How the Border Security Industry Will Profit Hugely From Climate Change

A hawk’s eye-view of global warming.

Todd Miller and Alex Devoid June 15, 2015

Women wash the dishes in the droughtstricken Guacerique river outside Tegucigalpa, Honduras, on June 2. The drought has decimated crops and cattle, sending migrants north.

April 24, at the Defense, Nation­al Secu­ri­ty, and Cli­mate Change Sym­po­sium in Wash­ing­ton, D.C., Brigadier Gen­er­al Stephen Cheney stepped up to the podi­um to dis­cuss con­flict and cli­mate change.” Although Cheney is CEO of the Amer­i­can Secu­ri­ty Project think tank, he iden­ti­fies first as a retired Marine who likes to talk about war fight­ing.” That’s fit­ting for a gath­er­ing that revolved around the war on cli­mate change” — a phrase used by jour­nal­ist Cyril Mychale­jko to describe the ten­den­cy to fit the world’s com­ing cli­ma­to­log­i­cal upheavals into a nation­al secu­ri­ty framework.”

The Department of Homeland Security’s Climate Action Plan acknowledges that it may be necessary to prepare U.S. borders for 'frequent, short-term, disaster-driven migration.'

Denial­ism still holds some sway in Con­gress, with sev­en GOP sen­a­tors express­ing out­rage in May that FEMA asked states to plan for cli­mate change, but among the mil­i­tary and defense tech­nol­o­gy elites gath­ered at the sym­po­sium, no time was wast­ed on debat­ing the sci­ence. Instead, the Oba­ma administration’s warn­ing in Feb­ru­ary that the warm­ing of the plan­et is an urgent and grow­ing threat to our nation­al secu­ri­ty” set the agenda.

Much of the talk revolved around beef­ing up mil­i­tary infra­struc­ture at home and abroad to be resis­tant to harsh­er cli­mates. The army has embarked on a Net Zero” ini­tia­tive to make its U.S. bases water-and ener­gy-inde­pen­dent through green tech­nol­o­gy, and it is con­duct­ing a review to assess the vul­ner­a­bil­i­ty of its 7,000-some over­seas bases to cli­mate change.

How­ev­er, it didn’t take long for Cheney, like many speak­ers at the two­day event, to zero in on migra­tion. We know for a fact that [cli­mate change] is already dri­ving inter­nal and cross-bor­der migra­tion,” Cheney said to his audi­ence of gov­ern­ment offi­cials — heavy on the Depart­ment of Defense — and indus­try reps from mil­i­tary con­trac­tors such as Lock­heed Mar­tin and Booz Allen Hamilton.

That’s true: Sci­en­tists esti­mate that in Bangladesh, the ground zero” of glob­al warm­ing, ris­ing sea lev­els could dis­place 15 mil­lion peo­ple by 2050.Oxford University’s Nor­man Myers has pro­ject­ed that there could be as many as 200 mil­lion cli­mate refugees” by mid-cen­tu­ry, though oth­er researchers have argued that this num­ber is inflated.

It’s not just that cli­mate change dis­places peo­ple through floods, storms and ris­ing sea lev­els; it also dis­places them through scarci­ty of food and water, and by the con­flicts that are in turn sparked by scarci­ty and migra­tion. Soci­ol­o­gist Chris­t­ian Par­en­ti calls this col­li­sion” of polit­i­cal, eco­nom­ic and eco­log­i­cal dis­as­ters the cat­a­stroph­ic convergence.”

Cheney’s sym­po­sium pre­sen­ta­tion could have been billed as a Pow­er­Point tour of the world’s cat­a­stroph­ic con­ver­gences. The deser­ti­fi­ca­tion in the bor­der­lands between Chad and Nige­ria has caused a lot of migra­tion,” Cheney said, and the ter­ror orga­ni­za­tion Boko Haram is sim­ply tak­ing advan­tage of that.”

