In a 2019 report, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights warned about the possibility of climate apartheid: a world in which only elites are able to access basic forms of social protection while everyone else faces the devastating effects of climate crises.
Such crises are already here—and they are hitting us with increasing frequency. Researchers say that we can expect more climate change–related wildfires, heat waves, and floods before the end of the year, all of which will compound the economic damage done by the COVID-19 pandemic. Yet how all this destruction will affect us has less to do with the wind, rain, or sea levels and more to do with our institutions, a simple question of whom and what the political system chooses to protect. Whether ecological crises leads to a bleak future of climate apartheid or something more just depends on the politics of prisons and police.
What Yesterday’s Crises Tell Us About Climate Crisis
Modern policing in the United States evolved from institutions created to manage perceived crises of social control. In the sixteenth century, Spanish, French, and Portuguese colonizers of the Caribbean and South America formed patrols and legal systems to manage colonized populations. These strategies were inherited by the southern British colonies in North America. Slave patrols became the basis for modern police departments in the U.S. South. In the North, police departments were developed to break strikes. Businessmen had keys to special alarm boxes, which they could use to alert the police at the first sign of worker unrest.
In both the South and the North, the purpose of police departments was fundamentally the same: to secure, within the settled frontier, the social order on which profit-making activities depended. Subsequent developments in policing reveal similar priorities. Historian Elizabeth Hinton’s work, for example, shows how the pivot to mass incarceration and federalized, militarized policing was a direct response to the political crisis created by the tumultuous race riots of the 1960s.
In the 1980s, police departments around the country tried a new approach to the war on drugs, focusing on street-level offenses. In one operation spearheaded by the NYPD, “Operation Pressure Point,” police blanketed an open-air drug market with hundreds of plain clothes officers, arresting sixty-five people per day for six weeks. The drug trade didn’t stop as a result—it just moved away from the places where the busts were happening. But, from the point of view of real estate developers, landlords, and others with a financial or political stake in housing markets or store-front commercial ventures, that was good enough. Even if police departments couldn’t stop the crime, they could shape where and to whom it happened. This kind of selective logic is what we can expect under climate apartheid: policing will not be aimed at preventing climate crises from harming everyone, but instead police will be tasked with protecting elites from its downsides.
A growing literature by political scientists suggests that the activity of today’s police departments is already oriented around securing particular spaces for particular classes of people—that is to say, controlling the spatial and social distribution of crime rather than its incidence. Elaine B. Sharp argues that postindustrial cities use policing oriented around “order maintenance” to make areas hospitable for creative-class residents, a strategy she and others call “postindustrial policing.” City-level police expenditures tend to increase when housing prices increase, even while crime rates decline. Ayobami Laniyonu’s spatial study of New York found that the neighborhoods surrounding the gentrifying ones had the highest stop-and-frisk rates, particularly when those neighborhoods had high percentages of Black and brown families.
This scheme is an antagonistic security strategy: the safety and stability of spaces for affluent residents is generated from the very insecurity that their policing creates for others. The decade between 2006 and 2016 saw the fastest increases of legal ordinances criminalizing poverty and homelessness in U.S. history, including a 52 percent increase in bans on sitting and lying, an 88 percent increase in prohibitions on loitering and “loafing,” and a 143 percent increase in bans on living in vehicles. Empowered by these ordinances, police departments nationwide get to work harassing people who look out of place and dispersing homeless encampments.
In short, crises of political economy are often managed with prisons and policing. Whether responding to the crises of slave rebellion, worker unrest, cuts to social services, or income inequality, politicians look at prisons and police as one of their top go-to tools when things get out of hand. In the current activities of police and law enforcement, we can see the seeds of the response to climate crises.
What Today’s Crises Tell Us About Climate Crisis
Likely upcoming climate hazards during the COVID-19 pandemic, from “Compound climate risks in the COVID-19 pandemic.”
A recent study published in the Nature Climate Change research journal predicts that the socioeconomic fallout of COVID-19 will exacerbate the destruction caused by climate crises. This year, scientists expect that the United States will be hit with more hurricanes, wildfires, and floods. As these compound crises accelerate, they will, inevitably, present problems in excess of policing capacity. The state and its police will have to decide who and what to protect.
When deemed useful, the incarcerated represent a hyper-exploitable population, which can be pressed into service for pittance. In recent years, California has relied on thousands of incarcerated firefighters to quell wildfires. They risk their lives for very little pay—between $2 and $5 a day—both because they are exempt from minimum wage laws and legally prevented from unionizing. Incarcerated firefighters are compensated with minor reprieves from the harshest versions of prison life, including sentence reductions and opportunities to visit with their children.
When not deemed useful, the incarcerated represent a hyper-disposable population. During Hurricane Katrina in 2006, the city of New Orleans faced its first ever mandatory evacuation. Yet evacuation was not possible for those imprisoned in Orleans Parish Prison, as Sheriff Marlin Gusman assured the public that the incarcerated would stay “where they belong.” Where they belonged, apparently, was crowded in a large gymnasium without food. Incarcerated people, including children as young as thirteen, were left for days in toxic water that rose as high as their chests. As one lawyer put it in the ACLU’s scathing report: “The Louisiana Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals did more for its 263 stray pets than the sheriff did for the more than 6,500 men, women and children left in his care.”
