The climate crisis can be understood as an experiment in pace. By burning the remains of hundreds of millions of years of flora and fauna in the course of a few decades, we’re forcing the planet through changes that usually take eons; deep time is suddenly running like one of those films of a flower opening in seconds. In a geological instant we’ve raised the annual global average temperature one degree Celsius, and the second degree will come faster still; on our current course we’re headed toward a third degree. Astonishing shifts in precipitation, forest fires, sea level, and many other systems are happening month by month and season by season. The pace is truly savage.
But that experiment in time is playing out even more dramatically across physical space. The rapid rise in temperature is causing plant and animal species, and people, to move toward the poles and higher, cooler ground. This exodus has not only begun, it’s begun to overwhelm biological and political stability. We need to think deeply about it, and act with resolve, if we’re to have any hope of not rending both our ecological and civilizational fabric in permanent ways. Three new books help us appreciate the magnitude of the challenge; you can’t understand the next decades of life on earth if you don’t take in their joint message.
As Benjamin von Brackel notes in Nowhere Left to Go, the ecologist Camille Parmesan was among the first to suggest that we were seeing climate change in action. In 1996 she published an influential study of Edith’s checkerspot butterflies showing that the species was disappearing at the southern end of its range, in Mexico, but not in Canada: overall, the butterfly’s “center of distribution” had shifted more than sixty miles north and three hundred feet higher in elevation. Other biologists began looking at the ranges of the species they studied, and in the past twenty years a robust science has emerged.
Von Brackel, a German journalist, ably chronicles the research at every latitude and on every continent. He describes, for instance, the invasion of the Arctic by deer, rabbits, and beavers—whose dams create ponds that are now visible via satellite; that water traps heat, speeding the melt of the permafrost beneath. Musk oxen, caribou, and Arctic foxes are being inexorably pushed north, where they will run into the ocean. “The closer they get to the North Pole, the more the inhabitable territory shrinks. Earth is an ellipsoid, after all,” he writes.
As on land, so at sea. Von Brackel writes movingly of indigenous communities now largely bypassed by the whales on which they’ve depended for food and cultural continuity because the small organisms on which the whales feed are moving as the temperatures warm. Meanwhile, off Iceland, huge schools of mackerel were appearing, having migrated north; when fishermen from the European mainland followed, violent conflicts with their Icelandic counterparts were narrowly averted.
Along the Eastern Seaboard, sugar maples are moving north (and the March days of nighttime freeze and morning thaw that drive the sap are moving into February or disappearing altogether); theoretically, though, they have some room to move, so Vermont’s loss should be Quebec’s gain. Many other ecosystems are simply dying in place—von Brackel describes the sad plight of Terry Hughes, the Australian coral scientist whose career has become an extended deathwatch as the Great Barrier Reef, the earth’s largest living structure, repeatedly bleaches. (Followers on Twitter can watch this obituary being written in real time; Hughes often reports on his overflights of the vast stretches of whitened coral that now line the Queensland coast.) It’s possible that some corals may emerge in what were once temperate waters farther north as they become more tropical, but don’t hold your breath—“the formation of a coral reef the size of the Great Barrier Reef could take, roughly, half a million years.”
Equally fundamental changes are underway in the earth’s most crucial ecosystems. Biologists working in the Amazon have demonstrated that trees and bird and insect species are moving into the mountains to escape rising heat; eventually they will run out of mountain to climb, but the deeper problem is that for many of the world’s greatest forests there aren’t any mountains, just vast flatlands that are growing steadily hotter. In the mountains, von Brackel writes, the temperature drops three degrees Celsius with every 1,640 feet of elevation, but in the lowlands a bird or a tree would need to travel 310 miles north to get similar relief.
It’s complicated in the Amazon, and in other forest basins like the Congo, because humans are simultaneously logging and burning big swaths of the jungle, and together with the rising heat this is changing the way water moves across the region. The roots of Amazonian trees suck up large quantities of rainfall off the Atlantic, and then transpire that moisture through their leaves; like an airborne river this moisture becomes rain on the next bands of forest farther west. But both climate-caused drought and human-caused disruptions are breaking down this machine. Four years ago the legendary tropical conservationist Tom Lovejoy (who died last winter) and his Brazilian colleague Carlos Nobre calculated that “as little as around 20 percent deforestation would be enough to throw the entire system out of balance,” transforming rainforest into savanna.
We’re at that threshold already. Von Brackel reports that
the Pantanal in southwestern Brazil is one of the largest wetlands in the world. It was here where the worst drought for centuries raged in 2020…and an enormous fire burned for weeks, destroying a quarter of the whole ecosystem of forests, islands, and grassland.