One of the impor­tant dri­vers of strife,” he not­ed, is high prices and drought.” A drought of unpar­al­leled length and sever­i­ty” in Syr­ia in the mid- 2000s, he explained, led to the mass inter­nal migra­tion of 1.5 mil­lion peo­ple from rur­al to urban areas, such as Dam­as­cus, where they had no jobs, no food — that’s what start­ed and foment­ed the civ­il war.” Now, Syr­i­an refugees are flood­ing into Europe.

Cur­rent­ly, inter­na­tion­al law does not grant refugee sta­tus to those dri­ven from their homes by dis­as­ters or cli­mate change. Jane McAdam, an expert on refugee law at the Uni­ver­si­ty of New South Wales in Syd­ney told Bloomberg News in March that there is lit­tle polit­i­cal will among gov­ern­ments to cre­ate new cat­e­gories of peo­ple requir­ing pro­tec­tion.” She not­ed that a 2011 effort by the UN refugee agency to craft a glob­al frame­work for han­dling cli­mate change and dis­as­ter-dri­ven dis­place­ment went nowhere. How­ev­er, some see a hope­ful legal prece­dent in a 2014 case in which New Zealand grant­ed res­i­den­cy to a refugee fam­i­ly from the island nation of Tuvalu, which is being swal­lowed by ris­ing seas.

Many at the Defense, Nation­al Secu­ri­ty & Cli­mate Change Sym­po­sium showed sym­pa­thy for those whose mas­sive dis­place­ment seems inevitable. How­ev­er, for the most part, this cli­mate refugee upsurge was pre­sent­ed as one nation­al secu­ri­ty men­ace, among many, to be managed.

The Depart­ment of Home­land Security’s Cli­mate Action Plan, in effect since 2013, acknowl­edges that it may be nec­es­sary to pre­pare U.S. bor­ders for fre­quent, short-term, dis­as­ter-dri­ven migra­tion.” The plan antic­i­pates increased pop­u­la­tion move­ments, both legal and ille­gal, across the U.S. bor­der,” because of severe droughts and trop­i­cal storms,” par­tic­u­lar­ly in Mex­i­co, Cen­tral Amer­i­ca and the Caribbean. The ongo­ing drought in Hon­duras, Guatemala and El Sal­vador, for exam­ple, caused mas­sive crop fail­ures this year, like­ly adding to the influx of migrants already head­ing for the Unit­ed States to escape extreme vio­lence and poverty.

In the post‑9/​11 era, the Mex­i­can bor­der has been a place where three key U.S. for­eign pol­i­cy ini­tia­tives have con­verged: the war on drugs, the war on ter­ror and the war on immi­grants. To those a fourth can be added: the war on cli­mate refugees.

Is that a cam­era in your cactus? 

For com­pa­nies like Northrop Grum­man and Gen­er­al Dynam­ics Mis­sion Sys­tems attend­ing the ninth annu­al Bor­der Secu­ri­ty Expo in Phoenix in April, that war on cli­mate refugees spells a prof­itable busi­ness oppor­tu­ni­ty. The expo offered a dizzy­ing look at our sprawl­ing bor­der-secu­ri­ty industry.

More than 100 ven­dors filled a crowd­ed exhi­bi­tion hall in Phoenix with gad­gets and dis­plays that look like sci­ence fic­tion. Tech­nolo­gies range from minia­ture drones to motion sen­sors to mount­ed machine guns to spher­i­cal robots (orig­i­nal­ly designed by NASA to explore the plan­et Mars). This is where Home­land Secu­ri­ty high brass meets pri­vate indus­try, and where a devel­op­ing gov­ern­ment-indus­try nexus envi­sions the future of the U.S. borderlands.

What looks like a pile of rocks on one table is actu­al­ly a sur­veil­lance cam­era. And rocks are just a small sam­ple of what the engi­neer­ing com­pa­ny Gans & Pugh Asso­ciates can cre­ate from fiber­glass to dis­guise sur­veil­lance equipment.

[A] log, all kinds of things. You name it. We basi­cal­ly need a sam­ple or a pic­ture … and you tell us what you want to put in it,” said the company’s ven­dor. He declined to name a spe­cif­ic price, say­ing it ranges depend­ing on the order size.

