Migration in the age of Imperialism’s four horsemen: part 3

For over three decades neoliberalism has run rampant at the expense of the working class and poorest of the world. But such a dismal interpretation of the world just will not do. The point is to change it. This requires us honestly to recognise the scale of the crisis while identifying those symptoms of resistance that one day might bring about a revolutionary change.

This is the final part of an article by Brian Parkin that looks at the links between climate change, imperialism and migration. A pdf of the whole article is now available here.

make levees not war
New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Inscription on garage of formerly flooded house. Via flickr

The end of the world may be nigh?

In the course of 30 years in which an understanding of global warming, its causes and possible mitigation strategies have been widely discussed, there has been scant evidence of a global effort being made to deal with the most pressing crisis ever to confront humanity.

Once again we are confronted by the four horsemen that for a few perhaps optimistically naïve decades had seemed like phantoms of the past. And given models of local governance and social and emergency support based on market principles we need look no further that the example of Hurricane Katrina to see how we may fare in the future.

On 29 August 2005 a hurricane struck the city of New Orleans and in the space of a few hours had killed hundreds, displaced over 1 million people and virtually destroyed the civic infrastructure of one of the biggest cities in the richest and most powerful nation on Earth.

As the majority of the victims were black and poor and uninsured and as a neoliberal city administration as well as cutting flood defence funding had also virtually abolished its emergency and welfare budgets, the poor of New Orleans presaged the lot of the victims of climate change tragedies to come. They scrambled for high ground and shivered as they waited for Red Cross tents, food parcels and medical aid. And for many, a year later, they were still in emergency accommodation.

The case of Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath is illustrative for two reasons. Firstly, because the hurricane itself was with certainty a result of climate change. Katrina was the final of a vector of five storms that had been identified several days earlier forming in the Western Atlantic.[1] The pattern and seasonal occurrence of that vector was consistent with previous episodes that had long convinced weather scientists that several once in a hundred years events happening five times within a single decade was consistent with a trend towards a new and possibly permanent period of extreme weather.

And secondly because even with a relatively limited and seemingly isolated event, the sheer inability to plan for and invest in the essential contingency planning and aftermath resolution showed how unprepared even the most advanced economies are in the face of growing crisis.

Yet the evidence of the scale of things to come seems to fly in the face of the official view of most governments who although these days less inclined to outright climate denial, nevertheless opt for wishful thinking over responsibility. But a glance at even ‘central case’ (least-worse) data that now informs the scientific mainstream demonstrates how overwhelming and sudden the climate change crisis could be.

The end of the world in statistics?

In April 2014 the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)[2] published an interim report that showed that we are now heading for a global temperature rise of 2oC over the pre-industrial period by 2040. It also confirmed that sea temperature rises since 1950 have been higher than at any similar period on available record and since the mid-19th century has been higher than any time in the past 2000 years and that sea level rises are also higher than past 2000 years whilst greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere are now the highest in 800,000 years.

Another report by Climate Central[3] using a combination of IPCC data and satellite topography imaging concluded that between 147 and 216 million people currently live on land that will be below sea level by 2100. Another report[4] as early as 1990 had projected a figure of there being over 200 million ‘climate refugees’ by 2050 due to a combination of crop failure and sea level rise which translates to 1 in every 45 persons being a climate change refugee by the mid-point of the 21st century.  And yet another report[5] predicted on current data a 30% fall in crop yield in Central and South East Asia as early as 2050. Additional data[6] also suggested a crop failure of 50% for Sub-Saharan Africa over the same period. Nicholas Stern[7], in 2006 modelled regional water resource impacts for the Southern African and Mediterranean regions based on a 4oC rise and concluded that there would be a 50% loss of fresh water by 2050.

A recent report[8] by the International Energy Agency (IEA) has estimated that far from meeting a 2oC limit in mean temperature rise by 2040, the present data indicates a more probable continued rise to 3.6oC – possibly by mid-century. The report also projects a rise of 14 billion barrels per day of crude oil to 2040 with an overall rise of 20% in greenhouse emissions over the same period.

