Trying to predict the next global hot spot? Pay attention to the climate.

For those of us who are interested in US foreign policy, international affairs, and a little national security news now and then, it is becoming impossible to ignore the impact of climate change on real events. I’m not talking about some projection of temperature increases or changing weather patterns, or an artist’s conception of what coastal cities are going to look like in another 50 years or so, I’m talking about entire nations, right now, being destabilized by the effects of climate change:

Brad Plumer: There are obviously a whole slew of reasons why civil war erupted in Syria. But you’ve argued that a severe drought and water shortages were a much-neglected factor. Explain how water fits in.

Francesco Femia: We looked at the period between 2006 and 2011 that preceded the outbreak of the revolt that started in Daraa. During that time, up to 60 percent of Syria’s land experienced one of the worst long-term droughts in modern history.

Around 75 percent of farmers suffered total crop failure, so they moved into the cities. Farmers in the northeast lost 80 percent of their livestock, so they had to leave and find livelihoods elsewhere. They all moved into urban areas — urban areas that were already experiencing economic insecurity due to an influx of Iraqi and Palestinian refugees. But this massive displacement mostly wasn’t reported. So it wasn’t factoring into various security analyses. People assumed Syria was relatively stable compared to Egypt.

Francesco Femia is co-director of The Center for Climate and Security Analysis, a small think-tank that specializes in environmental issues that are or may turn into threats to global security. The center doesn’t argue that climate change is solely or even mostly the cause of these events; instead, it acts as what Fermia’s co-director, Caitlin Werrell, terms “a threat multiplier.” In other words, in a country or area with a history of and/or potential for instability, climate change and its effect on water and food supplies can be the factor that tips the populace from “unhappy but not enough to do more than complain” to “open revolt.”

This intersection of climate change and political unrest isn’t just apparent in Syria; the entire Arab Spring, which began in Tunisia, had as one of its causes the rising price of food around the world. Part of the reason why food prices are rising is, yes, climate change. Fermia again:

We looked at a number of different dynamics. Troy Sternberg, Sarah Johnstone and Jeffrey Mazo looked at the impacts of climate change in Ukraine and Russia and how droughts in those parts of the world in 2010 may have contributed to a wheat shortage. That, in turn, led China to purchase a lot of wheat on the global food market [which led to spikes in the price of food worldwide].

Again, they don’t claim that the price spikes caused the revolution in Egypt or Tunisia. But they do look at how those prices spikes led to parallel bread protests in Egypt in particular. The point here is that the proximate cause of the protests that led to [Egyptian President Hosni] Mubarak’s downfall may have been the response to the earlier Tunisian revolt. But the broader appeal of that movement in rural areas may have been partly due to the fact that bread prices were high. The Egyptian government tried to use subsidies to keep the price of bread down, but that didn’t affect rural areas.

My experience in the Middle East, particularly Egypt which was the only one of the Arab countries I spent any time in that really participated in the Arab Spring movement, was that most people had their complaints about their autocratic leaders, but they were sort of resigned to the system being what it was. Egyptians grumbled about Mubarak and complained about crumbling infrastructure or the frequency with which his motorcades would clog the already overcrowded Cairo streets, and they were definitely unhappy about the idea that Gamal Mubarak, Hosni’s son, was being groomed to succeed his father, but there was no sense that something like Tahrir was in the cards. Admittedly, that was 10 years ago (holy hell, I’m getting old), but something must have happened to turn the Egyptian people from grumbling to openly revolting, and the spike in food prices coupled with overall economic decline (to which those rising global food prices contributed, also too) was clearly a contributing factor, if not the contributing factor.

The thing is, if you adopt the idea that climate change is feeding these international crises, you can start to make predictions about what’s coming next. Fermia:

I’d point to the Asia-Pacific region. The commander of U.S. Pacific Command, Admiral Locklear, said in a Boston Globe interview in March that climate change was the biggest long-term security threat there. There’s a massive population movement to coastal areas and many of those coastal regions are vulnerable to sea-level rise and extreme weather. That’s certainly a huge problem in terms of what could happen as a result of those vulnerabilities.

I talked about rising sea levels once before in a humanitarian sense, but the security risk is great. What’s going to happen when sea levels rise and start internally displacing coastal-dwellers, or start inundating entire nations, both island nations and low-lying coastal nations? Is the world ready for a few million sea-level refugees crowding into cities and begging to be taken in by other countries? Because whether or not you believe that climate change is anthropogenic, it’s impossible to credibly deny that it’s happening whatever the cause, and we should be preparing for it.


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