TimberSpy’s spe­cial­ty is the sur­veil­lance-cam­era tree stump, per­fect for patrolling the defor­est­ed Mon­tana bor­der” against encroach­ing Cana­di­ans. At the Expo, Tim­ber­Spy employ­ee Kurt Lud­wigsen told Fox10 local news that two of their tree stump mod­els are large enough for agents to hide inside.

Eye­sight Sur­veil­lance has man­u­fac­tured wire­less cam­eras and motion sen­sors that can be con­cealed in, for exam­ple, one of Arizona’s majes­tic saguaro cac­ti. We just had some Bor­der Patrol guys through here look­ing at this stuff say, Why don’t we have this?’ ” said Eyesight’s vendor.

No pan­els focused on cli­mate change, but there were many ref­er­ences to increas­es in migra­tion. For­mer Cus­toms and Bor­der Pro­tec­tion (CBP) Com­mis­sion­er David Aguilar told an audi­ence of indus­try rep­re­sen­ta­tives dur­ing a pan­el, Don’t for­get to look at what’s hap­pen­ing tomor­row,” cit­ing the pos­si­bil­i­ty of immi­nent” and dra­mat­ic” cross-bor­der traffic.

Lat­er, in the keynote speech, Mark Borkows­ki, CBP’s assis­tant com­mis­sion­er and chief acqui­si­tion exec­u­tive, told the audi­ence of indus­try reps that the agency is inter­est­ed in [their] ideas on how to innovate.”

Those inno­va­tions will add to what is already the most mas­sive bor­der enforce­ment appa­ra­tus in U.S. his­to­ry. Nev­er before have there been so many hun­dreds of miles of walls and bar­ri­ers and con­cen­trat­ed sur­veil­lance tech­nolo­gies on the U.S.-Mexico bor­der. Nev­er before have so many U.S. Bor­der Patrol agents policed that bor­der: Their ranks have swelled from 3,500 in the ear­ly 1990s to more than 18,000 today. Dur­ing the past decade, the com­bined annu­al U.S. bud­gets for Immi­gra­tion and Cus­toms Enforce­ment and CBP have increased from $9.5 bil­lion ($11.5 bil­lion in today’s dol­lars) in 2005 to more than $18 bil­lion in 2015. The fis­cal year 2015 bud­get request includes an increase of $90 mil­lion to upgrade remote and video sur­veil­lance pro­grams. All of this spells a wind­fall for com­pa­nies like Lock­heed Mar­tin and Boe­ing, which have received tens of mil­lions of dol­lars in bor­der-secu­ri­ty contracts.

With denial­ism still rul­ing the day in Con­gress, the words cli­mate change” don’t appear any­where in the FY2015 bud­get request for CBP or ICE, but it appears that at least some parts of the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment are tak­ing mea­sures to pre­pare for our rapid­ly chang­ing weath­er pat­terns. Unfor­tu­nate­ly, those prepa­ra­tions are most like­ly to ben­e­fit the likes of Boe­ing — not the mil­lions world­wide who are most vulnerable. 

Todd Miller is the author of Bor­der Patrol Nation: Dis­patch­es from the Front Lines of Home­land Secu­ri­ty (Open Media). He has writ­ten on bor­der and immi­gra­tion issues for the New York Times, Al Jazeera Amer­i­ca, and NACLA Report on the Amer­i­c­as and its blog Bor­der Wars, among oth­er places. You can fol­low him on Twit­ter @memomiller and view more of his work at tod​dwmiller​.word​press​.com.

Alex Devoid reports on bor­der and immi­gra­tion issues as a free­lance mul­ti­me­dia and print jour­nal­ist. He has writ­ten for NACLA Report on the Amer­i­c­as and has worked for Bor­der­Links in Tuc­son, Ari­zona, and Acción Médi­ca Cris­tiana in Man­agua, Nicaragua. You can fol­low Alex on Twit­ter at @devoidalex.

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