“Is It Going to Get Us?” Climate Dystopia, Borders and the Future

How we saw the fire in Corfu on July 23. Photo: Todd Miller.

On the evening of July 23, my phone buzzed with an emergency alert. I was on the island of Corfu, Greece. There was a fire. Sure enough, I looked up and saw a plume of smoke coming over a ridge. It didn’t look far. Was it just a cloud? No— as night fell, my frivolous hope was debunked when the ridgeline began to glow like an ember. Then we could see the licking flames.

“Is it going to get us?” asked my seven-year-old William. For all of our two-week stay in Greece, there had been a heat wave, which would turn out to be the longest in Greek history (and one of the worst ever for Europe, and the world, for that matter). The relentless heat—which soared as high as 114 degrees Fahrenheit in some places—was so bad that the Greek government shut down the ancient Acropolis in Athens to midday tourism. And with the infernal heat came the fires. Not only Greece (including the island of Rhodes, where 19,000 people were evacuated), but also Algeria, Syria, Turkey, Croatia, Portugal, Italy, and Spain. Back home in southern Arizona, there was also a stubborn heat wave. July was going to be the hottest ever recorded in Tucson. And temperatures in Phoenix would exceed 110 degrees for 31 days straight, shattering the previous record. Not to mention the Canadian fires, whose smoke people throughout North America have been inhaling since June. In Greece, to see the flames on the ridgeline was to look right into this sorrow, a palpable and vivid symbol of the broiling, baking, burning world that William and his generation are inheriting.

“Is it going to get us?” What could I tell him but no, it’s not going to get us. I wasn’t sure of this, but what else are you supposed to tell your kid? And he was scared; I saw it in his eyes. In 2015, when I was at the Paris climate summit, the Tucson Weekly asked me to write a public letter to someone in the year 2050, a letter to the future that would express the importance of that juncture, and what an international accord in Paris might or might not change. I chose to write to my unborn child (also William!) who at the time was seven months in the womb. In 2050 he would turn 35. I was in Paris doing research for my 2017 book Storming the Wall: Climate Change, Migration, and Homeland Security, and in the letter I wrote that I hoped to avert what I was witnessing with my reporting, the continued collision of border policing with climate turmoil, an intensifying climate dystopia.

Now, 10 years later, I am on what has become the world’s most lethal border, in the Mediterranean, near Pylos, where about 600 people died in June on a capsized ship. Since 2014, more than 27,000 people have died or disappeared in this vast sea. From the fire I look out across the gorgeous Ionian Sea to Albania and wonder how many ships packed with migrants have cruised these borderland waters populated by cruise ships, yachts, and motorboats. The Mediterranean is not the world’s only lethal border, of course. In Arizona at least 66 people are known to have died crossing the border since January, and this summer there have been reports of people incarcerated outside in a chain-link pen with little shade in the horrid heat. As you read this, people are undoubtedly walking through the baking desert with no respite except for the shade from a high-tech surveillance tower. As Washington Office on Latin America researcher Adam Isacson wrote in July, “Shifts intensified by climate change are making the border deadlier during the summer’s hottest months.”

Since I wrote William in 2015, border budgets in the U.S., and across the world, have risen predictably and exponentially (U.S. annual budgets have gone up $10 billion, for example). The United States has spent 11 times more on surveillance towers and biometrics than climate action. And the European Union, which increased spending on its border force, Frontex, by a whopping 2,763 percent(from 2006 to 2021), has been testing out technology in North Africa as the fires and heat rage on. European Union leaders, as researcher Nathan Akehurst wrote, are hell-bent on immigration enforcement while doing little to address climate change. And the number of people displaced by climate conditions and catastrophes continues to rise. In case you were wondering, fortifying global borders is part of the climate adaptation strategy for the Global North.

Into the night we watched the fire on the ridgeline. I imagined somebody trying to stop us from evacuating if the fire spread down the hill and was filled with fury. The town where we were, Kassiopi, was an evacuation area, so it didn’t seem like the flames were heading our way. Regardless, I got up periodically during the night to make sure no new emergency alerts had come in. Would we be among the 20,000 people evacuated throughout Greece? With reports of potential arson, the debate about the fires and climate change started almost instantly. My response to those sorts of futile debates is—who cares? Arson would not be possible if the place weren’t a tinderbox. There were always multiple factors. Though I grew weary of reductive debates, I did not tire of seeing the world through my kids’ eyes. It was through those eyes that I saw the world the clearest.

“Is it going to get us?” No it won’t, I told him, and no it didn’t. In the morning we watched helicopters with huge buckets scoop up water and contain the fire. Later, the airport was a frenzy of people leaving the island. Some 2,500 people were evacuated, mainly tourists. The term “climate refugees” was used, but hardly. We weren’t stranded out at sea or in the middle of the desert. We were all about to burn jet fuel, many of us returning to the world’s richest countries. The Greek government sent evacuation planes, not coast guard boats—as it has done to boats filled with migrants—to push us back into dangerous waters.

Still, I do not want to diminish the real fear that I saw in my child’s eyes. And the pain in my heart to know that this is the world we are leaving to new generations. Nearly 10 years after I wrote the letter to the future, the prospects are exactly as imagined, if not even worse.

“Is it going to get us?” In hindsight, I think the better answer was how I concluded my letter to unborn William in 2015, after bleak predictions of future climate dystopia:

“Maybe I have overestimated the trends of the power structure, and underestimated the strength of the people. Maybe it’s you, my beloved, that gives me hope. Maybe I see in your potential actions, in your imagination, in your creativity, and in your capability the seeds for a much happier world. It is clear that your vibrant generation will be forced to act. It will have to reach across these fortified borders, and refuse to submit to them. It will take this sort of unity. This is where I place my greatest hope.”

The only thing I would modify is that my generation must also act, reaching across fortified borders—the sooner, the better.

This first appeared on The Border Chronicle.

Todd Miller is the author of Build Bridges Not Walls and editor of The Border Chronicle.