Will Climate Change Make Family Separations the Norm?

Activists and historians note that the recent US policy of separating families at the Mexico border continues a centuries-old tradition of family separation. Numerous Indigenous and Black children, they point out, were torn apart from their parents and enslaved, raped, killed and “civilized” in boarding schools. Awareness of this past is important for understanding and confronting the racism and poverty that so many Indigenous and Black families still face today. Yet just as important, and much less discussed, is the intensification of family separation that will likely result from capitalist-induced climate chaos.

Many millions of people, overwhelmingly poor and nonwhite, are already displaced each year due to climate disasters. Only the most dramatic cases make the news, like the nearly half a million Puerto Ricans displaced by Hurricane María in 2017, or the 4.4 million Filipinos displaced by Typhoon Haiyan in 2013. The number is expected to increase dramatically in the next few decades with the intensification of droughts, famines, floods, wildfires and superstorms. Conservative estimates from the UN-affiliated International Organization for Migration and other sources forecast 200 million climate refugees by 2050. A 2018 World Bank study projects 143 million internally-displaced climate refugees by 2050 in sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia and Latin America alone. If the gradual rising of the seas is factored in, as many as 2 billion people could be displaced by 2100.

Family separation is common when people are forcibly displaced. It takes many forms. Sometimes the separation occurs during disasters themselves, when people are killed by falling buildings or trees, or go missing amid the chaos. Sometimes family members make the anguished choice to split up in search of survival. Sometimes extortionists and traffickers do the separating. Other times, it is US Border Patrol agents who detain migrants or simply shoot their targets in the desert. By the Border Patrol’s own data, the desert along the US-Mexico border claimed 6,571 victims between 1998 and 2015, due to conscious US policies of closing off urban points of entry like San Diego.

Climate breakdown also increases the risk of war, as much recent evidence suggests, by exacerbating resource conflicts and displacement. The devastating conflict in Syria since 2011 may have been fueled in part by the drought that began in 2006. War is family separation on a vast scale. Families are separated when bombs murder and maim people, or when they destroy water systems, leading to death by cholera and other plagues. War is orphans and widows. It’s rape at the hands of soldiers and warlords. It’s permanent psychological trauma for those who remain nominally alive at war’s end. In the Syrian War and refugee crisis, we have a preview of what the future may hold for several billion people across the world, with the multiplication of wars driven by climate disaster. Scenes like the death of Syrian refugee Aylan Kurdi, the 3-year-old boy whose corpse washed up on the shore of Turkey in 2015, will be played out many times a day, though we’ll rarely hear about them in the news.

While the precise numbers and identities of future victims are unpredictable, mass death itself is certain if present policies are not drastically altered. Warmer climates bring more mosquito-borne diseases like malaria; floods and storms contaminate drinking water; droughts cause crop failures and heat waves sweat people to death. According to the World Health Organization, the effects of climate change will kill around 250,000 people each year by 2030. Other estimates are much higher. A 2009 study from the Global Humanitarian Forum estimated that climate change was already killing 300,000 people a year, and that the number could increase to 500,000 by 2050. The deaths will be concentrated in the Global South, where residents of the poorest 48 countries “are five times more likely to die from climate-related deaths than those in other parts of the world,” according to one report. Many within the rich countries will also be vulnerable, especially low-income people and those near the coasts, as hurricanes like Katrina and María have suggested.

The survivors of these family separations will have no way to get justice, even though the killers’ identities will be well-known. The US contributed 27 percent of global carbon emissions between 1850 and 2011. Major corporations bear most of the blame: Just 90 companies are responsible for 63 percent of global carbon and methane emissions since 1751. The state officials who enable polluters and who close their borders to people like Aylan Kurdi are also quite identifiable, yet unlikely to be held accountable.

Threats to the System

His public performances notwithstanding, Donald Trump is probably aware of the facts. He’s building a wall to protect his coastal golf resort in Ireland from rising waters. Some of his donors, meanwhile, are busy concocting schemes to protect themselves and their property in future doomsday scenarios.

The officials who surround Trump know exactly what’s happening. The upper ranks of the military and intelligence establishment have been concerned about climate change since the 1990s. A 2003 Pentagon study predicted that the governments of wealthy nations would respond to an “abrupt climate change scenario” – a dramatic sudden change in global temperatures due to accumulated greenhouse gas emissions – by constructing “virtual fortresses around their countries, preserving resources for themselves…. Borders will be strengthened around the country to hold back unwanted starving immigrants.”

A scenario of more gradual global warming was examined in a 2007 US military analysis. In this situation, “The primary security threats to the U.S. arise from the potential demand for humanitarian aid and a likely increase in immigration from neighbor states.” Particularly worrisome to the analysts was “south to north” migration, meaning poor Brown people trying to enter the United States and Europe. For instance, “The rate of immigration from Mexico to the U.S. is likely to rise because the water situation in Mexico is already marginal and could worsen with less rainfall and more droughts. Increases in weather disasters, such as hurricanes elsewhere, will also stimulate migrations to the U.S.” Rich countries may face “mounting pressure to accept large numbers of immigrant and refugee populations as drought increases and food production declines in Latin America and Africa.”

