Reviewed 7/24/2019

Storming the Wall, by Todd Miller

Climate Change, Migration, and Homeland Security
Todd Miller
San Francisco: City Lights Publishing, September 2017




ISBN-13 978-0-87286-715-4
ISBN-10 0-87286-715-3 270pp. SC $16.95

Here, as in his previous book Border Patrol Nation (2014), Todd Miller's purpose is to lay bare the conditions climate refugees face today. His emphasis is on refugees from Central America, but — as shown by the harrowing accounts in his first chapter — few places on Earth today do not generate refugees. They come from the Philippines, from Burma, from Bangladesh, from the nations of the Middle East, from Africa, from the islands of Micronesia, from Venezuela. Even within the United States there are climate refugees.1 And while many nations provide help for those displaced within their borders, there are no international norms or laws granting protected status to climate refugees.

Time keeps adding entries to the litany of disasters caused by climate change. We hear about few of them here in the fortunate United States, but Miller is keeping track of them.

"Serious impacts of climate change are already happening and can be projected into the future with certainty. There is now a lot of empirical research that melds climate with migration. In Satkhira, the coastal district of Bangladesh, 81 percent of the people reported a high level of salinity in their soil in 2012, compared to just 2 percent two decades earlier. Farmers planted a saline-resistant variety of rice when Cyclone Aila surged in 2009, but the increase of salt in the soil has been drastic. "Almost all farmers lost their complete harvest that year." According to the United Nations University Loss and Damage Report, while many farmers kept to salt-tolerant varieties, 29 percent decided to migrate. Remember, if they dare cross into India, they encounter a steel barrier and Indian border guards who have shot and killed more than 1,000 Bangladeshi people. In Kenya, researchers arrived after the 2011 floods, which followed a pattern of increased precipitation over past decades, washing crops away, drowning livestock, severely damaging houses, and causing an outbreak of waterborne diseases. Aid came, but it was not enough. Sixty-four percent of people migrated or moved to camps. The drought in the north bank of Gambia in 2011 affected 98 percent of 373 households interviewed, many of which lost entire harvests. And although many people prefer to stay as close to home after displacement and do not cross an international border, the tales of people from many countries in Africa facing the European border enforcement regime, often referred to as Fortress Europe, are virtually endless.

– pages 95-96

These accounts of present-day impacts of climate change in the developing world are important, but Miller's focus is on the climate security aspect of the situation. He documents the long-term effort on the part of the United States to fortify itself against the inrush of refugees of all sorts — but primarily those attempting to cross our southern border with Mexico. It is a multifaceted effort, and long predates the Trump administration. For example, the Secure Fence Act of 2006 directed the addition of 650 miles of new barriers along the boundary with Mexico, and from 2006-2008 the Border Patrol added 6,000 personnel: the largest hiring binge in its history.

He traveled the world to gather first-hand reports on the impacts of climate change: from areas of the Philippines devastated by Typhoon Haiyan and lesser storms;2 to conferences in the U.S. and France where the precepts — and the hardware — of climate security were being laid out: precepts and hardware designed to detect, exclude, and if necessary eliminate intruders.

And it is generals like [Brigadier General Stephen] Cheney himself, the higher-ups who implement policy and strategy, who most directly impact climate security. In January 2016, the U.S. Department of Defense issued Directive 4715.21: 'Climate Change Adaptation and Resilience." According to Foreign Policy, Deputy Secretary of Defense Robert Work signed "one of the potentially most significant, if little-noticed, orders in recent Pentagon history. The directive told every corner of the Pentagon, including the office of the secretary of defense, the joint chiefs of staff, and all the combatant commands around the world, to put climate change front and center in their strategic planning." And now, with "Mad Dog" Mattis at the helm of the DOD, this not-widely-known yet game-changing directive has not been, and is not likely to be, removed—even as the Trump administration attempts, including via a marathon of executive orders, to roll back Obama's legacy on climate.