Outside of the prison, the assumption of criminality also led people to become hyper-disposable—without a judge, jury, or official sentence. After Hurricane Katrina, many people took to the streets, looking for dry land, shelter, medical help, and essentials like food and water. But media circulated images labeling Black people as criminal “looters.” Law enforcement officials were given orders to shoot looters on sight; white vigilantes murdered Black people they deemed criminal with near-total impunity. The mayor of New Orleans baselessly told Oprah Winfrey that “hundreds of gang leaders” were ruling the Superdome, where about 9,000 displaced residents took shelter from the storm.
At the peak of Hurricane Sandy, which struck New York in 2012 and whose intensity has been linked to climate change, the NYPD received emergency calls at a rate of 20,000 per hour. Yet even while the hurricane knocked out power in many of the city’s neighborhoods, they shone bright at Goldman Sachs. The day before the storm, the bank put 25,000 sandbags around the building, protecting it from the incoming floodwaters. The lights were courtesy of its own generator, which was set up as part of a disaster-preparedness plan set after 9/11. Another resource Goldman Sachs has in case of emergency is the NYPD, which is literally on its payroll. The police force guarantees the bank a “virtually instantaneous police response” in case of emergency.
While Goldman Sachs provides a particularly poetic example, the bank is not exceptional. LittleSis investigations found that a number of the world’s largest corporations bankroll U.S. police foundations, including tech companies like Facebook and Microsoft, and Goldman’s fellow financial sector powerhouses like Bank of America and Wells Fargo. This money allows local police departments to even further militarize with SWAT equipment and also to buy surveillance software and capacity without public scrutiny or oversight—even if activists succeed in their push for cities to “defund the police,” many departments will still receive this private funding. A second investigation reveals that links between private corporations and the police are particularly prominent in the fossil fuel industry. As executives make money from activity that pollutes Black and brown neighborhoods, they resist regulation by hijacking local politics. One Arkansas company even hired actors to feign grassroots support in a city council meeting. As the climate crisis accelerates, the police will likely continue to use military weapons and tactics to protect profiteering corporations from activists who seek to avert its worst effects, as they did at Standing Rock.
Meanwhile at the border, we are at the beginning of a Great Climate Migration, which will vastly reshuffle the distribution of the world’s population. The concentration camps on the southern border already detain climate refugees: many of those housed in detention facilities have moved from places where the crops no longer grow and water is harder and harder to come by. Rather than taking any steps to mitigate the devastation of climate change, the consistent response from the U.S. government has been to build walls and increase funding for its border guards. The COVID-19 crisis provided only a brief pause: immigration justice organizers say that Immigration and Customs Enforcement has restarted abductions in unmarked vans in Washington, D.C., despite the persistence of the pandemic. In Farmville, Virginia, over 70 percent of detainees have contracted COVID-19; in California’s Adelanto facility, protesting detainees have been violently subdued with pepper-ball rounds and tear gas—much like on the streets of the nation’s cities during the recent protests against police killings.
What We Should Do
Whether crises—in the form of a virus, ecological disaster, or an invading army—present opportunity or unmitigated calamity for a social system depends on what the system chooses to protect. So far, our system has chosen to protect large corporations, property, and racial hierarchy with militarized police. Meanwhile, the combined political and ecological stakes are rising most quickly and most dangerously for the most vulnerable among us: new research suggests that counties with high proportions of working-class African-American, Latinx, and Native American populations are the most vulnerable to flooding. These populations are more likely to be driven to bankruptcy by hurricanes, and more likely to experience difficulty accessing federal disaster assistance and loans. Shifting vulnerability toward those at the bottom is an example of the same “order maintenance” that Sharp argues is endemic to postindustrial policing. Those who lose their houses and are shut out of federal assistance will face greater exposure to harassment by police.
Radical proposals for dealing with police violence are beginning to circulate in response to the global uprising against police violence. Many now demand that we defund police departments and/or abolish them. The abolitionists arguing for these changes imagine a different response to disruptions to the social order, based on a collaborative model where we secure each other from harm. These imaginative projects are necessary. Police departments, from the Caribbean slave patrols to the present-day harassers of homeless people, are inextricably linked to an antagonistic security scheme, which aims to protect “us” from “them.” We need something else entirely.
But we cannot change the situation without first changing who is in the driver’s seat. If we want to change the size, scope, or priorities of policing in any lasting or meaningful fashion, we need to link abolitionist demands with the community control required to deliver on them: we need power over the police. The climate crises that are ahead of us only make this task more urgent. If we don’t win, we can expect the response to accelerating climate crises to look much like the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina: with more and more of us scrambling for basic forms of security like shelter, medicine access, and water—while on the wrong side of the watchful gunsights of the police.
Olúfẹ́mi O. Táíwò is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Georgetown University, where he focuses on social/political philosophy and ethics. He is also a member of Pan-African Community Action and an organizer of the Undercommons.