There Are No Borders in a Climate Crisis

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Greenhouse gases will still sail right across even the biggest, most beautiful wall.

The “crisis” at the Mexico/US border is dominating the news, and the immediate focus is on the political battle to prevent Joe Biden from passing meaningful immigration reform. But this might also be a moment for thinking about what globalism means in a world where borders ultimately can’t offer protection against the most serious threats.

This might also be a moment for thinking about what globalism means in a world where borders ultimately can’t offer protection against the most serious threats.

To give an example: owing in part to climate change, there was a record hurricane season last year, with the last two storms, Eta and Iota, striking Central America. As Nicole Narea explained in a recent article in Vox, the Northern Triangle countries—Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador—have been afflicted by climate-induced drought for a decade, leaving 3.5 million people facing food insecurity, but the floods from those two storms produced even more savage damage.

Twelve hundred schools were damaged or destroyed; forty per cent of corn crops and sixty-five per cent of the bean harvest were lost. As a percentage of G.D.P., the damage is greater than that done by the worst storms ever to hit the United States, yet the people of these countries did comparatively little to cause the climate crisis—whereas the four per cent of us who live in this country have produced more greenhouse gases than the population of almost any other nation. So there’s really no way to pretend that migrants arriving at our southern border have no claim on America. Honduras could have built the biggest, most beautiful wall on its northern border, and our CO2 would still have sailed right across it.

And it’s not as if this is an isolated case. As early as 2017, according to the organizers at, sixty per cent of displaced people around the world were on the move because of “natural” disasters, not civil conflict. In the past six months, according to the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, about eighty per cent of displacements have been the result of disasters, “most of which are triggered by climate and weather extremes.”

As Axios reported last week, using a projection model created by the Times, ProPublica, and the Pulitzer Center, “migration from Central America will rise every year regardless of climate change,” but, “in the most extreme warming scenarios, more than 30 million migrants would head toward the U.S. border over the next 30 years.”
 “As long as the virus continues to circulate anywhere, people will continue to die, trade and travel will continue to be disrupted, and the economic recovery will be further delayed,” the head of the World Health Organization said recently. According to the Times, for example, “even under the best of circumstances,” just thirty per cent of the population of Kenya will be vaccinated by mid-2023.

We could solve some of these problems by donating lots of vaccine, encouraging cross-national coöperation, and overriding patent protections and other intellectual-property restrictions. That would allow everyone to access cheap versions of these remarkable drugs—just as we need to make sure that the use of solar power and cheap batteries spreads globally, because we can’t solve climate change in one country. The pandemic and climate change are defining events in our century, and it’s useless to pretend that national boundaries are the best way to think about them. Biology and physics are mandating new ideas about human solidarity, and demand action in real time.

Adapted from The New Yorker


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