential to insure their protection. In short, lumping US citizens into the “climate refugee” basket does them a disservice.

On the other hand, Miller’s vigorous questioning of who does and does not receive US humanitarian aid in the context of climate crisis is excellent. Miller’s book was released during the worst hurricane season in modern history: Harvey, Irma, José, Maria, and Nate wreaked havoc from Nicaragua to Barbuda to Puerto Rico to Houston. The Trump administration’s response to these disasters has made clear that black and brown victims will be silenced and sidelined, even when they are US citizens. Thus, although the bulk of the reportage contained in Storming the Wall was generated during the Obama presidency, the book’s lessons are even more crucial today, as President Trump has withdrawn from the Paris Climate Accord and is in the process of dismantling the Environmental Protection Agency. Meanwhile, the actions of Customs and Border Patrol are becoming more egregious by the day — be it denying reproductive rights to asylum seekers or detaining children with chronic illnesses for deportation.

The urgency of addressing climate change and border militarization is unquestionable, and Miller strikes the rare balance of alerting his readers to the threat without paralyzing them with fear. Along the lines of Rebecca Solnit’s argument in A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster (2010), Miller shows that, in emergencies, communities come together and display the best of human nature. Yet politicians and other policy makers are betraying these communities. In laying bare the political origins of climate change and population displacement, Storming the Wall makes clear that the solutions to these problems will have to be political. But solutions will not arise from international climate negotiators tabulating carbon emissions in air-conditioned conference centers; rather, it is the international grassroots — the people organizing from the Philippines to the Arizona borderlands — who are constructing alternatives to the fractured, militarized, inequitable world Miller’s book powerfully describes.


Martha Pskowski is an independent journalist based in Mexico City.