Forgotten Errands: Rising Temperatures, Rising Tensions—Why Climate Change Actually Matters

If we were told that a giant asteroid was heading towards the earth to kill us all, cause mass chaos and ultimately our slow and painful deaths; we would do something, right? Surely elaborate defence schemes would be formulated and international agreements would be levied to take the measures necessary to prevent such destruction.


Image courtesy of Arne Hoel / World Bank, © 2006, some rights reserved.
Image courtesy of Arne Hoel / World Bank, © 2006, some rights reserved.

Or, at least, we would all like to think so— as we subconsciously repress the notion that the society in which we live our lives could collapse at any moment. This, however, is quite literally farcical—as seen in the recent meteor strike that injured at least 1200 near the Ural Mountains—and metaphorically disproven, as the global community fails to address issues that imminently threaten the world as we know it.

When we think of the issues that would pose such a direct security threat, we often dwell upon those sensationalised by the media; terrorism, nuclear proliferation, pandemic disease, Mayan predictions for the end of the world, and other issues that ranging from serious to ludicrous. These are the issues that we see regularly dominating headlines, framed with the war-mongering rhetoric of fear and exceptional urgency.

And then there is climate change, which might receive a peripheral shout-out here and there, with regards to preventing some eventual consequences of climate system degradation, or the most recent failures of international treaties. We keep climate change as a secondary or tertiary issue, lumped with gender relations and domestic trivialities in the belittled realm of ‘low politics.’

This is perhaps why international agreements like the Kyoto Protocol have failed to make actual progress on limiting carbon emissions. While some consider the agreement to have been at least partially successful within the European Union- it is rather a manifestation of international society’s obsession with maintaining a neoliberal economic order and the current power structure. The world’s top three carbon emitters- the US, China, and India- have never been limited in their emissions, and the remaining committed countries are only responsible for only 15% of global emissions.

Thus, the climate change issue is met by state actors with a sort of dispassionate lethargy on the international level—failing to elicit the same shock-and-awe panic and action that would accompany the aforementioned asteroid scenario.

It is this attitude that is provoking the environment to strike back at us with the force of many an asteroid. Beyond the soft arguments of intrinsic environmental value and trans-generational equality, climate change poses a threat that even a realist would admit. As temperature and weather systems change, decreased global access to fresh water and fertile land will, and have been proven to, present a genuine global security threat. Issues of scarcity pose a direct threat to domestic governments, as more pressure is placed upon states to improve infrastructure, and to offer social services to those in rural areas and those most affected by the resource shortage, while confronted decreasing economic productivity. This begins to widen the gap between the elites and the lower classes, decreasing the managerial and bargaining power of the state, while increasing the likelihood of civil violence, insurgencies, ethnic conflicts caused by mass migrations, and the escalation of pre-existing conflicts as civil unrest rises.

The World Bank’s most recent report on the effects of global warming predicts that, if no binding agreements are made to combat climate change, the anticipated 4° C rise in temperature will result in “half the global population will be living in water-scarce countries by the end of the century, compared to 28% today,” and “35% of sub-Saharan Africa’s cropland will become unsuitable for cultivation, with grave consequences for food security.”[1] A 2009 study from the American National Academy of Science[2] examining temperature, precipitation, and violent conflict in sub-Saharan Africa concludes that global warming will spawn a 54% increase in the average likelihood of violent conflicts in Africa, based on trends correlated to economic welfare, temperature, and other circumstances.

This tendency for recourse conflict is easily seen in the xeric conflicts of the Jordan River basin, as the America Johnston Plan failed to negotiate a water allocation agreement between Israel and Jordan. This contention was one of many that led to the 1967 Six Day War, during which Israel moved to secure the Baniyas River and the West Bank; establishing control over much of the Jordan River, and emphasising the importance of water resources to national security. As populations increase dramatically and climate change increases the scarcity of fresh water in arid, hostility-prone regions such as sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East, we can only expect conflicts to escalate.

Temperatures and tensions are already rising in the semi-arid Sahel region, which borders the Sahara desert at the north. The Sahara is estimated to be expanding one mile in every direction each year as the climate changes, and a rise in water temperatures in the Gulf of Guinea have shifted rain systems southward, causing crop shortages, loss of livestock, and severe agricultural degradation throughout the region. Domestic discomfort in Chad, Mali, and Niger has been linked with the rise of jihadist extremism. Francesco Femia, a founding director of the Center for Climate and Security, summarises this phenomenon, stating: “when a government has a great deal of difficulty providing basic resources for its public,” and “when climate-exacerbated droughts make that situation worse, then the staying power of non-state actors”—such as al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb—“and sympathy for non-state actors can rise.”[3]

Are we feeling scared enough to do something now? We find ourselves in a world where Kyoto has failed and environmental movements are too often associated with impractical leftist hippie idealism, so why not begin to present environmental issues with a bit more urgency in the context of these pressing security concerns? It certainly seems favourable to wage a war on carbon-emissions and climate change than wait for a war between states, or a war between insurgent groups, or another world war.

[1] Turn down the heat: why a four degree warmer world must be avoided’, The Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research and Climate Analytics for The World Bank (2012), 48, 62.

[2] Marshall B. Burke, Edward Miguel, Shanker Satyanath, John A. Dykema, David B. Lobell and Robert W. Kates, ‘Warming Increases the Risk of Civil War in Africa’, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 106.49 (2009) 20670-20674

[3] Slate, February 2013. ‘Could climate change be al-Qaida’s best friend in Africa?’. – 25 February 2013

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