Cli­mate, en­vi­ron­ment can drive global con­flict

The Star Democrat - - OPINION - GE­ORGIE ANNE GEYER Ge­orgie Anne Geyer has been a for­eign cor­re­spon­dent and com­men­ta­tor on in­ter­na­tional af­fairs for more than 40 years. She can be reached at

WASH­ING­TON — When I first went over­seas as a for­eign cor­re­spon­dent in the 1960s, the style of for­eign cov­er­age fit the sto­ries of the time. But those sto­ries were tremen­dously dif­fer­ent from the im­por­tant sto­ries of to­day, and we ig­nore the star­tling changes fac­ing us only at se­ri­ous risk.

In those early days, cov­er­age tended to be bor­ingly acronymic. The MNR was pit­ted in elec­tions in the An­des against other acronyms of po­lit­i­cal par­ties; the PRD in Santo Domingo led another pro­ces­sion of largely ho-hum sto­ries. Wars and in­ter­nal strug­gles oc­curred be­tween coun­tries and be­tween mil­i­taries, and not only our at­lases but our minds as­sumed that the pro­claimed bor­ders of even po­lit­i­cally frag­ile na­tion-states were what we should be writ­ing about.

To­day those bor­ders are no longer the true lines di­vid­ing — and de­stroy­ing — peo­ples. The new threats do not ad­here to lines drawn by states­men in Lon­don or Paris. The po­lit­i­cal par­ties are largely mute about these new ques­tions, and ter­ror­ists do not un­der­stand them ei­ther. These new threats move stealth­ily, mak­ing the old se­crets of MI6, the CIA and the KGB seem sim­ple.

You don’t be­lieve it? Think of Africa, source of many of the waves of de­spair­ing mi­grants flood­ing Europe. Why? In great part be­cause the Earth’s largest hot desert, the Sa­hara, is rapidly ad­vanc­ing south, turn­ing for­merly green veg­e­ta­tion dry and mak­ing it im­pos­si­ble for farm­ers to live there. Sci­en­tists pub­lish­ing in the Jour­nal of Cli­mate now see the Sa­hara tak­ing over a wa­ter basin that drains into Lake Chad — and they see other deserts ex­pand­ing as well, largely from cli­mate change.

In Iraq, 14 years af­ter we Amer­i­cans so blithely thought we were “lib­er­at­ing” Iraqis, what is re­ally hap­pen­ing is what some sci­en­tists are calling an “ex­is­ten­tial threat” — the Ti­gris River and the 1,700-mile-long Euphrates are be­ing di­verted by Syr­ian and Ira­nian dams and poi­soned by Amer­i­can poli­cies.

“If there’s a new fron­tier in po­lit­i­cal sci­ence, it’s the re­al­iza­tion that en­vi­ron­men­tal prob­lems, par­tic­u­larly wa­ter short­ages, not only worsen con­flict but may ac­tu­ally cause it,” the re­spected writer Joshua Ham­mer wrote in Smith­so­nian Mag­a­zine, the jour­nal of the Smith­so­nian In­sti­tu­tion. He then notes how the ter­ri­ble Syr­ian civil war started with a “dev­as­tat­ing drought in the Euphrates Val­ley be­gin­ning in 2006,” which forced farm­ers to mi­grate to ur­ban cen­ters, thus driv­ing the un­em­ploy­ment that led young men to start the revo­lu­tion.

In the oil-rich coun­try of Nige­ria, the dr y sea­sons are get­ting longer, and de­ser­ti­fi­ca­tion and pop­u­la­tion ex­plo­sions have pit­ted the “killer herds­men,” or Fu­lani pas­toral­ists, now armed with AK-47s, against the seden­tary farm­ers. The old rel­a­tive har­mony be­tween the two is be­ing de­stroyed be­fore our eyes, as vi­o­lent con­flicts killed some 2,500 in 2016, more than those killed by Boko Haram, the African ISIS.

Nor is the Western Hemi­sphere ex­empt from these se­cre­tive move­ments. In Gu­atemala, home to so many poor hu­man be­ings try­ing to live out their des­tiny by cross­ing the Amer­i­can bor­ders of “El Norte,” drought and ris­ing tem­per­a­tures are de­stroy­ing hopes for na­tives to re­main at home. El Sal­vador, too, has been hit by a dev­as­tat­ing drought, which has been lit­tle re­ported since there are al­most no reg­u­lar for­eign cor­re­spon­dents based now in Latin Amer­ica.

Al­ready, the U.N. High Com­mis­sioner for Refugees es­ti­mates that, since 2008, 22.5 mil­lion peo­ple have been vi­o­lently up­rooted by cli­mate-re­lated or ex­treme weather events and are search­ing for new homes across the globe, from Dar­fur, to Bangladesh, to Puerto Rico, to Gam­bia, to Ethiopia. For starters!

How do we re­port this “new” news? How does one mea­sure ac­cu­racy in grains of sand, in drops of wa­ter, in the winds that rise silently at night? These sto­ries stub­bornly refuse to ad­here to the old con­ven­tions of cov­er­age of po­lit­i­cal par ties, of votes, of de­ci­sions in the Se­cu­rity Coun­cil. We might also ask what kind of gov­ern­ment, what kind of in­sti­tu­tions in the fu­ture might serve to deal with these new prob­lems.

Of course, we need a pres­i­dency and a Congress and in­sti­tu­tions that will study these de­vel­op­ments. We, as jour­nal­ists, need to use what­ever in­ge­nu­ity we can scrape up to re­port these sto­ries ef­fec­tively in new ways. And above all, we will need the at­ten­tion and anger of the Amer­i­can peo­ple. Without them, all the ef­forts will sim­ply be scratch­ing an in­creas­ingly dan­ger­ous sur­face.

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