What Will Become of Climate Refugees in the Age of Trump?

By Leila A. McNeill

Feminism for me has never been just the political, social, and economic equality of the genders; it has been about dismantling the patriarchal system, in its various permutations, that creates and sustains inequalities. Interest in climate action and the food industry rose in concert with the solidification of my feminism in my early 20s. I saw a capitalist patriarchy inherent in a food industry that treated animals and workers, especially immigrant workers, as dispensable grist in the mill of production, while simultaneously stripping the earth and pumping methane and carbon dioxide into the atmosphere through factory farming. Patriarchy then extends even to our beautiful planet evidenced through anthropogenic, anthropocentric, climate change. For me, the stripping of the planet, women’s rights, immigrant rights, and workers’ rights are inextricably connected.

What Trump has done in his first week of office shows that he is keeping his campaign promises of setting this world on fire. With the swish of his pen, Trump has issued gag orders on federal agencies like the Environmental Protection Agency, US Department of Agriculture, The National Parks Service, Department of the Interior, and others. They have been ordered to remove climate data from their websites and not to share any information related to climate science from their social media accounts or with the media at large. He has also made moves to follow through on his promise to build a border wall between Mexico and the US, a wall that many of us knew all along we would have to pay for. With more immediate impact, he also signed executive orders targeting immigrants and refugees, stripping them of privacy protections and banning people from select Muslim majority countries from entering and re-entering the US. That climate science and immigration policy took center stage in his first week is no coincidence.

For decades, the Republican party has scapegoated immigrants as job stealers and Black people as drains on the system living high on the hog off taxpayer dollars. They laid the groundwork for Donald Trump to kick up a cloud of vehement hate veiled as economic anxiety, while never implicating the system of capitalism and the deindustrialization of the American workforce from which they continue to profit. Trump has said he will also keep a weekly list of crimes committed by immigrants in sanctuary cities—a strategy Hitler used in Nazi Germany to criminalize the whole of the Jewish people—while ignoring the police killings of Black people and the hate crimes committed by white rage. Brown and Black people have been collectively coded as hostile, dangerous criminals.

In an age of anthropogenic climate change, however, it is the very people Trump vilifies as criminals and terrorists who will most endure the effects of climate change—floods, droughts, food shortages, to name a few. When these cataclysmic events ramp up, though they have already started, we will see an immense humanitarian crisis as climate refugees of the Global South migrate northward and clash over limited resources within their own homelands.

During the presidential primary, Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders connected climate change to humanitarian crises and terrorism saying, “If there is not enough water, if there is not enough land to grow your crops, then you’re going to see migrants of people fighting over land that will sustain them, and that will lead to international conflict.” This, of course, makes perfect sense, but the little attention this received among both Democrats and Republicans was disappointing. This is a national conversation that needs to happen, and Trump, just with the actions of his first week, will force us to have it.

In part, the refugee crisis that will result from extreme weather events is of our own making. The “developed” world has set in motion some of the most consequential anthropogenic events, beginning with its imperial colonization of the globe to the rise of industrial capitalism. Today, the “developed” world continues to emit the majority of the world’s greenhouse gases, but the effects will be felt most acutely by the most vulnerable of the Global South. The US has been slow to adopt sensible policy to mitigate climate change. And now under Trump, conditions around the world will worsen. Native Americans suffer disproportionately with pipelines that run under indigenous lands and water sources, while the Global South become invisible victims of a war we refuse to acknowledge exists.   

With renewed mainstreaming of authoritarianism and white nationalism in the United States and the rising Freedom Party of Europe, what will happen when the Global South seek refuge across our borders? After decades of racist rhetoric and policies that have scapegoated and dehumanized Brown and Black people, it will be easy for the people of the US and Europe to turn away climate refugees. The beliefs about immigrants that Trump continues to solidify in culture through federal policies will have long lasting effects on how we view the most vulnerable within and without our borders. The Muslim and refugee ban from Trump’s first week is only the beginning, and it sets a dangerous precedent for the rest of the Western world.  

In a world run by oil barons, the scorching of the earth will surely come. But when it does come, let us not abandon our refugee and immigrant brothers and sisters to the fire that we and our ancestors set ablaze.

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