– page 43

And he traveled to the border zones in the Southwest U.S. where militant enforcement, reinforced by recent terrorist attacks during the Obama administration, conflicts with attempts to restore lands parched by drought.

Unlike creating comprehensive legislation to prevent climate change by eliminating greenhouse gas emissions, proposals that have languished in Washington for decades, laws aimed at stopping and expelling people have the ability to mobilize nations and states into sometimes dazzling rapid-fire action. For example, within one week of the Paris attacks of 2015, 32 U.S. states declared that they would not accept Syrian refugees in their territories. This reaction was based on Obama's advance commitment to resettle 10,000 Syrians into the United States in 2016, a small fraction of the total number seeking political asylum for their homes ravaged by war and drought. Leading the charge against them was Texas governor Greg Abbott, who said "American humanitarian compassion could be exploited to expose Americans to deadly danger."

– page 143

Todd Miller's account is somewhat rambling, and I think his prose style could be tightened up. There are also a number of grammatical errors which copy editing should have caught — but not an unusual number of them. The text is thoroughly end-noted, and there is a good index (but not a defect-free one.)

The main thing is that the messages of the book come through loud and clear. Those messages are that climate change is a serious problem, that reforming our economy toward sustainability and cooperating with nature are the ways to deal with it, and that the "us against them" attitude and the militancy it spawns will not help. I consider it a must-read, though not a keeper.

Books referenced in Storming the Wall

  1. American Exodus: Climate Change and the Coming Fight for Survival (Giles Slade)
  2. The Beast: Riding the Rails and Dodging Narcos on the Migrant Trail (Oscar Martinez)
  3. Border Walls: Security and the War on Terror in the United States, India, and Israel (Reece Jones)
  4. Climate Cataclysm: The Foreign Policy and National Security Implications of Climate Change (Kurt Campbell, ed.)
  5. Climate Change and Migration: Security and Borders in a Warming World (Gregory White)
  6. Climate Wars (Gwynne Dyer) | Not indexed; appears on page 116.
  7. The Devil's Highway (Luis Alberto Urrea)
  8. Drug War Capitalism (Dawn Paley)
  9. Dust Bowl: The Southern Plains in the 1930s (Donald Worster)
  10. Dying To Live: A Story of U.S. Immigration in an Age of Global Apartheid (Joseph Nevins)
  11. Golden Gulag (Ruthie Wilson)
  12. A Great Aridness: Climate Change and the Future of the American Southwest (William deBuys) | Not indexed; appears on page 132.
  13. Hope in the Dark (Rebecca Solnit)
  14. The Land of Open Graves (Jason De León)
  15. The Militarization of the U.S.-Mexico Border (Timothy Dunn)
  16. A Paradise Built in Hell (Rebecca Solnit)
  17. Policing America's Empire: The United States, the Philippines, and the Rise of the Surveillance State (Alfred McCoy)
  18. Power in a Warming World: The New Global Politics of Climate Change and the Remaking of Environmental Inequality (David Ciplet et al.)
  19. The Secure and the Dispossessed (Ben Hayes)
  20. The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History (Elizabeth Kolbert)
  21. This Changes Everything: Capitalism Vs. the Climate (Naomi Klein)
  22. Undoing Border Imperialism (Harsha Walia)
  23. Violent Borders: Refugees and the Right To Move (Reece Jones)
  24. Violent Environments (Nancy Lee Peluso & Michael Watts)
1 Refugees from Louisiana's Isle de Saint Jean received that status in 2016 — although, as Miller points out, those displaced by Hurricane Katrina have a credible prior claim.
2 Haiyan (called Super Typhoon Yolanda in the P.I.) killed 6,300 people. It was the strongest storm of 2013, and its estimated wind speed of 190 mph would make it one of the two strongest storms ever if confirmed. (The other would be Typhoon Meranti in 2016.)
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This page was last modified on 24 July 2019.