Big, Beautiful, and Bad for the Environment: The Ecological Damage Likely to Ensue from President Trump’s Border Wall

Big, Beautiful, and Bad for the Environment: The Ecological Damage Likely to Ensue from President Trump’s Border Wall

By: Catherine A. Creighton, Staff Contributor 

Disdained by architects as a “pharaonic project,” and immigration specialists as naïve,[1] Donald Trump’s $40 billion[2] border wall, has recently come under fire as environmental “self-sabotage.”[3]

Currently, slightly less than half of the United States’ 2000-mile southwestern border is fenced by a barrier of some kind, the bulk of this construction completed in the last decade.[4] President Trump’s wall is intended to close remaining gaps, creating a continuous barrier linking San Diego, California and Brownsville, Texas, and all points in between.[5]

Legal authority for President Trump’s border wall stems from many sources. In addition to federal eminent domain power from the “Takings Clause” of the Fifth Amendment,[6] Trump will likely rely on the authority of the 2006 Real ID act in order to further justify the wall’s construction as a national security interest.[7] Although the Real ID  law was passed to combat terrorism, its provision “allowing waivers of any and all laws that interfere with the construction of physical barriers at the borders,” means it is frequently used to expedite construction of barriers and roads for immigration-related concerns.[8] Waivers, issued by the Secretary of Homeland Security, excuse the requirements of the Endangered Species Act, National Environmental Preservation Act, “and at least 35 other” similar statutes.[9] These waivers were used in 2007 to more expeditiously construct a 35-mile barrier near Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge in Arizona, and a year later to aid in the completion of 450 additional miles of border barriers from Texas to California.[10]

The wall’s physical construction is expected to be particularly damaging for climate health. Trump initially promised the wall would be constructed of concrete,[11] a structural material held together using cement, and production of which results in an immense volume of greenhouse gas emissions.[12] To build a 1,000 mile wall, rising 50 feet tall above-ground and extending 15 feet below, with a thickness of one foot, will require “9.7 million cubic meters of concrete and 2.3 billion kilograms of steel.”[13] The Institute for Sustainable Energy and the Environment at the University of Bath concluded that there are 380 kilograms of carbon dioxide emissions for every cubic meter of concrete poured.[14] Applying those numbers to the border wall, it is likely that the concrete used for the wall alone could produce up to 3.7 million tons of carbon dioxide.[15] If the wall contains recycled metal, this figure only increases. The University of Bath study found 1.8 kilograms of carbon dioxide is emitted with  every kilogram of steel manufactured, so this steel would “contribute a further 4.1 million metric tons” of carbon dioxide.[16] In sum, the wall will thus contribute 7.8 million additional metric tons of carbon dioxide to global greenhouse emissions¾the same as the emissions from 823,654 houses constructed during a calendar year.[17]

In addition to climate change concerns, the wall is also expected to be incredibly damaging to local ecosystems and the wildlife therein for several reasons. First, the wall is expected to inhibit movement for animals that need to travel for food and water, an especially genuine concern given the aridity of many borderlands likely to be affected.[18] Inhibited movement will also “divide the mating pool” of many of these animals, with a likely consequence of seriously decreased genetic diversity.[19] Decreased genetic diversity, in turn, is directly linked to increased susceptibility to disease.[20] Second, certain already endangered or at-risk species are expected to particularly bear the brunt of the wall’s construction. Examples of these species include: bighorn sheep,[21] jaguars, Mexican gray wolves, black bears, spotted owls, deer, and ocelots.[22] Depleting ocelot populations are of particular concern to preservationists, as only around 50 animals of the species remain in southern Texas to date.[23] Likewise, the survival of local black bear populations hinges on the ability of these bears to mate with Mexican bears.[24] Finally, habitats in this region, one of the most ecologically-rich and biodiverse places on the North American continent,[25] are expected to be destroyed by flooding caused by the wall’s effect on watersheds and waterways in the region.[26]

With the question of financing for the wall’s construction, it’s start date, and its beginning location up in the air, it is easy to dismiss the wall as a distant problem.[27] Even the deadline of contractors to build the wall, has been extended three times. [28] Yet, as of April 4, 2017, that deadline has now come and gone and the Administration is presumably weighing its options. As such, the time to worry and act may now be upon us more than ever, if not for partisan ideals and policies, than at least for the environment and ecosystem which affects red state and blue state alike.



[1] Critics on Why Building a Mexico Border Wall Won’t Be Effective, CBS News, (January 26, 2017, 6:51 AM),

[2] Jamie Condlife, Trump’s Border Wall Will Be Awful for the Environment, Technology Review, (Jan. 27, 2017),

[3] Erika Bolstad, Trump’s Wall Could Cause Serious Environmental Harm, Scientific American, (Jan. 26, 2017),

[4] Jonathan Sullivan, What Would Trump’s Wall Mean for Wildlife, BBC News, (Sep. 1, 2016),

[5] Id.

[6] U.S. Const. Amend. V.

[7] Dr. Deborah Brosnan, Trump’s Wall Presents an Environmental Quagmire, The Huffington Post, (Feb. 23, 2017, 10:56 AM),

[8] Id.

[9] Id.

[10] Id.

[11] Ian Johnston, Donald Trump’s Great Wall on Mexican Border Will Damage Environment in ‘Insane Act of Self Sabotage,’ The Independent, (Jan. 27, 2017, 10: 06 GMT),

[12] Bolstad, supra note 4.

[13] Condlife, supra note 3.

[14] Id.

[15] Id.

[16] Id.

[17] Id.

[18] Justin Worland, The Problem with President Trump’s Wall That No One is Talking About, Time, (Jan. 26, 2017),

[19] Id.

[20] Sullivan, supra note 5.

[21] Brosnan, supra note 7.

[22] Id.

[23] Sullivan, supra note 5.

[24] Sullivan, supra note 5.

[25] Melissa Gaskill, The Environmental Impact of the U.S.-Mexico Border Wall, Newsweek (Feb. 14, 2016, 9:28 AM),

[26] Sullivan, supra note 5.

[27] Rafael Caranza, What We Know about Donald Trump’s border wall, The Republic: Arizona Central, (March 30, 2017),

[28] Bids to Build President Donald Trump’s Border Wall Due Today, Fox News Insider, (April 4, 2017),