Climate Change and the Era of Mass Displacement
Header image of coastal wreckage left in Hurricane Dorian's wake.
A common refrain you hear among political commentators is that the United States has no climate change policy. This is fundamentally inaccurate. While the Trump administration has engaged in overt climate change denial while purging climate science from government publications, it has also made abundantly clear its proposed response to pending ecological collapse. And it is one that is shared tacitly on some level by almost all developed nations.
This might seem like a contradiction in terms - how does one devise a solution to a problem you refuse to acknowledge? The answer is that it is entirely possible to craft responses to the consequences of climate change even if you deny their origins.
Earth’s average temperature has risen one degree celsius - roughly 1.8 degrees Fahrenheit - since the advent of the industrial revolution. This has led to direct repercussions. As we’re witnessing with growing intensity and frequency, rising global temperatures are causing drought, wildfires, and extreme weather events. Assuming climate change continues unabated, these will result in previously habitable regions becoming partially or completely unlivable, whether due to lethal heat, flooding, agricultural collapse, or a host of other calamities.
Human populations settled in regions whose climates have been stable and predictable for millennia will be partially or entirely uprooted - a pattern that is only set to accelerate as the Earth’s temperature continues to rise. The primary cause of anthropogenic climate change - the mass release of greenhouse gases into the Earth’s atmosphere due to human activity - has only increased on an annual basis over the preceding decade.
Among a host of consequences, the rise in the earth’s temperature has exacerbated the potency of hurricanes and tropical storms. The tropical cyclone that formed in the Caribbean in August 2019 - Hurricane Dorian - was the most intense of its kind to ever strike the Bahamas and the most devastating natural disaster in the country’s history. According to U.N. estimates, the storm left 76,000 Bahamians homeless and destroyed the livelihood of most of the island nation’s citizens.
The U.S. has a history of granting Temporary Protected Status (TPS), a form of transient asylum, to refugees of armed conflict or natural disasters. Every U.S. administration has granted TPS in some form since its enactment in 1990. Except the Trump White House immediately shot down the prospect of granting sanctuary to Bahamians whose homes were destroyed in Hurricane Dorian’s wake - with Trump himself demonizing storm refugees as consisting of “very bad people and some very bad gang members and some very, very bad drug dealers."
Like most everything that comes out of Trump’s mouth, this didn’t make an ounce of sense. The Bahamas is not a key narcotics transit route into the United States. Except, like most everything that comes out of Trump’s mouth, accuracy, lucidity, and cogent analysis wasn’t the point.
While loathsome and unjustifiable, this amounts to what is effectively a climate change policy. The Trump administration’s sabotaging of environmental regulations and slavish fealty to fossil fuel conglomerates mixed with reflexive hostility to climate refugees is particularly extreme, but nevertheless amounts to what is becoming default across most industrialized nations. We are now entering an era of climatic upheaval whose first progeny is a refugee crisis of unprecedented scale, and the countries most culpable for the climate crisis are responding by turning up the heat and slamming their doors.
Mechanisms of Action
Human industrial development and technological civilization have been sustained almost entirely by the burning of hydrocarbons - oil, coal, and natural gas - as a means of fueling transit, manufacturing, and electricity generation. Rail transit and the first industrial factories across Europe and the United States were sustained largely by coal-powered steam engines. A transition towards incorporating petroleum as a major fuel source further accelerated the rate of production and transit, yielding the industrialized economies that have emerged on a now-global scale.
On a molecular level, coal, oil, and natural gas are an effective fuel source due to the sheer amount of energy released when their chemical bonds are broken under heat. Power plants that run off hydrocarbons create electricity by heating their chosen fuel source and harnessing the resulting energy as current that charges entire cities and grids. Similarly, rail, automobile, ship, and air transit are now fueled almost exclusively by burning some form of coal or petroleum.
This has other immediate effects. A secondary consequence of burning hydrocarbons as fuel is the release of carbon dioxide as a molecular byproduct. Carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases like methane have aggregated in the Earth’s atmosphere since the advent of the industrial revolution, with humanity’s increasing reliance on fossil fuels only accelerating the amassing of Co2.
