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Unless we are deliberately antiracist, we are complicit. (Photo: Christ Chavez/Getty Images)

Last month, the UN reported, "People living in low-income countries are at least four times more likely to be displaced by extreme weather compared to people in rich countries, despite being the least responsible for climate change." In 2019, 34 million people suffered from food insecurity due to climate extremes. Meanwhile, weather hazards caused almost 25 million displacements in 140 countries. (Photo: Christ Chavez/Getty Images)

Climate Cages: What the US Should Remember From Slavery and Colonialism in Devising Climate Strategy

We cannot race ahead with renewable energy and green finance and ignore those left behind in the carceral state.

Nadia Ahmad

In sixteenth century England, gibbeting was a technique used for punishing convicted murders by hanging them in cages. Once a gibbet was hung, it attracted jubilant crowds since the display was engineered to maximize horror. By 1834 the practice was altogether banned, but objections arose to the practice of hanging people in cages, a form of punishment considered barbaric.

Throughout history, prisoners have been held in cages for not only torture, but also humiliation. It shocks the conscience that the immigration cages shut down and shuttered by activists denouncing the Trump administration are now dusted off for use temporarily.

A first step would be to not to cage people fleeing food shortages, drought, famine, and violence in their home countries caused by decades of U.S. imperialism.

Public outcry to immigration cages in the South has led some in the Biden administration to consider housing immigrant children in places like Connecticut. Middleton, CT Mayor Ben Florsheim said, "Taking kids out of cages in the southwest and moving them into cages in the northeast is not an immigration policy."

Those who show up at our borders are often the most poor and downtrodden. President Biden's Build Back Better programs address climate change and criminal justice reform, but they fail to account for how the two issues overlap.

I use the phrase, climate cages, to describe how public policy responses to climate change limit mobility, worsen prison conditions, and increase incarceration. These public policy responses can include immigration detention, deportation, self-deportation, and harsh sentencing guidelines.

Last month, the UN reported, "People living in low-income countries are at least four times more likely to be displaced by extreme weather compared to people in rich countries, despite being the least responsible for climate change." In 2019, 34 million people suffered from food insecurity due to climate extremes. Meanwhile, weather hazards caused almost 25 million displacements in 140 countries.

Policy makers have not yet met the gravity of the climate crisis with the moment. The governmental response has been to find solutions to climate in a vacuum from immigration and incarceration. Detention facility rates show that as climate change has increased, more efforts to restrict mobility and incarcerate Black and Brown people has occurred to maximize available land and space for those who are richer and whiter. The impacts of intensified global warming correspond with the higher prison populations, worsening prison conditions, and health disparities.

As the number of migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border soars, more than a dozen Catholic bishops from both countries are issuing a reminder that "there is a shared responsibility of all nations to preserve human life and provide for safe, orderly, and humane immigration, including the right to asylum." The joint statement from bishops comes when thousands of children and families have arrived at border in recent weeks, leading to overcrowded and packed border facilities.

Are we working to preserve the status quo or working to dismantle the racism of immigration policies?

A first step would be to not to cage people fleeing food shortages, drought, famine, and violence in their home countries caused by decades of U.S. imperialism.

Overcrowding in prisons is a way to preserve an economic system known as corporatism through racist immigration and incarceration policies, which later manifested in disparate responses to environmental pollution concerns from the Flint water crisis to pipeline protests at Line 3 in Minnesota.

NYU journalism professor Suketu Mehta puts forward "that immigrants 'have become a credit to this country'—the United States" through job growth, decreased crime rates, enhanced cultural innovation, and as a counterweight to aging populations through their "youth, fertility, and ability to support retirees." Immigration corrects "the wrongs of colonialism and corporate neocolonialism." Columbia law professor Michael Gerrard put forth that "the United States and other nations disproportionately responsible for carbon emissions should accept climate change refugees as a form of compensation to them and a form of justice."

The rash of immigration enforcement actions parallels concerns for environmental struggles. While these struggles may diverge, the systems at play still operate in hegemonic unison. Blackouts and water contamination in prisons are becoming more of a problem, but bold solutions for climate change historically neglect frontline communities. Climate change will increase extreme weather conditions, increasing vulnerabilities for those already at the margins—from prison populations to those attempting to cross the borders. Overcrowding in prisons is a way to preserve an economic system known as corporatism through racist immigration and incarceration policies, which later manifested in disparate responses to environmental pollution concerns from the Flint water crisis to pipeline protests at Line 3 in Minnesota.

In other words, caging is a strategy—both legal, financial, and political—used against the critics of this corporatist system, which capitalizes upon and targets marginalized communities and vulnerable populations. Corporatism is "a system of interest and/or attitude representation, a particular modal or ideal-typical institutional arrangement for linking the associationally organized interests of civil society with the decisional structures of the state." Nevertheless, the impacts of corporatism are also environmental in that these impacts work to silence environmental efforts and to demonstrate adverse impacts of climate change on frontline communities. That is, vulnerable communities, located in "sacrifice zones," have less of a right to be here—in the United States or on the planet—and, therefore, require less of a need for a clean environment, including clean air, clean water, and energy access.

Unless we are deliberately antiracist, we are complicit. Citizenship privilege is one of the highest privileges in the world. Either we can correct a wrong or allow it to perpetuate. Where we hold citizenship measures how we will be treated. And we cannot put kids in cages and be indifferent to those policies. We cannot race ahead with renewable energy and green finance and ignore those left behind in the carceral state. The green revolution should also be a freedom revolution. Today's climate cages are yesterday's gibbets.


Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.

Nadia Ahmad

Nadia Ahmad is a law professor at Barry University School of Law and the author of the article, Climate Cages: Connecting Migration, the Carceral State, Extinction Rebellion, and the Coronavirus through Cicero and 21 Savage.

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