Cli­mate change could up­end frag­ile states like Syria and Venezuela

In weak na­tions, en­vi­ron­men­tal stress can tip so­ci­ety into catas­tro­phe

Bloomberg Businessweek (Asia) - - NEWS - By Lois Parsh­ley

Venezuela was un­rav­el­ing even be­fore Hugo Chávez died in 2013. The sit­u­a­tion has only got­ten worse since. De­spite hav­ing the world’s largest oil re­serves, in­fla­tion has soared to 500 per­cent, the mur­der rate is the high­est in the world, and chronic short­ages of food, water, and medicine make daily life a strug­gle. A man was re­cently burned alive out­side a su­per­mar­ket in Cara­cas for steal­ing the equiv­a­lent of $5. “The coun­try has been on a down­ward spi­ral for so many years,” says Cyn­thia Arn­son, direc­tor of the Wilson Cen­ter’s Latin Amer­ica Pro­gram, “you won­der what is go­ing to be the fi­nal straw.”

Re­cently, it looked like it might be the weather. Six months ago, a dev­as­tat­ing El Niño-in­duced drought dam­aged crops, left the cap­i­tal short of drink­ing water, and caused rolling black­outs. In April, as a lack of rain crip­pled the Guri hy­dropower project, the coun­try’s big­gest elec­tric­ity sup­ply, President Ni­colás Maduro an­nounced a two-day work­week for civil ser­vices. (He also sug­gested women stop us­ing blowdry­ers: “I al­ways think a woman looks bet­ter when she just runs her fin­gers through her hair and lets it dry nat­u­rally.”) In May, Maduro changed the coun­try’s time zone by half an hour to save power. “Drought and elec­tric­ity cut­backs have created a new mo­ment that will have its own dy­namic,” Arn­son says. “The level of in­ef­fi­ciency and break­down of public ser­vices has been so ram­pant that any nat­u­ral disaster has been mag­ni­fied.”

“You’ve got a mess, to put it mildly,” says po­lit­i­cal sci­en­tist Thomas Homer-Dixon, as­so­ciate direc­tor of the Water­loo In­sti­tute for Com­plex­ity and Innovation. “Where in­sti­tu­tions are not ca­pa­ble, se­vere en­vi­ron­men­tal stress can tip so­ci­ety into catas­tro­phe quickly.”

That’s not just true in Venezuela. In 2007 an ex­treme drought in Syria baked fields un­til they be­came deserts, de­stroy­ing crops and driv­ing fam­i­lies from their homes. The rain didn’t come back for three years. Ru­ral pop­u­la­tions fled to cities, adding to the social ten­sions that even­tu­ally sparked the up­ris­ing in 2011. Years of vi­o­lence fol­lowed, lead­ing to the refugee cri­sis that’s be­set­ting Europe. Last spring, Colin Kel­ley, a me­te­o­rol­o­gist at the Univer­sity of Cal­i­for­nia at Santa Bar­bara, linked the drought—Syria’s worst in 900 years—to global warm­ing. “A drought of the sever­ity and duration of the re­cent Syr­ian drought,” Kel­ley wrote in a pa­per pub­lished at the Pro­ceed­ings of the National Academy of Sciences, “has be­come more than twice as likely as a con­se­quence of hu­man in­ter­fer­ence in the cli­mate sys­tem.”

Of course, social up­ris­ings are com­pli­cated things, and Kel­ley reignited a de­bate on just how cli­mate af­fects conflict. “Peo­ple for the most part don’t fight over en­vi­ron­men­tal re­sources,” says Homer-Dixon. “What hap­pens is that you get internal dis­lo­ca­tions in

Venezuela and Syria of­fer a grim vi­sion of how the world might re­act to a warm­ing fu­ture

so­ci­ety. Peo­ple de­pen­dent on scarce re­sources be­come poorer and may move in large num­bers.”

There’s abun­dant po­ten­tial for such dis­lo­ca­tion in Venezuela. The weather has only ex­ac­er­bated the coun­try’s economic cri­sis. Last month, Maduro is­sued a state of emer­gency grant­ing him­self uni­lat­eral power over the econ­omy. He threat­ened to seize idle fac­to­ries. Arn­son now fears vi­o­lent protest may be likely.

“Pow­er­ful groups, es­pe­cially in cor­rupt states, use their power to cap­ture re­sources,” says Homer-Dixon. “You get a po­lar­iza­tion of wealth, a weak­en­ing of state ca­pac­ity, and ur­ban stress.” Although these kinds of changes are in­di­rect ef­fects of a drought, they are of­ten the tip­ping point for social conflict. “We are see­ing these things around the world now,” Homer-Dixon says. “As en­vi­ron­men­tal stresses get worse, [their ef­fects] be­come more com­mon.”

