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Monday night, President Donald Trump declared on Twitter that he will sign “an Executive Order to temporarily suspend immigration into the United States.” It’s a monumental and terrifying moment—and that’s true even if the actual order, which no one has seen yet, turns out to be somewhat less than advertised. On the other hand, it’s also just making official what’s already been gradually happening—U.S. borders have been shut down for weeks and immigration processing had already effectively ground to a standstill while deportations have ramped up. But whatever the order turns out to be, the announcement demonstrates that Trump is less interested in actually addressing this crisis than using it to further his preexisting political agenda.
Some of Donald Trump’s advisers, notably immigration hard-liner Stephen Miller and anti-China extremist Peter Navarro have clearly recognized the opportunity COVID-19 has presented them. (It’s worth noting that Navarro, literally the author of a book called Death by China, was reportedly one of the few senior Trump advisers to take the outbreak seriously early on.) After initially downplaying or ignoring the danger, the Trump administration is using it to double down on long-standing preoccupations—namely, superpower conflict with China and draconian immigration restrictions.
Recall that in his first major televised address on the crisis in March, after weeks of denying the threat of the virus, the only major policy Trump announced was a 30-day travel ban on Europe, extending one already in place on China. By this time, COVID-19 was already spreading rapidly within the United States and the acute need for medical supplies, ventilators, and testing kits was already obvious. But the first instinct, as always, was to focus on the border. Soon after the travel ban, the U.S. closed its Northern and Southern borders to all but U.S. citizens, pushed back asylum hearings for people who have been waiting for months in Mexico, and shut off access to anyone trying to claim asylum at the border. While tightening the screws on immigration and engaging in worse-than-useless stunts like an abandoned plan to dispatch troops to the U.S.-Canadian border, the administration and its Republican allies in Congress have also escalated tensions with China, a strategy to deflect blame from its own failures that has sabotaged attempts to coordinate a global response to the virus.
The response to the pandemic has in some ways provided a test run for the level of coordination that will be required to combat another global threat: climate change. Like containing the pandemic, curbing climate change will require enormous global coordination and shared sacrifice. But Trump’s fixation on borders and migration is a preview of how right-wing and far-right governments will approach the more gradual climate crisis. At a certain point, they will shift from denying the problem to using it as pretext to shut out refugees and implement nativist policies.
The Republican Party’s denialist position has only been tenable as long as the climate has been an abstract issue for most middle-class Americans. The droughts, wildfires, and severe storms of the coming years are going to make scientists’ gloomy predictions a lot harder to ignore. Already, 60 percent of Republicans believe human activity causes climate change and a narrow majority of Republican millennials want the government to do more to address it.
Environmentalists and liberals might hope this will lead the party to embrace green energy and wilderness conservation, perhaps with a more market-oriented bent, but the uncomfortable fact is that environmental fears dovetail nicely with the strain of populist nativism that currently holds sway on the American right.
As the environmentalist author Beth Gardiner wrote in the New York Times in February, right-wing movements around the world are “picking up old environmental tropes and adapting them to a moment charged with fears for the future.” She adds:
Often, they emphasize what they see as the deep ties between a nation’s land and its people to exclude those they believe do not belong. Some twist scientific terms such as “invasive species” — foreign plants or animals that spread unchecked in a new ecosystem — to target immigrants and racial and ethnic minorities.
Extreme examples include the self-described “ecofascists” who carried out mass murders in Christchurch, New Zealand, and El Paso, Texas, last year, weaving themes of environmental conservation into their anti-immigrant manifestos. But these ideas have gained more mainstream acceptance as well. In France, the far right has gone fully green, with young activists seeing organic farming and limits to economic growth as part and parcel of efforts to protect the French homeland from the corrosive influences of immigration and liberalism. In Germany, the youth wing of the far-right Alternative for Germany recently warned party leaders that they would need to rethink their traditional climate skepticism and support for the coal industry or risk losing the youth vote.
While environmentalism may be thought of as a “left” issue today, there’s an uncomfortably long and deep history of xenophobia and racist ideas in the movement. John Tanton, the founder of the far-right anti-immigration group FAIR, who died last year, found his way to his anti-immigration views through his involvement in the Sierra Club and the Zero Population Growth movement. As recently as 2004, the Sierra Club was divided by a bitter dispute over whether to advocate tough immigration restrictions to protect the environment.
The World Bank has estimated that by 2050, three regions—Latin America, Sub-Saharan Africa, and Southeast Asia—will generate an additional 143 million climate migrants. These are both people forced to relocate by extreme weather events and by humanitarian crises exacerbated by climate change. Already there is compelling evidence that drought is a major factor driving the recent surge of Central American migration to the United States.
It’s not hard to imagine a future U.S. administration, rather than denying the increasingly obvious reality of climate change, using it to argue that the country needs tougher immigration controls and fewer refugees. The alternative, they will argue, is to be overwhelmed by the human invaders and see our own natural resources depleted in the way other countries already have.
The same will be true on foreign policy. The coronavirus has shown how a crisis that clearly necessitates a globally coordinated response can instead pit countries against one another in a competition for resources and a rush to assign blame. No major economy is really doing “enough” to combat climate change right now, but it’s not hard to imagine a future in which, rather than Paris Agreement–style coordination to reduce emissions, countries simply blame one another for the problem rather than take action.
Trump may be a climate change denier, but that hasn’t stopped him from blaming other countries. Claiming that the U.S. has “some of the cleanest air” in a British TV interview last year, he then pointed the finger at other countries: “China, India, Russia, many other nations, they have not very good air, not very good water in the sense of pollution and cleanliness. They don’t do the responsibility.”
The coronavirus has little respect for national borders. Similarly, border security certainly can’t hold back unlivable concentrations of CO2 in the Earth’s atmosphere. But scapegoating foreigners offers ideologues an easier maneuver than denying reality, let alone addressing the real problem. If Trump gets away with making this crisis about immigration, the end of climate denial may not be far off.