Photo Credit: Islamist rebel fighters ride on a motorbike along a deserted street in Idlib city April 6, 2015. REUTERS/Ammar Abdullah
By Michael Renner
It is sheer coincidence that Paris was struck by terrorists on the eve of a key climate conference known as COP 21. To some, the attacks may appear like an unfortunate distraction in the face of efforts to meet a civilizational challenge like no other. Yet there are important cross-connections between security and climate concerns.
Runaway climate change will impose growing stress on natural systems and human societies, and it could well usher in a whole new age of conflict. We live, after all, in a world marked by profound disparities in wealth, social and demographic pressures, unresolved grievances, and a seemingly endless supply of arms of all calibers. Far from being a separate concern, climate change is certain to intensify many existing challenges. More frequent and intense droughts, floods, and storms will likely play havoc with harvests and compromise food security. Extreme weather events, sea-level rise, and spreading disease vectors could undermine the economic viability and long-term habitability of some areas. The result could be escalating social discontent, mass displacement, and worse.
In fact, such scenarios are no longer mere conjecture. Consider Syria. Several consecutive years of severe drought in the country’s agricultural heartland had fateful consequences as underground water sources ran dry, livestock herds died, and farmland turned to desert. Close to three-quarters of farming households in Syria’s northeast experienced total crop failure. Some 2-3 million people fell into extreme poverty. A number of factors are behind this calamity, including climate change, overexploitation of groundwater due to subsidies for water-thirsty crops like cotton and wheat, inefficient irrigation systems and overgrazing.
The drought led to an exodus of perhaps as many as 1.5 million people from rural to urban areas. But Syria’s cities were already under economic stress, in part because of the influx of refugees from neighboring Iraq following the U.S. invasion of 2003. Growing numbers of destitute people found themselves in intense competition for scarce jobs and social services. Francesco Femia and Caitlin Werrell of the Center for Climate and Security point out that “the role of disaffected rural communities in the Syrian opposition movement has been prominent compared to their equivalents in other ‘Arab Spring’ countries.”
Of course, Syria’s civil war is the product of several factors. Deep-seated popular discontent over decades of repressive rule, heightened by Assad’s violent reaction to peaceful demonstrations, surely was a major driver. The rise of extremist groups financed and armed by the Gulf States was another. But this is the important point: the repercussions from environmental degradation do not occur in a void; they interact with a cauldron of societal pressures and unresolved political problems.
Though the precise circumstances and dynamics will vary from place to place, Syria’s experience illustrates the danger of major upheavals if environmental and resource pressures go unresolved. A recent scientific paper warns that due to climate change, some population centers in the Middle East “are likely to experience temperature levels that are intolerable to humans” by the end of this century. Elsewhere, melting glaciers, sea-level rise, highly variable rainfall, and parched farmland could have potentially dire consequences.
Violence captures the headlines, but there are other worrisome impacts, too; population displacements, for example. In 2008-2014, floods, storms, and extreme temperatures displaced a cumulative 158 million people globally — though the annual figures have fluctuated from a low of 13.9 million to a high of 38.3 million. No comparable data exist for slow-onset disasters such as drought.
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