Greater volumes of atmospheric carbon dioxide and methane act as an insulation mechanism, retaining greater amounts of solar heat that would otherwise escape the Earth’s stratosphere. This produces what is referred to as the “greenhouse effect”, where aggregation of greenhouse gases leads to a steady increase in the Earth’s temperature on a global scale - a phenomenon that unleashed record summer temperatures in 2019 across regions spanning from Scandinavia to the Indian subcontinent.
In summary, it would be scientifically impossible for the monolithic consumption of hydrocarbons to not yield a rise in the Earth’s temperature.
What we’re witnessing at this point is the past 300 years of industrial development collapsing inwards on itself. The same processes that allowed rapid structural growth are now poised to cause widespread systemic collapse in everything from agriculture to urban planning concurrent to these climatic and ecological consequences. The longer humanity continues its colossal rate of hydrocarbon consumption, the more extreme these will become.
Primary among these will be droughts and eventual desertification of regions whose climates are unable to tolerate the rising heat. As we’ve seen across both California and Australia, seasonal wildfires are escalating in severity and scope - resulting in a scale of destruction and evacuation without precedent. The most worrisome recent development has been a series of bushfires across Australia following years of drought, with 2020 providing the highest recorded temperatures in national history. The wildfires spread with such unimpeded fury that Sydney, Australia had become almost entirely surrounded by December 19, 2020, leaving only two routes of potential evacuation.
Drought and heatwaves are having a similar impact on a global scale - including an increasing risk of uncontrollable forest fires across sub-Saharan Africa. The loss of grasslands to rising temperatures throughout Angola and the Congo has caused an interruption in the slash-and-burn style of agriculture that has been practiced throughout the region for the entirety of its known history. Farmers throughout central Africa are now starting to burn down rainforests in the place of grasslands to create fertile soil from the ashes, which risks spiraling into out-of-control forest fires that burn far beyond the intent of these controlled blazes.
Climate change is poised to inaugurate a collapse in global food production and the agricultural supply chain, interrupting crop production and lowering or eliminating yields due to drought, unpredictable weather, and a decline in soil quality. This is a problem not restricted exclusively to sub-Saharan Africa, but potentially every fertile stretch of the globe. The economic and human consequences of this would be devastating, due in no small part to the fact that some of the world’s most populous nation-states - including Russia, Saudi Arabia, South Korea, Japan, and Great Britain - are heavy net importers of agricultural products and would be at risk of shortages or even starvation were this to occur.
Which is to say nothing of the consequences of rising sea levels due to rapidly melting polar ice caps. Average global sea levels have risen over three inches since 1993, and current projections have outlined that sea levels will rise an additional foot at minimum by 2100 - assuming greenhouse gas emissions remain consistent, which they are manifestly not. The majority of the world’s most populous cities rest near coastline, a longstanding aftermath of trade and nautical transport seeding population centers.
A far greater proportion of the human population is now aggregated in cities than ever before as a consequence of the industrial revolution and ensuing decades of urbanization. The United Nations estimated that 2007 was the first year in human history when more of the world’s population lived in urban centers than the rural periphery. Current projections maintain this number will only increase - with two-thirds of the entire human population predicted to live in urban areas by 2050. This is a potentially explosive trend in light of coastal population centers bearing the most immediate and harshest consequences of rising sea levels.
Which is not to say the world’s rural areas are positioned to fare much better. As mentioned above, drought and unpredictable weather patterns would wreak havoc on agricultural yields, taking an especially devastating toll on populations who rely on subsistence farming for livelihood and sustenance. Subsistence farmers and herdsmen (estimated at 2 billion human beings as of 2015) make a disproportionate total of the world’s rural population, most of whom have historically endured lives of constant precarity. The climatic and ecological consequences of global warming risk uprooting increasing numbers of the world’s rural poor, forcing them towards more temperate regions as droughts shutter their livelihoods and devastate once reliable water sources.
This is already starting to occur, with environmental degradation contributing to the northward flight of refugees from Central America to the United States. Rural populations from the warmer climes of Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador are witnessing rising temperatures degrade agriculture yields and local farming economies due to newfound anomalies in rainfall, decline in soil quality, and increasing susceptibility of crops to disease. Similarly, rising sea levels are destroying local mangrove forests and the aquatic life that relies on them, degrading the region’s fishing economy as well.
