CLIMATE CHANGE UNDERMINES SECURITY,
Fighting terror could mean fighting the effects of global warming, writes Anaïs Voski.
You think migration is a challenge to Europe today because of extremism, wait until you see what happens when there’s an absence of water, an absence of food, or one tribe fighting against another for mere survival. — U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry
Many countries beefed up public safety measures after the Paris terror attacks, but some experts say those looking for long-term security should consider helping poorer and unstable nations adapt to the destabilizing effects of climate change.
They argue that the Syrian crisis, for example, was fed by underlying environmental factors that ultimately led to the outbreak of civil war, the mass exodus of millions of refugees and the rise if ISIL.
“A lot of people don’t know that what happened in Syria started with an environmental problem that can well be associated with climate change,” says Carleton University professor James Meadowcroft, who holds the Canada Research Chair in Governance for Sustainable Development.
According to Meadowcroft and a report published in March by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, more than a million Syrian farmers moved to the cities as a result of unprecedented droughts between 2007 and 2010. The cities couldn’t absorb the numbers and the infrastructure collapsed, which exacerbated preexisting political instability and led to civil war.
Based on various threat assessments done by the Pentagon, North Africa and the Arab Crescent have been identified as areas particularly vulnerable to the effects of climate change.
“Similar to what happened in Egypt, Tunisia and Iraq, a number of analysts have suggested that it laid the basis for food riots and political tensions that later burst into conflicts such as the one in Syria,” Meadowcroft explains.
Others disagree with making a direct connection made between the environment and security risks. Prominent experts on the topic, such as Halvard Buhaug from the Peace Research Institute Oslo, have argued that there isn’t enough evidence to link climate change and armed conflicts.
“There’s certainly no smoking gun between climate change and these ongoing armed conflicts,” agrees Inger Weibust, a professor at the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs at Carleton University. “A Syrian population oppressed by a minority and dictatorship — those are conditions ripe for a civil war. Throw in a drought and that will do it, but that doesn’t establish a direct causal relationship.”
University of Ottawa professor Kamal Dib says there’s a middle ground in the debate where climate change is seen not as the main cause, but one of many factors fuelling conflicts in places such as Syria.
“Environmental issues are only one out of ten factors that lead to the war and all those factors are interdependent,” Dib, an expert in Middle Eastern politics, says. “The most important economic factor is indeed the environment, but that alone doesn’t cause war. But it’s also true that the dislocation and instability caused by environmental factors has led to the mass exodus of millions of people.”
THE ENVIRONMENTAL REFUGEE
While the link between armed conflicts and climate change remains contentious, the connection between migration and global warming, which has led to the emergence of the term ‘environmental refugee,’ is becoming well established.
In 2013, the UNHCR estimated there were 22 million ‘environmental refugees’ around the world, a term that describes people displaced by disasters brought on by natural hazard events such as droughts, hurricanes, earthquakes, tornadoes and so on.
“If the models of climate change are right — and we have no reason to believe they aren’t — and if we don’t do anything about them, then we’ll undoubtedly see greater mass movements of people,” Meadowcroft says.
“All the models suggest that if we head into a world much above two degrees, there’s going to be a serious dislocation of human societies.”
Adam Scott, climate and energy program manager at the Canadian NGO Environmental Defence, argues this dislocation has already started.
“Scientists who study the impacts of climate change are showing that droughts, like the one in Syria that proceeded the civil war, are happening with greater frequency and intensity,” Scott wrote in an email.
“Climate disruptions like floods, droughts, heat waves, wildfires, and storms will increasingly lead to displacement of large groups of people. These displaced people are increasingly being refereed to as ‘climate refugees’ and are a serious concern for global security and political stability.”
In a recent speech, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry highlighted climate change as one of the most overlooked aspects of security crises.
“You think migration is a challenge to Europe today because of extremism,” Kerry said during the Global Leadership in the Arctic conference in August. “Wait until you see what happens when there’s an absence of water, an absence of food, or one tribe fighting against another for mere survival.
“We as leaders of countries will begin to witness what we call ‘climate refugees’ moving,” he stated.
Just last month, the 20 countries most vulnerable to climate change announced they’re uniting to push for tougher action on the issue.
They estimated that since 2010, more than 50,000 of their citizens have died annually because of global warming — a higher rate of yearly deaths than those suspected to have died annually as a result of terrorism around the world.
Countries can respond to this emerging security threat by increasing their resilience and ability to adapt to climate change, sometimes called ‘climate proofing.’
According to Scott, this will require major investments in adaptation infrastructure, such as flood control or disaster preparedness, which means many underdeveloped countries will require major assistance from developed countries.
“Adapting and reducing carbon pollution will be essential to preventing the worst impacts of a warming climate, and securing funding for that will be a major piece of the upcoming Paris climate negotiations in December,” Scott explains.
The good news, according to Meadowcroft, is that technologies are available to make the transition from fossil fuels. But the bad news is that it’s going to be a “very messy political battle.”
That transition will also be slow. In the meantime, global warming will continue to change weather patterns and add environmental crises to politically and economically unstable regions.
“In terms of the environment, the actions we take now will only affect things 30 to 40 years from now,” Meadowcroft says. “For the next decade, we’re living on what we did years ago, so these problems will get worse.”
“Unfortunately, Syria is just the beginning.”