The rainy season across this wetland is now 40 percent shorter, quite likely, he says, as a result of those Amazon “rivers in the air” beginning to stall.
We have some ability to respond to these dramatic shifts. Many countries, including the US, are backing a “30 by 30” plan that calls for setting aside almost a third of their land by the end of the decade—in the US this would mean formally protecting an additional area larger than the state of Texas. But this job gets steadily more challenging even as it gets more necessary. Where once you could “preserve” a species by fencing off its habitat, now you also have to protect its escape route: grizzly bears don’t live in Yellowstone because they appreciate being part of the Wyoming tourist economy, they live there because it’s the right temperature. If that temperature moves hundreds of miles north, then they must go too—across highways and populated areas. (Some of those highways were destroyed in record flooding in the region this June; tourist communities reported receipts down 75 percent or more following the storms.)
Von Brackel interviews scientists who are working on “assisted migration” for many species, but this is hard work, and not just for species like grizzlies that some people might rightly fear. It’s hard because the change never stops; Noah had to cope with just forty days of rain, but (to quote Camille Parmesan) “the problem with climate change is that there is no end in sight…. If we knew when the climate would stabilize, we could prepare for that.”
At this point it’s clear that the destruction will be enormous, but as von Brackel concludes,
the less we allow the earth to warm, the more areas we return to nature, and the more reserves and corridors we create, the more species we will be able to save, and we will at least be able to pass on fragments of life on this planet to our children and their children.
Except, of course, that we and our children and their children may be preoccupied with another problem, which is where we’re going to live ourselves. Human beings, according to Jens-Christian Svenning, a Danish academic whom von Brackel quotes at some length, have concentrated themselves for at least the past six thousand years in a “surprisingly narrow belt” of the planet, centered around an average temperature of thirteen degrees Celsius, or about fifty-five degrees Fahrenheit, and with relatively low humidity: much of North America, Western and Southern Europe, the Middle East, eastern China, Japan.
This is the “temperate to Mediterranean zone,” and it’s appealing because “small-scale farmers can work outdoors without suffering from excessive heat or cold,” because crops and livestock yield more here, and perhaps because “moderate temperatures are also conducive to elevated moods and good mental health.”
That zone is migrating north too, which is not perhaps an insurmountable problem; one can imagine the residents of Napa relocating to Oregon and then on to British Columbia. The UK’s record heat this summer was brutal for people without air-conditioning, but brutal is relative: the bigger problem is that much of the world that is already hotter than average will become lethally hot. Less than one percent of the planet’s surface has an average temperature higher than twenty-nine degrees Celsius, or eighty-four degrees Fahrenheit; at the moment that’s mostly in the Sahara region. But computer modeling shows that within fifty years those kinds of temperatures could be common in most of the tropics, an area projected to be home to 3.5 billion people. Living there will become borderline impossible—it will be too hot to work outdoors. Read the first chapter of Kim Stanley Robinson’s novel The Ministry for the Future,* about a crazy Indian heat wave; or read the newspaper accounts of the actual heat waves that badly degraded life in India this past spring and in China this summer, or about the almost unimaginable deluge that at the end of August put a third of Pakistan underwater and turned the Indus River essentially into an inland ocean. People are going to be on the move.
In fact, they already are. The UN’s High Commissioner for Refugees reported in late May that the world, for the first time in recorded history, had 100 million forcibly displaced people. Of those who were set on the move in the previous year, “conflict and violence” accounted for 14.4 million, and “weather-related events” accounted for more: 23.7 million—though the distinction between these is often hard to draw. The war in Syria, for instance, which produced large numbers of refugees, followed the most profound drought ever recorded in what we once called the Fertile Crescent.
These numbers are enormous—100 million is more than the population of, say, Germany or Turkey or Vietnam. But they are a small fraction of what we can expect as temperatures rise: the International Organization for Migration has predicted that we could see 1.5 billion people forced from their homes by 2050, and in 2020 an analysis by an international team of academics in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences said that by 2070 as many as three billion people could be living in areas stressed by high heat.
Do such numbers seem startlingly large? Gaia Vince, in her book Nomad Century, points out that fires even in affluent places like California and Australia have begun to produce internal migrations. But wealth is a buffer. In poorer parts of the world a warming planet is already a daily grind; she reports that rice farmers in Vietnam are planting at night with headlamps to avoid dangerous heat, and the British medical journal The Lancet estimates that in 2018 “more than 150 billion work hours were lost due to extreme temperature and humidity.” (Of course, for many farmers their livelihood will be a thing of the past—parts of southern Vietnam, for instance, are expected to be below sea level by 2050.)
