Earlier this year, the White House learned that, in the estimation of 13 federal agencies, climate change was on pace to cost the United States trillions of dollars worth of economic growth by 2100 — and to condemn thousands of Americans to premature deaths.
In the second volume of the 2018 National Climate Assessment, the government’s top scientists document the toll that climate change has already taken on American life, and estimate the further costs that warming is likely to impose on the U.S. by century’s end. Already, unprecedented rates of “nuisance flooding” are besetting coastal cities, wildfires are terrorizing wide swathes of the West, and oceanic warming has U.S. fisheries reeling — developments that were all projected by the 2014 version of the report.
If the 2018 assessment’s long-term projections prove similarly prescient, then America is in for a rough century. By 2100, routine droughts will ravage the Midwest, bringing the bread basket’s agricultural yields down to 1980s levels (when America had far fewer mouths to feed). Once a plague peculiar to the West, seasonal wildfires will arrive in the Southeast, where communities and infrastructure are entirely unprepared for such conflagrations. As ozone levels rise and air quality diminishes, asthma and airborne diseases will grow more prevalent. As temperature changes shift the geographic range and distribution of various disease-carrying insects, more Americans will suffer from mosquito and tick-borne illnesses; by 2050, the number of West Nile virus cases is expected to more than double.
As sweltering heat waves become more frequent, the prevalence of heart attacks and other cardiovascular problems will rise; by 2100, climate change will condemn so many Americans to premature, heart-related deaths, such fatalities will cost the U.S. economy upward of $140 billion. As rising tides inundate coastal cities, millions of Americans — and billions of dollars worth of infrastructure — will need to be relocated. As warming renders large swathes of the global south unlivable, American exporters will lose entire consumer markets on which they currently rely, while demands for U.S. humanitarian assistance and disaster aid will grow. In total, the report estimates that climate change will render the American economy more than 10 percent smaller than it would have otherwise been by 2100.
In other words, the federal government’s top scientists informed the Trump administration that climate change poses a dire threat to virtually all of its putative priorities — from growing the American economy, to expanding U.S. exporters’ share of global markets, to improving domestic infrastructure, to increasing the self-sufficiency of America’s foreign allies, to reviving the economic vitality of the Midwest (which is poised to experience the most extreme and destabilizing temperature increases).
And the president responded to this news by:
• Tweeting that cold weather in the Northeast disproved global warming.
• Releasing the (congressionally mandated) report on the Friday after Thanksgiving, to ensure that the American public paid its findings no more attention than he had. (As Steven J. Milloy, a member of Trump’s EPA transition team, explained to the New York Times, the idea was to “do it on a day when nobody cares, and hope it gets swept away by the next day’s news.”)
You see, the Trump administration has little patience for overhyped, pseudo-crises (like a rapidly progressing ecological disaster that virtually all scientists, and top Pentagon officials, consider a leading threat to global security), as it must focus on genuine threats to Americans’ safety and well-being — like Central American migrants who wish to provide the U.S. with (much-needed) agricultural labor.
And so, two days after the White House buried its own climate assessment, American law-enforcement officials fired tear gas across our southern border to repel a group of aslyum seekers who were trying to enter the U.S. illegally.
This border clash attracted decidedly more attention — from both America’s media and its president — than the climate findings released 48 hours earlier had. And on one level, that’s perfectly reasonable. The spectacle of American border agents releasing a chemical agent (which is prohibited for use in warfare) into Mexico — in order to deter crowds of migrants who were openly challenging the authority of U.S. law — is a much more novel and visually stimulating event than the government’s latest reiteration of the scientific consensus on climate change. And such clashes do reflect a genuine border crisis of sorts — but a crisis that is of the Trump administration’s own making.
