If Donald Trump proceeds to roll back rules on climate changes, as promised, he will be remembered as the most pro-immigration and pro-terrorist president in U.S. history. Global warming will force tens of millions of Mexicans and other Latin Americans northward. It will also further destabilize the Middle East, bringing the chaos and war that gives rise to terrorism.
The Pentagon and the intelligence services have long regarded global warning as a major national security issue, a threat multiplier that makes existing problems more imminent and threatening.
And for very good reason. So much of what frightens us today has its roots in climate change. Even when we use the shorthand “ISIS” or “Syrian refugees,” we are in fact discussing a two-part climate disaster in the Middle East. In 2010, a hot summer and failed harvests brought a spike in food prices, leading to a wave of bread riots, civil war and eventually revolution across the Mideast. Meanwhile, persistent drought in Syria put an end to what we used to call its fertile crescent, pushing about 2 million people to cities and beginning the civil conflict that led to war and the spread of ISIS.
It will always be easier to see and name the political consequences of such disasters. But the only way to prevent new ones is to slow climate change. Worldwide, the region most affected by climate change is the crescent from North Africa to Indonesia where most Muslims live. Anyone who is serious about preventing Muslims from becoming anti-Western terrorists must, therefore, fight global warming.
Closer to home, further climate change will make the U.S.-Mexican border meaningless. Future food price spikes are likely to destabilize Mexico’s government and immigration control (all rhetoric aside) is impossible without a partner. About one in three Mexicans lives from agriculture and is vulnerable to longer droughts and to the reduction of water supplies from the north.
The Colorado River has been shrinking at a rate of more than one percent per year since 2000. Unless climate change is halted, we can foresee an American southwest and a northern Mexico essentially without water. The situation is perhaps more dire in Mexican cities. About one in five Mexicans lives in or near Mexico City, a massive urban agglomeration that will literally sink into the ground if people are forced by climate change to keep drilling for water.
As temperatures increase, chemical reactions accelerate, making smog in the city more unbearable. Millions of Mexicans could migrate north for environmental reasons. If we choose to accelerate global warming, that would simply be the beginning of an overwhelming trend in which hundreds of millions of people seek shelter from forces that are beyond their control - but not beyond ours.
The curious thing is that the people in power surely know all this. The president and several members of his cabinet have expressed doubts about the reality of climate change, but simple respect for their intelligence compels us to believe that they know better. The scientific debate about climate change has been over since about 1990. Even oil and gas company executives realized more than a decade ago that the scientific evidence was overwhelming.
The insurance industry systematically accounts for the reality of rising sea levels caused by melting glacial ice. When the issue is the future of one of Mr. Trump’s seaside golf courses, as reported by Politico, then he acts in advance to protect his own interests from the rising tide. Surely the country as a whole deserves no less.
To deny the consequences of global warming in 2017 is not only disastrous to the interests of the United States, it is archaic. It might serve the interests of certain parts of the energy sector for a brief moment, but it is hardly in the interest of the economy as a whole.
Even Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, whose former company Exxon Mobil Corp. funded anti-scientific propaganda for years, now understands this. Major U.S. corporations warn against the dangers of climate change. Even in the electric power sector, according to the U.N. Environment Programme, more than half of the investment worldwide is in renewables. Wind farming is a major employer across a number of red states.
Why then would the Trump administration even consider courting disaster? Perhaps the inspiration is Steve Bannon, whose media empire denies global warming and who calls for the dismantlement of what he calls the American “administrative state.” The relentless terrorism and unstoppable migration called forth by global warming are certainly a way to make America ungovernable. But is that really what we want?
Trump might imagine a physical barrier across the U.S.-Mexican border, but history shows that words and even walls are meaningless when confronted by great natural forces that induce or force people to move in large numbers. What is special about the present moment is that we hold in our hands those forces of nature. Americans should understand that a decision to accelerate global warming today means disaster tomorrow.
Those who voted for Trump because they are concerned about migration or terrorism have all the more reason to hold him accountable.
Timothy Snyder is a professor of history at Yale University.