Climate Change: The Death Knell
I look around, and I see people fighting back. Finally, people are organizing like they mean it, and actively resisting an administration that seems intent on destroying the EPA. Undoing regulation that keeps our drinking water safe and our lungs cancer free. Destroying the Park Service. Pulling out of the Paris accord. It’s great that we’re resisting. Sometimes I stay up late, and I wonder what would have happened if Hillary had won. It certainly would have been better, but there’s something that bothers me about that scenario.
I remember quite clearly reading the climate change literature in 2007. I was graduating High School and heading off to college. At that point, they were saying that in order to avoid a 2 degree C increase in temperature, we had to reduce the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere to 350 ppm by 2014. I remember feeling hopeless. At the same time, the literature I was reading (for example, Six degrees: our future on a hotter planet, by Mark Lynas) said that within a century we would be facing such drastic shifts in climate that agricultural production would become disrupted and society would have a very difficult time adapting. It all seemed impossible with a republican president. I had yet to hear the name Barack Obama. Then 2014 came and went. I remember a fleeting reflection on the fact that we had just completely failed to meet the 350 threshold. I joined the mailing list for 350.org. And here we are now, in 2017, and at 402 ppm. Everything’s fine, right?
Let’s talk about that geopolitical instability. Everyone applauded in 2010 when, starting with Tunisia, one after another, middle-eastern countries faced political upheaval and governments fell in what was dubbed the “Arab Spring.” Some revolutions were more violent than others, and some regimes responded better than others (for a synopsis of the unraveling in Egypt, go here). Hope was in the air that these revolutions would lead to a democratization, and increased openness of the societies. In particular, people were lauding social media, which hit it’s stride nearly at the same time, as the catalyst of all these “peaceful” revolutions. At about the same time, Lester Brown published “Full Planet, Empty Plates: the new geopolitics of food scarcity” (great book, short read, definitely check it out) that hinted that not all was what it seemed. Brown made the observation that immediately preceding these revolutions, the middle-east experienced a series of collapses in their agricultural sector. The region was dependent on ancient aquifers, and suddenly they were hit with the worst drought in modern history. They ran out of fossil aquifer resources for irrigation, and then, after nearly 40 years of population growth that relied on their irrigated agriculture, there was little food and little alternative for the displaced farmers. The confluence of population boom with crashing agricultural resources (a source of food, and income) lead to economic scarcity. Scarcity drives social unrest unlike anything else. Brown guessed that the uprisings had nothing to do with social media (and in fact it turns out these media can also be used by the government to track dissenters), but instead were related to access to food and economic resources. He conjectured that in places such as Syria, where the record breaking drought had displaced 80% of farmers, the conflict would continue to get much worst until the underlying drivers (food scarcity and economic impoverishment- sometime I’ll write about how those two are a deadly duo, with a long and documented history) are dealt with.
And indeed, that prediction has largely been the case. None of the revolutions were successful in bringing democracy. Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and Bahrain all have not emerged as democracies, and are all somewhere along the spectrum of autocratic government, to no government at all. And I shudder to think of the bloodbath that is Iraq and Syria. Yet it’s important that we talk about it, because it was the conflict in Syria for which academia finally made the empirical connection between climate change, and social unrest (see here, here and here for example). It’s not just the academics in our ivory towers; the US military treats climate change as a “threat multiplier.” This concept requires some unpacking; to illustrate why it’s important, let’s talk about one of the common counter-points that is often used to deflect attention away from the role of climate change in the Syrian conflict. The argument goes that it was corrupt government that collapsed social order in the countries, and if it had not been for the action of corrupt officials denying service to desperate people, this situation would never have arisen. And they’re correct, at least insofar as that the claim that government corruption played a significant role in creating the environment for the Arab Spring is undeniable. But it’s in the implicit assumption that the climate did not also have a significant impact where this line of reasoning breaks down. The military’s treatment of climate change as a threat multiplier is illustrative in this instance. The issue is that the two factors, social structure and climatic variability, are inextricably linked.
Think of it this way: every society (literally every society) has some level of corruption, and some level of social and economic inequality. The question is how much environmental stress can it handle before it breaks? And, how likely is that threshold to be breached in any given year? The level of corruption that is tolerated by people in any society is generally a function of the perceived legitimacy of the government, the stress on individual actors, and the access to resources that dissident actors have within the context of the larger society. That is to say that a government perceived as legitimate may impose great hardship on individuals while maintaining internal social order (think WWII); whereas for in a society that perceives it’s government as illegitimate, stress on citizenry increases their incentive to revolt. Meanwhile, the greater access to resources that dissenting groups have, the easier it is for them to challenge the government’s control. Societies where there are repressed groups (and every society has some level of disaffection) generally can maintain order as long as the amount of internal conflict does not exceed the conflict carrying capacity of that society. In other words, social processes set the threshold of stress that a society can contain before devolving into violence. Increases in climate variability increase the likelihood that the given stress threshold is breached in any period of time- thus it is a threat multiplier. Even though there was rampant corruption in Syria, if there were not 4 years of record breaking drought, there would not have been a displacement of millions of farmers between 2006 and 2010, and Syria would likely not have collapsed when it did (here’s great synopsis). Imagining Syria as a shining beacon of democracy is a red herring because it denies a fundamental reality about the state of the country when the climate event happened. It’s also a purely hypothetical situation that cannot be resolved in lay conversation (i.e. without data, replication- thus a great red herring). The larger point here is that regardless of what social infrastructure is intact, increasing climate variability increases the likelihood that a society will fail. Underdeveloped countries are typically hit the hardest by such vagaries of the environment. And because not all countries are equitable or just, there are a great many for which the social infrastructure is vulnerable. Climate change will precipitate an increase in the numbers of refugees, and increase the amount of conflict and violence globally. So the point isn’t that climate change is the sole cause of the suffering in Syria. The point is that climate change was the foot that kicked the hornets nest. It is still out there stomping around looking for more nests to kick. And meanwhile it’s older brother, population, is shooting lawnmowers rigged to explode (trigger warning- someone loses his leg). It’s only a matter of time.
This problem isn’t going away, and the free market is not going to solve it. More importantly, the problem itself presents us with only two real options in the long-term: we go to war with the problem, or we go to war with each other. It’s naive to think the invisible hand of the free market is going to sort this all out for us, just as it is naive to think that evolution achieves it’s ends without suffering. Natural selection is suffering. It is driven by death. The market doesn’t care. The ultimate market solution for scarcity is war. More on that later. In the meantime, I hope we get organized. I hope that when we finally do have a progressive government again, we are finished taking baby steps. I hope we are finally ready to fully commit to mitigating the unfolding humanitarian crisis.
Written By Dietrich Epp Schmidt, a microbiologist and student of ecology and society at the University of Maryland.