Contrary to the president’s rhetoric, the border clashes in Tijuana Sunday were not triggered by a violent, lawless caravan hell-bent on “invading” the United States. Rather, they were triggered by the administration’s decision to deliberately prevent asylum seekers from being able to present their claims legally, in a timely fashion. As Vox’s Dara Lind explains:
Under a policy of “metering” asylum seekers, in which US officials limit the number of people who are allowed to enter the port and ask for asylum each day, migrants currently wait two months or longer in Tijuana before being allowed to enter the US.
Citing resource constraints, the US allows 60 to 100 asylum seekers — or fewer — into San Ysidro each day. An unofficial wait list of hundreds of people over the summer ballooned to thousands this fall. Before the caravan arrived, wait times stretched to two months, and the migrant shelters in Tijuana were already near capacity.
Many of the caravan members have been put up in a sports complex in Tijuana that’s been converted into a temporary shelter. Over the weekend, rains flooded the sports complex. The local government and nonprofits have struggled to feed everyone…Many migrants in the caravan weren’t expecting the wait or the conditions. They’ve already been traveling for weeks, often with children in tow, with the hope of getting asylum in the US…they’re getting desperate. And desperate people do desperate things.
If the Trump administration’s goal was to minimize disorder and lawlessness at the U.S. border, then it could allocate more resources for processing asylum seekers legally. But it will not do that — because the administration’s actual goal is to minimize the number of Central American migrants who gain residency in the United States.
Thus, the (supposed) threat that the White House is devoting the bulk of its energies to combating is, in actual fact, an uptick in legal immigration (or attempted legal immigration) from Central America. The United States is investing immense diplomatic capital into combatting this scourge, hoping to bully and bribe the Mexican government into sheltering asylum seekers while their claims are being processed by U.S. courts. It is calling for billions of dollars in new infrastructure and intense, intra-Cabinet collaboration to increase America’s resilience in the face of this menace.
And yet, the president appears incapable of making a coherent argument for why we should regard the recent upsurge of Central American asylum seekers as major threat to the United States without fabricating defamatory lies about the migrants’ identities, intentions, and propensities for violent crime. Ostensibly, Trump recognizes that fact-based concerns about higher rates of Central American immigration would not justify his administration’s overwhelming focus on, and draconian approach to, border enforcement. And so, he’s decided to baselessly claim that the caravan of Central American asylum seekers is composed largely of “criminals and unknown Middle Easterners,” that the caravan poses a dire threat to public safety in the United States, and that it might even be the product of a Democratic conspiracy to flood America with illegals and then use them to steal elections through mass voter fraud.
This calculus is (in a sense) understandable: It’s quite difficult to make a rational case for why our government should regard the actual Central American caravan (or an increase in low-skill immigration, more broadly) as a major threat to America’s national interests. We’ve long known that native-born Americans commit violent crimes at far higher rates than either legal or undocumented immigrants. And newer research into immigration and criminality has proven even more devastating to the nativists’ presumptions: States with higher concentrations of undocumented immigrants tend to have lower rates of violent crime — and this correlation persists even when controlling for a given state’s median age, level of urbanization, and rate of unemployment or incarceration.
Separately, the American economy is actually in great need of young, unskilled workers (like many of those currently stranded in Tijuana). And with the baby-boomers retiring — and birth rates plummeting — the future of American economic growth depends on an infusion of foreign workers. Finally, even if the United States opened its door to every last member of the Central American caravan, it would still accept an aberrantly low number of displaced people as legal immigrants this year, thanks to Trump’s sweeping cuts to refugee admissions.
Given all this, one might be tempted to describe the Trump administration’s simultaneous disregard for a metastasizing climate crisis and all-consuming attention to a nonexistent (or at least ill-defined) crisis of Central American migration as irrational. And if one stipulates that the White House is earnestly invested in increasing native-born Americans’ material prosperity and physical security, then the administration’s behavior is certainly that.
On the other hand, if one assumes that the administration is indifferent to the fate of ordinary Americans — and is concerned, above all, with advancing the pecuniary interests of its corporate donors (many of whom are heavily invested in fossil fuels), while retaining the enthusiasm of its xenophobic voters, then its actions are quite rational, indeed.