At this writing, parts of the Horn of Africa are enduring their fourth consecutive dry “rainy season,” and children are starving; in Central America, a narrow land between two fast-warming oceans, drought has made farming incredibly hard. And when rain does come, it’s often now in the form of violent storms—in 2020, at the tail end of the most active hurricane season in Atlantic history, Eta and Iota (we were well into the Greek alphabet) crashed into Nicaragua, Honduras, and Guatemala, doing almost unbelievable amounts of damage—by some estimates equivalent to almost 40 percent of the GDP in Honduras. When people cannot farm and cannot eat, they will move, or at least try to.
Let us state succinctly the most obvious point: none of these crises are caused by the people suffering from them. The average Somalian, at the epicenter of that withering drought, produces barely one two-hundredth as much carbon as the average American; the average Honduran a fifteenth as much; the average Vietnamese a seventh (and much of that comes from manufacturing stuff for export to us). The US, with 4 percent of the world population today, has produced a quarter of all the greenhouse gas emissions in the atmosphere; the carbon we pumped into the air during our industrialization and (especially) our suburbanization will linger there for a century or more. No country, not even far more populous ones like China, will come close to catching us. Somalian famine, Honduran hurricanes, Vietnamese inundation—these are crises caused by us, and given that many in industry and government have known the consequences of burning fossil fuels for decades, you could fairly say the climate crisis is a kind of crime Americans have been committing.
And not the first crime. The global scope and historical perspective of Border and Rule, by the Canadian activist Harsha Walia, reminds me of the impact of the 1619 Project—it forces the reader to grapple with the relentless and ongoing use and abuse of power by rich countries and their political and economic leaders. Walia is not a trained journalist, so the book is light on storytelling (and a little heavy on jargon), but it is devastating in its deployment of data and evidence.
We often hear talk of an “invasion” of immigrants creating a “border crisis,” Walia observes, but “mass migration is the outcome of the actual crises of capitalism, conquest, and climate change.” She documents centuries of coercion that have taken place along the US-Mexican border: the US annexed northern Mexico, worked to thwart the Mexican Revolution, and with the North American Free Trade Agreement began “prying open domestic industries in Mexico to a global regime of production.” This was neoliberalism at its apex, theoretically “opening” the economies of the US and Mexico to largely unhindered cross-border trade, but the results were as predictable as they were brutal: more than a million Mexican farmers were forced into bankruptcy within a decade, while corn exports from the US to Mexico increased 323 percent. This flood of cheap corn particularly damaged indigenous communities that were both economically and culturally dependent on a crop first domesticated on their lands.
“Millions of Indigenous people, farmers, peasants, and [villagers] from rural areas were dispossessed and then proletarianized into low-wage factory and farm work,” Walia writes. Employment in the maquiladora factories along the border “exploded by 86 percent within the first five years of NAFTA,” in cities that soon became deadly for women; 90 percent of these factories were US-owned, and they “set the de facto wage floor for manufacturing across the continent,” costing 700,000 factory jobs in America. It’s easy to see how this simultaneously drives migration pressure in Mexico and brews resentment north of the border. A border turns out to be a very useful device for controlling people on both sides. (You can, for instance, get undocumented people to do low-paid jobs others won’t take, and then use their status to keep them from complaining; according to one study she cites, 52 percent of companies in the US threaten to call immigration authorities on workers during union drives.)
Walia makes a similarly detailed case in country after country, demonstrating the dynamics behind Australia’s hideous island prisons for migrants and Europe’s extensive system of deals to keep African immigrants away from the continent. She demolishes one piece of conventional wisdom after another: for instance, she asks, in an exploited and rapidly heating world, what is the difference between a worthy refugee and a scheming “economic migrant”? By the end of this remarkable account, it’s hard to disagree when she writes:
I align with a leftist politics of no borders, since the borders of today are completely bound up in the violences of dispossession, accumulation, exploitation, and their imbrications with race, caste, gender, sexuality, and ability…. Borders are not simply lines marking territory; they are the product of, and produce, social relations from which we must emancipate ourselves.
But what justice demands and what politics can produce are often very different; we’re far from tearing down borders. As Walia notes, in one country after another right-wing politicians have skillfully used fear of people crossing those boundaries to strengthen the most retrograde governments. It’s worth remembering that Donald Trump began his unlikely presidential campaign with remarks about Mexican rapists. His shameless rhetoric about people from “shithole countries” descending on the US to take American jobs captured support from downtrodden voters, and now Greg Abbott is employing the Texas National Guard to patrol the border as part of his bid for reelection as governor of Texas, finding support among not just white but also Latino voters in the Rio Grande Valley. Walia notes that even Cesar Chavez once “led a campaign against ‘wetbacks’ and reported undocumented workers to federal authorities.”
