Climate Change is about Conflict

In various ways during and after college, I’ve worked on climate change. In fact, it’s pretty much the defining issue of my life and career thus far. For a long time, I might have had a hard time explaining exactly why it was that I cared about it. And outside of my professional circle, many people I know have a hard time envisioning exactly what it is about climate change we should care about. Yeah, there are big hurricanes and disasters like Sandy and Katrina, and extreme weather events like cold-waves and heat-waves that seem to be more common these days and that are beginning to impact the day-to-day of people around the world, but overall it’s something that is very hard to observe. But my logic was simpler and more abstract: that humans and our economy evolved on Earth under a broad set of climatic conditions; changing those conditions at our current scale and pace just seemed like a Bad Idea, and would manifest itself in broadly lower living standards around the world.

But now, I would characterize my concerns about climate change in one word: War.

I am not an expert in human conflict, but it appears broadly true that migration and struggles over resources are two of the most important ingredients in catalyzing strife at all scales. If you have trouble thinking of examples where resource conflicts caused human conflict, look no further than the current situations in Darfur and Syria. In both cases, droughts caused shifting resources and displaced peoples, and brought two groups of people into conflict.

In Darfur, a long period of low rainfall and advancing desert pushed Arab nomads into land held by black farmers, and the result over time was a major escalation into war, political collapse, and further ecological collapse triggered by conflict that resulted in up to half a million dead and scores of violent atrocities that will scar the region for a generation, and leaves a permanently unstable situation. [more info]

In Syria, a major drought over the years 2004-2011 caused almost a million Syrian farmers to lose their livelihood, and many of them abandoned their land. As much as 85% of all livestock died and major crop failures were common. Displaced farmers moved into cities at massive scale, and these people were at the brink, with no jobs and food shortages common throughout the country. In combination with a corrupt government and ethnic tension, the scene was ripe for conflict, which exploded in 2011 and shows no signs of abating. [more info]

In both cases, exacerbating factors were present, and it would be foolish to say that climate change was the only factor behind the conflict. Rather, it was one of many ingredients, amid sectarian and racial tensions, corrupt or failed states, and poverty, that sparked the conflict, and indeed it’s because these conflicts are so complicated that they have been difficult to untangle and end. But the connection is clear: changes in local climates caused resource shifts and movements of people that, under the right (or, rather, wrong) conditions, led to major conflict.

In both cases, droughts began a fairly straightforward, and short, sequence of events that led to conflict. But it doesn’t matter how long and complex the chain is, if climate changes cause something that causes something that causes something, and so on, that causes something that causes conflict, the changes to the climate are still culpable.

So the things that really scare me about climate change are things that won’t necessarily appear to be caused by the climate, like the two examples listed above, along with broadly lower living conditions, but quite unlike news-grabbing events like the Polar Vortex, Sandy, Katrina, the 2013 European Heat Wave, and so on.

I fear that changing, and in many cases deteriorating, conditions will be manifested, and punctuated, by human conflict at scales ranging from minor to massive.

I’ll conclude with a development that I consider to be evolving into situation with violent potential: potentially massive Bangladeshi migration caused by sea level rise. But as I quoted recently:

So perhaps what scares me most are the situations that we haven’t yet envisioned. All we need to know is that we’re adding more of the wrong ingredient.

Bangladesh is the most densely populated country in the world, with 150 million people crammed into an area the size of New York State. It also lies in lowlands, and a 1 meter rise in sea levels would flood about 10% of the land. Clearly, with so many people in such a small area, this would create problems. In addition, many people don’t know that Bangladesh used to be “East Pakistan”, or the eastern of two predominantly Muslim regions of the former British colony, and it shares with modern India (Bangladesh’s neighbor) and Pakistan in their violent history. It’s not hard to imagine a scenario where sea level rises (among other negative climatic changes) cause massive displacements of people in a context that cannot support that other than violently.