The Pentagon’s fears are not just on paper. Since George W. Bush’s administration, the military has conducted regular exercises in the Caribbean, known as Operation Vigilant Sentry, to practice the “intervention and prevention of illegal migrants to the United States.” In a future “migrant operation,” the military will respond by intercepting migrants, detaining them at Guantánamo Bay and repatriating them. The operation will also serve to “deter” and “prevent future mass migration” by sending a signal to other “unwanted starving” immigrants.

Also of concern to policymakers is preserving US access to mineral and hydrocarbon resources in areas that might be “destabilized” by climate disaster. Environmental chaos may, for example, jeopardize control over the supplies needed for Lockheed Martin’s F-35 fighter jet, which uses chromium, columbium and titanium from several African countries. NASA analyst Kevin Watson recently warned that such minerals are “critical to the alloys we need to support the system,” as quoted by journalist Todd Miller in his valuable book Storming the Wall: Climate Change, Migration, and Homeland Security. The “system” is the nexus of corporate and state interests that depend on a gargantuan military budget and on unrivaled US military power to preserve, in the words of Clinton-era Defense Secretary William Cohen, “uninhibited access to key markets, energy supplies, and strategic resources.”

Watson’s concern is an updated articulation of a longstanding problem. Leading postwar State Department official George Kennan described it candidly in 1948: “We have about 50% of the world’s wealth but only 6.3% of its population…. Our real task in the coming period is to devise a pattern of relationships which will permit us to maintain this position of disparity without positive detriment to our national security.” Similarly, following the Vietnam War, Gen. Maxwell Taylor argued that “as the leading affluent ‘have’ power, we may expect to have to fight for our national valuables against envious ‘have-nots.’”

The imperative of “maintaining this position of disparity” between “haves” and “have-nots,” both globally and within individual nations, has shaped US policymakers’ responses to the growing climate chaos. As Miller shows in Storming the Wall, US officials’ primary response has been to pour billions of dollars into weapons, walls and surveillance designed to keep out the very refugees that they and their capitalist counterparts have created. Their version of “climate adaptation” involves militarization and exclusion in order to safeguard the privileges of the global 1%. Thus, the United States spends 28 times as much on its military as it does on reducing greenhouse gas emissions. The US military itself is also the world’s biggest institutional consumer of fossil fuels.

Faced with escalating climate disruption, officials’ main priority is to preserve the existing distribution of wealth and power as the disruption intensifies. For them, the crisis is not the destruction of ecosystems capable of supporting life, but rather the secondary threats to elite interests: chronic “instability” in the foreign lands from which Western corporations harvest resources and cheap labor, and throngs of “unwanted” nonwhite people seeking refuge at the gates of the homeland. The crisis is not the suffering and death of Aylan Kurdi, but the possibility that Aylan Kurdi might reach shore – or even worse, demand the reparations that he’s owed.


Family separation is the future, if present trends continue. But that suffering is not inevitable, and there’s a lot we can do to prevent or mitigate it. Drastically slashing emissions is the central imperative, but not sufficient.

Climate chaos by itself does not always produce family separation, death, displacement and war. The level of suffering associated with climate change is conditioned by existing institutions and relationships. In our current world, the destructive impacts of climate change are amplified by the economic, political and social changes of recent decades – what Christian Parenti calls the “catastrophic convergence.”

Since the 1970s, a concerted business assault has increased inequality and dismantled many aspects of government that once protected the general population. Politically, the assault has further insulated government from the popular will, to the point that most of the public in the United States has virtually zero statistical influence over policy. The assault has also been cultural, designed to replace human solidarity with an anxious individualism. These processes have made large portions of the population more susceptible to right-wing demagogues like Trump, whose scapegoating appears to many a logical response to their problems. In such a context, brutal responses to climate disasters become more likely. Governments — whether on the far right or the center — have an easier time putting children in cages, murdering Black people in New Orleans, letting Puerto Ricans die after Hurricane María and drowning thousands of refugees in the Mediterranean each year.

For this reason, confronting climate change means much more than confronting the fossil fuel industry; it also means fighting against austerity, labor exploitation, racism, nationalism, patriarchy and all the other ugly manifestations of the system. Combating those evils will help mitigate the suffering caused by future climate disasters. Precisely because the “catastrophic convergence” involves multiple variables, we must address all of them if we hope to minimize its harm. To resist the catastrophic convergence, we need a different convergence: of all struggles for survival and justice.

This convergence is happening in some places. Some climate organizers highlight the connections between climate disruption and social hierarchies, and actively support “non-climate” struggles for justice. Some antiracist organizers are forceful advocates against climate change. Nonetheless, climate change remains somewhat abstract, even for many US activists. Police murders and the caging of kids have ignited protest in a way that the government’s homicidal environmental policies have not. This is partly understandable, given the immediacy of threats like police violence and deportation. But it suggests how much work remains to be done if we’re going to build a resistance that can truly confront the catastrophic convergence and give living things a shot at a decent future.