The same dynamics can be seen across the world. Right-wing parties in Europe have used inflammatory rhetoric around incidents of sexual harassment to try to turn women against immigration, and an emerging “ecofascism” needs to be taken seriously. As Walia points out, the far-right gunman who murdered twenty-three people at an El Paso Walmart in 2019 posted an online manifesto declaring, “If we can get rid of enough people, then our way of life can become more sustainable.” In France, Marine Le Pen’s National Rally party campaigns on what Walia calls
ecological localism, where immigrants are compared to foreign invasive species, and…puts forward screeds such as “Borders are the environment’s greatest ally; it is through them that we will save the planet.”
Given the realities Walia so forcefully describes, it is worth asking if there are ways beyond sheer justice to make the case for more porous borders, and here Vince’s book may be helpful. In some ways she is wildly unrealistic—I think there is little prospect that we will be building vast modern cities on the Siberian tundra or the Canadian permafrost to house arriving immigrants—but she shares Walia’s skepticism about the usefulness of borders. (In fact, she provides a fascinating history of human mobility, which was largely uninterrupted by immigration controls until the invention of the modern nation-state.)
And she points out that the rich countries of the world are actually beginning to feel another pinch, not nearly as brutal as the climate crises affecting the Global South but real enough: because of falling birth rates, these societies are aging quickly. (Arresting data point: in Japan, adult diapers now outsell baby diapers.) Meanwhile, “many of the countries affected by climate stress and other pressures, such as repressive regimes, have large numbers of unemployed youth living in poverty, which triggers conflict. Creating secure migratory pathways to depopulating” countries would “help these people…get on with productive lives,” and also help the nations where they arrive keep the ratio of young to old in some kind of balance. When Germany, for instance, accepted a million Syrian refugees, this “generous response to the humanitarian crisis” was also an “astute economic decision”:
The country needed to fill labour shortages, partly resulting from the depletion of its Turkish migrant population, many of whom had returned to their homeland during its economic boom. Sweden also took the opportunity to revive its depopulated villages, including reopening schools and football teams. The biggest fear Sweden faces is those immigrants leaving and returning to Syria.
There are examples even in the heart of GOP America. Earlier this year, for instance, The Washington Post reported from Greene County, Iowa, a classic mid-American farming region that has watched its population steadily fall and its stores and churches disappear. Voting for Trump, and for longtime congressman Steve King (who once referred to Mexican immigrants as having “calves the size of cantaloupes” from carrying heavy bags of marijuana across the desert), predictably did nothing to arrest the decline, so now the county has embarked on a project called Nueva Vida en Greene County to attract Latino settlers. The county has set up cultural awareness classes and soccer teams, and provided housing and jobs. As one woman explained, “We need some diversity here. We’re all too old and White.”
Walia hates such projects—she says that programs like the German one, which Angela Merkel sold under the slogan Wir schaffen das (We’ll manage), “center humanitarian benevolence and Europeans materialize as saviors, while refugees are burdened with the expectation of performing gratitude”; that “liberal welcome culture” erases “European complicity in creating displacement through colonial conquest, land theft, slavery, capitalist extraction, labor exploitation, and war profiteering.”
Immigration should be better understood as reparations, Walia says—and, given the power of her historical account of oppression, I think she’s right on the merits. But I strain to see politics shifting in that direction, which leaves one in a quandary about what to do. For instance, I serve on an advisory council at the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, perhaps the country’s leading voice for refugee resettlement, and I am in awe of the remarkable work done by its staff as they struggle to win entry slots for people from around the world and then to resettle them effectively. But it is so painfully small in scale—it feels too much like the years when I was setting up a homeless shelter in the basement of my church. Taking care of ten men a night was important to them, but like other ad hoc charitable endeavors it also may have relieved some of the pressure for necessary systemic change.
I fear very much that this tension between liberal and radical solutions to migration will simply be overwhelmed in the years ahead. If the climate modelers are even close to correct, one or three billion human beings attempting to move away from rising heat and drought, and from flooding cities, will make their own geopolitical reality. Limiting the planet’s warming—building solar panels and wind turbines as fast as we can—will limit somewhat the scale of the upheaval, but it will not at this point prevent it. Our ability to cope with a planet in motion in some even modestly humane fashion will determine the character of the century ahead; thinking through the possibilities right now, while the numbers are still relatively small, and then taking the biggest political steps we can manage to open our societies to people who need to move, is our best chance at both justice and peace. The world must bend or else it will break.