Thoughts on avoiding the dystopia predicted in John Lanchester’s The Wall.

The Wall, John Lanchester’s 2019 dystopian novel, is set in Britain after catastrophic climate change. Lanchester reverse-engineered what this world might look like by looking at maps of the world after four degrees of warming. These maps, Lanchester explained in an interview, imply not just a completely different planet, but “something like a world war.

The novel follows Kavanagh, a young man carrying out his mandatory two years of service on the National Coastal Defence Structure, 10,000 kilometres of concrete encircling the country. Known universally as the Wall, its purpose is to keep out ‘the Others’, refugees trying to enter Britain ‘illegally’ in search of a safer, better life.

For Lanchester, the displacement of people from now-uninhabitable parts of the world will be a central feature of a world that fails to deal with climate change.

And he is right to think so. One think tank predicts that current rates of warming will create 1.2 billion climate refugees by 2050. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) notes that while most climate displacement is currently happening within nations, this is changing as climate change exacerbates existing crises.

Illustrative is the Syrian Civil War, which has created twelve million refugees. It was not caused by climate change; however, the UNHCR argues that the seeds were sown by the five years of drought that preceded the conflict.

Displacement will not be limited to developing countries. To see this, one only has to look at wildfires in Australia, Canada and across the Mediterranean, where countless homes have been lost in recent years. Nevertheless, the least peaceful and developed countries are the most likely to be facing ecological threats. The least climate-resilient countries being hit the hardest by climate change will inevitably create flows of refugees to more developed countries, especially those better prepared or less affected.

Mass displacement will occur unless there is a drastic reduction in carbon emissions. The Wall presents us with one possible future response to mass displacement. It is not to create a safe space for those fleeing, but an authoritarian island fortress.

“The Wall forces us to think about how we will avoid a future where authoritarian anti-immigration parties rise to power in climate-resilient countries.”

It isn’t hard to extrapolate this response from the current discourse around immigration. Suella Braverman, the Home Secretary, argued that new draconian anti-immigration laws were necessitated by the fact that the “problem will be worse tomorrow” as more people leave “the developing world for places in the UK”. Braverman is evidently referring, at least in part, to the impact of climate change here.

She went on to label illegal immigration to Britain an invasion, language that could be pulled straight from The Wall.

Ironically, anti-immigration far-right parties are often unanimously against climate action, the only solution to this growing problem. This political reality is more anxiety-inducing when one considers Andreas Malm’s argument that the scale of change necessary to deal with climate change and, importantly, its consequences may not be compatible with the preservation of democracy.

Thus, The Wall forces us to think about how we will avoid a future where authoritarian anti-immigration parties rise to power in climate-resilient countries.

One proposed solution is that countries like the UK should issue climate visas to victims of ecological disasters while funding climate resilience in developing countries. Onward, the think tank that developed this solution, argues that this system would provide the labour required for the energy transition. Yet this solution does not seem adequate in the face of the scale of displacement we are going to face. Remember that 1.2 billion statistic?

More radically, Gaia Vince contends that we will need to “reinvent the nation-state”, as borders will be rendered increasingly meaningless by the sheer scale of mass displacement. She argues that this would be mutually beneficial, with ageing northern populations being supplemented by young migration from the Global South.

Vince offers bold solutions, but there is currently no political appetite to offer a new, more inclusive narrative around citizenship in the developed world. Indeed, under international law, those displaced by climate change are currently not even defined as refugees and are therefore not afforded the protections refugees are entitled to.

Mass displacement is likely to be one of the seminal challenges of the next thirty years. Climate change will push people out of their homes, either as a result of drought, food insecurity or war. This will overwhelmingly occur in the Global South. The question is whether more climate-resilient developed countries will accept unprecedented levels of immigration, or if, like Lanchester’s dystopia, they will simply build a wall.