What has been the U.S. response to Central American refugees? Overt hostility and abuse, the extent of which has been thoroughly documented. As mentioned before, America has been the world’s leading producer of carbon emissions - only recently surpassed by China - yet is sustaining a policy of rejection and cruelty towards populations fleeing to its borders on account of the environmental consequences. With the United States only escalating its hydrocarbon consumption, the default response of the world’s preeminent superpower seems to be worsening the climate crisis while abusing its most immediate victims.
This, unfortunately, is not an isolated response. We’re witnessing a policy of fortress isolation among the world’s most powerful nations concurrent to a global rise in right-wing nationalism. This is manifesting most ominously in the development of an ideological tendency that in this context has been dubbed “eco-fascism” - a response to the climate crisis that is, essentially, fascistic. Rather than a more egalitarian model that addresses the roots of the climate crisis and seeks to ameliorate them through economic reorganization, an eco-fascist response takes the position that ostensibly inferior or alien populations may need to be eliminated for the benefit of more deserving ethnic or national groups.
There are various reasons why an eco-fascist worldview is gaining currency. As a preliminary, it in no way challenges established wealth or capital - and instead places blame and consequence not onto the propagators of our climate crisis, but on the powerless victims like rural populations from economically underdeveloped countries. As has historically been the case with any strain of fascist ideology, the miseries inflicted by the wealthy and powerful have been instead blamed on those with the least political and economic currency as an act of displacement that preserves existing hierarchies and power structures for the sake of their beneficiaries.
We see this happening with a stunning degree of openness in the United States. Donald Trump has been an obedient servant of American fossil fuel conglomerates, dedicating his presidency to loosening environmental regulations that might force even the most minor concessions in their profit lines and business model. Simultaneous to this, his response to refugees of any stripe has been a noxious form of dehumanization mixed with escalation in the brutality of U.S. migration and detainment policy.
It would be convenient if this paradigm somehow originated from within the Trump administration alone, except fossil fuel corporations have been lobbying aggressively to strike down environmental regulations while promoting climate science denial since the 1980s. Acceptance of climate science used to be a bipartisan consensus between both wings of the American two-party system, with George H.W. Bush favoring a conservative market-oriented solution to climate regulation during his presidency. While falling short, this policy at least acknowledged the looming seriousness of the crisis at hand. This has changed in the interim, and the wholesale Republican subservience to fossil fuel conglomerates and overt embrace of white nationalism is set to feed into darker consequences.
I’d argued in an earlier piece that cruelty against migrants in U.S. detainment is poised to eventually transform into a mass atrocity. With mass atrocities of any scale, there is almost always a definitive tipping point that pushes a history of demonization and abuse towards larger-scale death. It is clear that environmental collapse would be this tipping point. In the case that unimpeded climate change devastates the world’s agricultural systems and rural economies, the poorest Central American populations would have nowhere else to flee except the relative wealth and cooler temperatures of the United States.
America, already forced to contend with certain internal consequences of ecological collapse, would most likely refuse entry or aid to the desperate populations seeking refuge within our borders - forcing them instead into our extensive network of detainment centers. Treated as a worthless, hateful, and invasive population, these migrants would likely be denied food, water, and medical care and effectively left to die under detainment. This might seem like a farfetched conclusion, but we’re already witnessing clear precedent to this. Even under the relative lack of strain amidst current conditions, Central American migrants are being denied adequate nutrition and thrown into cramped, unsanitary quarters. A group of doctors who attempted to visit a Customs and Border Patrol holding facility in December 2019 to deliver flu vaccinations were turned away by its guards - an unconscionable act considering how many migrants have perished from disease in U.S. holding throughout 2019 alone.
These trends are in no way limited to the United States. South Asia is slated to be especially hard-hit by climate change, with the subcontinent already experiencing near-unlivable heat waves during the summer months. India is the world’s second most populous nation, with an estimated total of no less than 118 million of its citizens drawing sustenance as farmers. Droughts and water loss have the potential to utterly devastate the region, which is to say nothing of what an increasingly severe monsoon season would do to the subcontinent.
It’s worth noting that India, like Australia, continues to be a massive consumer of coal as a fuel source despite the toll climate change is already taking on the country.