Global water short­ages are pre­dicted to de­crease global gross do­mes­tic prod­uct by as much as 14 per­cent by 2050, ac­cord­ing to a re­cent re­port by the World Bank, which pre­dicts that this “se­vere hit” will spur conflict and mi­gra­tion across the Mid­dle East, Cen­tral Asia, and Africa. Even re­sourcerich coun­tries pre­vi­ously con­sid­ered to have sta­ble economies, such as Brazil and Rus­sia, have be­come more sus­cep­ti­ble to en­vi­ron­men­tal dis­e­qui­lib­rium. Last year pro­duc­tion of cof­fee, one of Brazil’s most im­por­tant com­modi­ties, fell 15 per­cent as a re­sult of drought. A lack of rain in Rus­sia this fall dam­aged a quar­ter of its ce­real crops. The last time the coun­try’s har­vest failed, ris­ing global prices con­trib­uted to the Arab Spring in coun­tries de­pen­dent on im­ported grain. Even Is­lamic State’s po­lit­i­cal power may soon be af­fected by drought. As water lev­els in Lake As­sad in Syria plum­met, Raqqa, the group’s strong­hold, is fac­ing se­vere short­ages. Last year, Is­lamic State’s press of­fi­cer, Abu Mosa, told Vice News that it would con­sider at­tack­ing Turkey to gain ac­cess to ad­di­tional water re­sources.

Cli­mate science has an ex­pla­na­tion for why en­vi­ron­men­tal forces can have this kind of desta­bi­liz­ing ef­fect. An­gel Muñoz, a post­doc­toral re­search as­so­ciate at Prince­ton, says, “Risk is just a mul­ti­pli­ca­tion of hazard by vul­ner­a­bil­ity.” Muñoz, who grew up in Venezuela and moved to the U.S. to study cli­mate risk management, ex­plains that a drought is a hazard, but what ac­tu­ally created this year’s mess was Venezuela’s lack of what he calls “adap­tive ca­pac­ity.” The drought was pre­dicted months be­fore it be­gan—neigh­bor­ing Colom­bia started water ra­tioning in Septem­ber 2015. Although Venezuela has far more nat­u­ral re­sources than its neigh­bor, Colom­bia is not in such dire straits. “A so­ci­ety’s vul­ner­a­bil­ity is at least as im­por­tant as the hazard,” Muñoz says.

As a re­sult, when weak states face en­vi­ron­men­tal catas­tro­phes like drought, “you might see the col­lapse of au­thor­i­tar­ian regimes, as you did dur­ing the Arab Spring,” HomerDixon says. “But they’re prob­a­bly go­ing to be re­placed with some­thing just as bad, be­cause a deeply di­vided so­ci­ety is still deal­ing with a ma­te­ri­ally stressed sit­u­a­tion.”

If that’s the case, Venezuela and Syria of­fer a grim vi­sion of how the world might re­act to a warm­ing fu­ture. “In al­most all conflict,” Homer-Dixon says, “a weak and cor­rupt state can’t evolve mar­ket mech­a­nisms to re­spond to scarcity.” This means dys­func­tion tends to have a snow­ball ef­fect: Scarcity re­in­forces cor­rup­tion, which po­lar­izes a po­lit­i­cal sys­tem and in­creases in­equal­ity. “Then ev­ery­one slides down the slope to­gether,” Homer-Dixon says.

What that means for Venezuela now is that even the re­turn of rain could be dev­as­tat­ing. Me­te­o­rol­o­gists are pre­dict­ing a La Niña ef­fect will bring ample pre­cip­i­ta­tion to the re­gion— “they could go straight from drought to fast floods,” Muñoz says, be­cause of degra­da­tion of public re­sources such as roads and sewage sys­tems. The government is un­likely to be pre­pared. A high­rank­ing of­fi­cial in Venezuela’s mil­i­tary, who didn’t want to be named for fear of re­tal­i­a­tion, says lit­tle is be­ing done to strengthen the ag­ing in­fra­struc­ture. “We have so many re­sources,” he says. “It’s in­cred­i­ble that we’re in this sit­u­a­tion.” He’s con­tem­plat­ing leav­ing the coun­try, fear­ing a coup. “Peo­ple don’t have the pa­tience to see if things get bet­ter.”

No one knows when Venezuela will fi­nally im­plode. Some fac­tors are more vis­i­ble in hindsight; just as an­a­lysts failed to see the risk of sub­prime debt in 2007, so far scarcity’s economic and geopo­lit­i­cal im­pacts have gone largely un­ac­knowl­edged. Be­hav­ior, how­ever, can of­ten be pre­dicted based on mod­els. In a warm­ing world, “it’s a dif­fi­cult sit­u­a­tion to build lib­eral in­sti­tu­tions,” says Homer-Dixon. “I’m very wor­ried.” With Venezuela specif­i­cally in mind, Arn­son asks, “Who de­fines when the begin­ning of the end has be­gun?” <BW>

Parsh­ley is a free­lance jour­nal­ist and pho­tog­ra­pher.

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