Our VoiceImmigration

Of Waves and Walls: Climate Change and Structural Racism

Rev. David L. Ostendorf • Sep 23, 2009

In his provocative new book Ultimatum, set in the U.S. in the 2030s, British author Matthew Glass writes that Europe’s low-intensity, climate-related warfare in Africa “…is also a racial war, and the countries prosecuting it are becoming increasingly xenophobic.” Within Glass’ disturbing story of a future environmental and nuclear cataclysm, this observation stands out: climate change and structural racism are inherently inter-related.

Rising seas, drought and other dramatic climate disasters will force migrations of millions of peoples of color. The response of receiving and resettlement nations to their arrival (and survival) will—given the restrictions already imposed by predominantly white nations on immigrants—constitute an extraordinary challenge. As waves of people are forced from their homelands, walls and other barriers will rise to keep them out. Coupled with the anticipated economic and political costs of forced migration, Glass’ fictional portrayal of racial warfare two decades hence is unnerving.

The infamous and ineffective U.S. border wall with Mexico, which has already cost $2.4 billion, is but a harbinger of things to come. Military and law enforcement initiatives to keep immigrants out of Fortress Europe have resulted in thousands of deaths. When millions seek survival in these and other lands wracked by climate change, the reception record to-date does not bode well for their welcome. The unconscionable federal response to Katrina, which forced over a million people from their homes, ought to give pause to doubters. And while community-based responses to evacuees were truly laudable, racist rant about resettling tens of thousands of displaced African Americans exposed the underbelly of the structural racism that marked federal rescue and recovery commitments.

The reality of climate-forced migration is upon us. The Maldives, the Pacific islands nation that lies less than six feet above sea level, is already preparing for the coming rise in ocean levels, literally seeking to buy a new homeland. The nation is going carbon-neutral in its own efforts to stem climate change, and is a leader in the new Alliance of Small Island States pressing urgently for serious and immediate responses to the environmental disaster they confront. A Muslim nation, The Maldives faces perilous prospects as it lays the foundation for the forced migration of its people. And whether it “buys” a new homeland or finds a welcoming nation to receive its people, it will likely have to contend with the harsh realities of structural racism that shroud the prospects for peoples of color forced from their homes by the climate challenge now facing the global community.

H.E. Mohamed Nasheed, the nation’s young and charismatic President, warned this week in New York that “if you can’t defend The Maldives today you won’t be able to defend yourselves tomorrow.” His insight goes far beyond the immediacy of the moment, and drives toward the collective conscience of nations that will, indeed, be unable to defend their actions—and inaction—if they raise walls to keep out the waves of peoples forced by climate change to migrate, and if they fall back to the perils of structural racism for justification in doing so.

Nasheed himself is hopeful: he resolutely declared that “with grassroots movements it is possible to do anything”—a call to be heard and heeded, especially by this nation, immersed as it is in the structural racism that nags its soul by the day, in countless ways and venues, and that stalks its yet-uncrafted response to the urgent challenge of climate change and the coming migrations of people of color.

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