Perhaps one of the few good things to emerge from these reports is the increased use of the term ‘climate refugees’ when referring to the victims of environmental chaos. And given the intersectional relationship between capitalism with its imperialist manifestation in growing conflicts with the deepening global economic crisis and a quickening climate crisis, it is high time we dropped the term ‘economic migrant’ and simply used the term refugee to describe all of those in flight from capitalism’s chaos and terror.

Another solution? Revolution!

In science fiction movies that deal with the theme of Apocalypse and how to survive it, a kind of global version of the Titanic is usually played out with those privileged enough to have access to the first class lifeboats being the chosen ones to survive. And the rest of us get to flounder among the icebergs – although with climate change, of course, there won’t be many icebergs.

What of course is missing from any such fictional narrative is the same omission we find in the various quack strategies that belatedly recognise the scale of the climate crisis whilst failing to imagine any agency capable of confronting it. Nowhere do we find suggestions of how to divest the energy companies and their client governments of their assets to pollute us and their legislative means to deceive us. Nowhere do we find a recognition of the horrors of war with a courage to stop them. And nowhere do we find anything but crocodile tears at the sight of poverty and disease in a world of plenty. Such things are a reflection of the natural functions of markets and/or the naturally flawed nucleus of human nature. We are told.

Thirty years ago in West Texas vast swathes of land were put under cotton cultivation. For the cultivation and harvesting of the cotton crop thousands of Mexican workers were invited from over the border to work in the fields. In their migration for wages they were also seeking refuge from acute poverty and a violent narcotics war that ravages the border towns. But they were also seeking refuge from a Mexican economy that through the imperialist snare of the North American Free Trade Agreement[9] allows US oil companies to divest Mexico of oil revenues by insisting on maintaining output even when the world oil price will presently not cover the costs of production. The NAFTA however has had far from an easy ride. When the agreement was signed in January 1994 a revolt of landless labourers – many forced into US cash crop migrant labour – resulted in the Zapatista revolt which has since grown to initiate the seizure of land and water rights as well as both labour unions and human rights campaigns. Against the most seemingly impossible odds, resistance will through.

But in West Texas – like all the southern US states – crops have been falling in yield because of droughts for the past five years. Rainfalls have not come and the aquifers are all but dry. But not too dry to prevent oil companies obtaining access to land for the purpose of fracking the underlying Permian shale strata for oil. So the aquifers are further depleted, or contaminated, by oil fracking. The water table continues to fall and because of climate change the droughts continue. And when the fracked oil is eventually combusted, another contribution to the cycle of poverty and climate chaos will be released. So the Mexican cotton workers are laid off and return to the poverty of their broken petro economy or they are absorbed, often as ‘illegals’ into the lowest levels of the US labour market where fierce competition ensures the lowest wages and life chances.

This pathetic microcosm illustrates the combined cycle of imperialist abuse, climate degradation, labour market insecurity and a refugee workforce locked into a pact of poverty and fear that is the daily lot of millions. It is this same process, albeit on a global scale that is not only destroying our humanity. It is also costing us our Earth.

Only by winning the world, it seems, do workers – quite uniquely – have a chance of saving it.



[1] US Weather Bureau, Eastern seaboard report. 24 August 2005.

[2] IPCC Interim report 2014. Geneva, Swizerland.

[3] Climate Central, New Analysis Shows Global Exposure to Sea Level Rise. New York 23 September 2014.

[4] IPCC 2nd quarterly report 1990, Geneva, Swizerland.

[5] IPCC Working Group 2: Climate Change Impacts. Adaptation and vulnerability. p.10, April 2007, Geneva.

[6] IPCC Ibid, p.11.

[7] Nicholas Stern; The Stern Report; Economics of climate change; the Stern review, Columbia University Press, Colombia, NY 2006.

[8] IEA World Energy Outlook 2015, New Policies Scenario. Factsheet.www.worldenergyoutlook.org

[9] The North America Free Trade Agreement was signed between the USA, Canada and Mexico on 1 January 1994. The agreement essentially enshrines US corporate and dollar hegemony in exchange for the junior partners enjoying US cover in matters of international tariffs and trade as well as incorporation into US copyright law.


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