Anti-Immigrant Populism & Climate Change Denial

by Steve Vanderheiden

The Critique
January 15, 2017

As United States president-elect Donald Trump prepares his agenda for his first 100 days in office, for which he has promised and signaled significant change, analysts and pundits are left to speculate which of his various policy themes stressed during the campaign will be given priority, which will result in genuine change rather than posturing and theatrics or encounter successful resistance, and which will be relegated to campaigning rather than governing. Based on his own repeated climate denial, that of his appointee to head the Environmental Protection Agency, his promise to rejuvenate the coal sector, as well as his rhetoric in the weeks leading up to Inauguration Day, two predictions seem safe to make: the incoming Trump administration will at least try to (1) further restrict immigration (given his recurring promises to build the border wall, threats against sanctuary cities, and demonization of immigrants) and (2) to roll back the Obama administration’s efforts to slow the U.S. contribution toward climate change, as well as participate in cooperative international efforts to bring about the same result.

Taken individually, each of these policy agenda items ought to be concerning to many, but in combination they raise the specter of mounting hostility towards the increasingly pressing imperative to receive those expected to be displaced by climate change (often called “climate refugees”) by the country that has historically received the majority of political refugees. With a Trump administration aiming to unravel the previous administration’s fragile environmental legacy, climate change impacts like sea level rise and catastrophic flooding and drought should be expected to manifest earlier than previously anticipated. This will require of those vulnerable persons most likely to be directly affected by these policy changes that they adapt more urgently than ever before to a changing climate. The last option for many—according to Norman Myers, over 200 million will be displaced by climate change by 2050[i]—will be climate-induced migration, as small islands, coastal cities, and drought-vulnerable regions become uninhabitable.

Preparing for this eventuality requires a radical rethinking of national borders and membership, with environmental migrants threatening a tenfold increase in the number of persons seeking resettlement, compared to the already-beleaguered refugee resettlement system designed for traditional conflict refugees [See Gibney. In an era characterized by threats to deport and block the immigration of all members of a major world religion, braggadocio about making Mexico pay for a largely symbolic southern border wall, and conspiratorial economic and political isolationism fueled by fear of external threats, borders appear more likely to be restricted and fortified than opened to admit waves of environmental migrants, amidst efforts to reserve the privileges of membership in affluent societies to an increasingly vast minority.

And yet, other actions likely to be undertaken by the president-elect threaten to accelerate the need for such reform while also undermining its feasibility. Ironically, the same sort of insular populism and isolationism behind Brexit in Britain and Trump in the U.S. fuel and feed off immigration pressures that will only increase as anthropogenic climate change continues unabated. Having dismissed climate science as a hoax promulgated by the Chinese during the presidential campaign, Trump’s nominees for EPA Administrator and Secretary of State signal a profound hostility toward decarbonization efforts and a desire to further entrench the nation in a fossil fuel-based energy infrastructure into the foreseeable future. Insofar as climate change drives environmental migration, and a Trump presidency is likely to accelerate climate change, the toxic combination of anti-immigration posturing and climate change denial is likely to bring this combination of forces to a head. In the short run, Trumpism may feed the sources of its populist resentment well enough to maintain its power, but the blend of inward-focused xenophobia combined with global ambitions to open previously restricted sources of oil and find new sources of demand for coal for exploitation are ultimately unsustainable. Border walls cannot slow environmental change, and will eventually fail to stop those that are likely to be increasingly imperiled by it. Read more …

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