India, the region’s greatest power, has preemptively crafted various policies to buttress itself at the expense of its neighbors. Most infamous among these has been the construction of an armed border wall that encloses the near-entirety of Bangladesh from India. Bangladesh is one of the world’s most low-lying countries, and would be destroyed amidst rising ocean levels and increasingly extreme monsoons. The creation of a militarized border wall to prevent displaced Bangladeshis from seeking refuge in India would effectively turn the country into an open-air detainment center if and when its economy, agriculture, and political system collapses under the weight of unmitigated climate change.
It’s also worth noting that Bangladesh, like its western counterpart in Pakistan, is an overwhelmingly Muslim country. India has descended into an era of jingoistic Hindu nationalism under Prime Minister Narendra Modi, a man long-accused of complicity in the horrific 2003 pogroms against Muslims in the western Indian state of Gujarat during his time as provincial governor. His avowed Hindutva ideology touts the superiority and rightful dominance of India’s Hindu majority, a policy that has coincided with Modi attempting to harden India’s borders against Bangladesh and Pakistan.
It should also be noted that India is in the process of simultaneously stripping citizenship from Muslim residents and building massive detainment camps towards immigrants or those otherwise deemed national outsiders. This has occurred simultaneous to India’s unilateral annexation of Kashmir in October 2019, a land seizure that will give the country directorship of Kashmir’s water reserves in the face of future scarcity. The architecture for India’s version of a brutal climate change response is already well in place.
The potential for climate change to unleash war and conflict deserves an article unto itself, but the threat of violent confrontation amidst mass displacement and dwindling resources is so severe that it has been repeatedly cited by the U.S. Department of Defense as a critical national security issue. Let alone what would occur when central governments weaken under the pressures of climate change, and localized warlords or insurgencies begin scrambling to claim land and resources amidst the ensuing power vacuum.
At its darkest conclusion, we’re moving towards an era of atrocities that can only be categorized as climate genocides. Drought, starvation, heatstroke, agricultural collapse, flooding, increasingly extreme weather events, wildfires - among a bevy of other environmental consequences - could yield displacement and death on a global scale. More powerful and well-protected countries are positioned to ingrain a policy of detainment and rejection towards climate refugees. In more extreme cases, this may even lead to overt violence against populations deemed to be undeserving in the face of dwindling resources and newfound competition for freshwater and food. Except the origins of this mass death - the untrammeled consumption of hydrocarbons by the world’s most powerful nations and international conglomerates - will be obscured in a chain of causality while the global poor suffer its brunt.
Borders are imaginary lines in the dirt sustained by power and threat of violence. But they will become very real in the face of growing scarcity and the belief that those cast as outsiders or undesirables may just have to die.
Averting the Worst
We are faced with a twofold potential response to the human consequences of climate change - either do nothing to ameliorate rising global temperatures, or simultaneously decrease our consumption and excess production while transitioning towards more sustainable energy sources. The first of those options will lead to the cataclysms outlined above. The second can avert them.
To emphasize a point - there is no centrist response to climate change. Centrism, at its essence, amounts to the defense and perpetuation of existing power and political structures. This is the historical reason why the political center and entrenched capital have typically deferred to the right wing in the face of demands for more radical left-wing reforms. The upheavals yielded by untrammeled fossil fuel consumption and ecological collapse will eventually demand an extreme response, one that is currently trending far closer to border militancy and eco-fascism. Assuming measures are not taken to address the root causes of climate change, a global era of violent right-wing border militancy and ensuing mass death will become the default.
This is a quandary without precedent in human history, and will require a total reevaluation of our approach to consumption and industrial organization. It will also necessitate a transition away from this focus on often abstract “growth” as a singular economic principle. Endless growth in the face of finite resources is effectively a contradiction in terms. We’ve also reached an odd phase in human development across much of the industrialized world, one that appears to be a degenerating and autophagic era of capitalism. This, needless to say, is horribly ill-equipped to confront a looming ecological crisis.
To return to the United States, some of our most highly-valued new companies have done little more than cannibalize preexisting industries while staying afloat atop an artificial flood of venture capital. Both Uber and WeWork fit this model perfectly - neither have ever proven consistently profitable, and have done little more than subsume the taxi industry and urban real estate respectively. New tech giants like Facebook have amounted to an amoral panopticon rendered profitable only by poaching and centralizing digital ad revenue. These companies offer little or no genuine value for human development, and serve instead as mechanisms for entrenching monopolies and enabling our current era of upwards wealth transfer.
It should be noted that Uber has contributed to urban clog and an increase in carbon emissions throughout major cities, while WeWork was largely bolstered by Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund - itself a singular creation of the country’s oil industry.
It is going to require a radical break from this sort of nihilistic economic model towards a focus on environmental sustainability if we at all want to avert a pending catastrophe. This is a far more in-depth topic than could be encompassed within a single article, though political scientists like Naomi Klein and Vacliv Smil have already produced an impressive body of work describing the foundations of a more sustainable future. As a baseline, this transition will require a certain degree of sacrifice and market intervention, an uncomfortable proposition for Americans who have been raised on the gospel of endless consumption as their birthright. While a challenging prospect, this will be infinitely preferable to the alternative.
In the face of ecological collapse, the right wing has nothing to offer aside from science denial and bigoted ethno-nationalism in defense of rapacious capital. While the world’s poor will bear the most immediate impact of climate change, unmitigated global warming will eventually impact even those cloistered away in more developed and self-secluding nations. And when this occurs, the most wealthy citizens within these countries will likely find ways to further shelter themselves or escape at our expense. Self-interested oligarchs like Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk don't appear to be exploring space travel and Mars colonization out of empathy and love for humanity as a whole. They’re looking for a final refuge, similar to how those among their cadre like Peter Thiel are now building elaborate survivalist compounds.
Touting the superiority of your assumed ethnic or national group while asserting the worthlessness of all others is a significantly less challenging response than genuinely addressing the roots of climate change. Putting up walls while further accelerating fossil fuel consumption may seem like a reprieve, but it only delays and exacerbates the ultimate consequences for those living behind them. The more quickly and comprehensively action is taken, the less extreme the potential sacrifices and reorganization will be. At this point in time the science is conclusively known. The challenge lies not in awareness, but in confronting the powerful elements who have a vested interest in opposing concerted action against climate change.
One of the most challenging questions in planetary astronomy is the Fermi Paradox. Named after Italian physicist Enrico Fermi, the Fermi Paradox attempts to ask why, in light of the high likelihood of life on other planets, humanity has not come into contact with any form of extraterrestrial intelligence. There have been many proposed answers - they live too far afield for interstellar travel, habitable planets are not as common as assumed, they find our violence worrisome and would not see us as worthy of contact, or extraterrestrial life would be too alien for us to recognize as such. Yet one especially troubling conclusion remains - that it might be inherent to the nature of intelligent life to destroy itself.
There could be a twofold cause of this. Either intelligent life risks eliminating itself amidst apocalyptic warfare, or might destroy its own advanced civilization through irreversible environmental degradation - leading to extinction or a collapse and regress into pre-industrial society. Despite inventing nuclear weapons, humanity seems to have at least temporarily averted the first option. What we’re contending with right now is the second.
Human beings are terribly flawed creatures. We are far more clever than we are wise, adept at temporary adaptations while often oblivious to long-term development. Our fleeting lifespans and inevitable mortality produce an inherent solipsism - explaining in part why climate change is held as a dire crisis by young people and laughed off most widely amongst their elders.
We are also disconcertingly prone to tribalism and violent competition along assumed ethnic or national lines, hence why a demagogue like Jair Bolsonaro insists on culling the Amazon Rainforest in the name of national development and global eminence even as it destroys the planet. One of the greatest impediments to degrowth and energy transition is a particularly ugly version of the free-rider problem - amidst great power competition, what incentive does the U.S. or China have to scale back if this might give the opposing empire a global edge? Which is to say nothing of the colossal emissions the U.S. war machine produces on an annual basis.
These are profound challenges, ones we will need to find some way to collectively overcome. I say this not as a starry-eyed idealist, but out of a cold understanding that the alternative will be cataclysm. Climate change is the Fermi Paradox in action, and the question remains whether we defer to the better angels of our nature or succumb to tribalism. To solve this is to determine if human civilization as we know it ends within the next 200 years or flourishes for the next two million. For all our manifest flaws, humanity deserves far more than to be gone in the blink of a cosmic eye.