Tristan Parsons on how environmental changes are engendering conflict, and if uncontrolled will continue to do so
Climate change is all too often perceived as being a far-off threat. In the temperate Western world we are largely blind, or made blind by the media, to the current effects of climate change. However, regional impacts, that go beyond the concerns of global average temperature rises, find their way into the most discussed conflict zone of our times, the Middle East.
In 2011, the Syrian Civil War began. While there are multiple complex political issues that contributed to it, researchers have suggested that one cause was the 2006-2011 drought. As the welfare of farmers deteriorated because of water shortages, they migrated into the cities to protest against the Assad government. This put great strain on public services and social relations. This stress, argue some researchers, snowballed into the movement that led to the civil war. Following this drought, the situation in Iraq, and across the Arab world, was much the same.
Then in 2014, another major drought coincided with the rise of so called IS. Iraq and Syria, where they first became established, are regarded by the UN as two of the most vulnerable countries to climate change. Since 1973, the two countries have seen some of the greatest declines in rainfall in the world—a consequence of which is so-called IS’ attempt to control water supplies in Iraq. Impacts of this climatic change that major studies have revealed include reduction in crop yields, increased psychological anxiety, lower cognitive performance, and increasing pressure on urban public services. The suggestion is that these effects make individuals and societies more vulnerable to the persuasion of so-called IS and other extreme ideologies.
So the changing climate of the Middle East is a driver for political instability. Out of that instability, regimes were challenged or toppled, and extremist groups began to grow. From that, the refugee and migrant crisis escalated.
Large-scale migration, too, is a topic that concerns the climate. The numbers who are making it to Europe now are a trickle in comparison to the 150 million that the UN predicted in 2005 that will be displaced to another country due to climate related issues by 2050.
Admittedly, the report dramatically overestimated their 2010 prediction. However, what the deniers largely fail to note is that climate migration will happen slowly, and then all at once. There will come a point where whole communities decide to uproot due to sea level rise or loss of agricultural income. Supporting the UN, the World Bank has said that, because of climate change, 100 million people will fall into extreme poverty by 2030. Lower crop yields and thus higher food prices, and the accelerated spread of diseases such as malaria will be the main causes. This is an example of where the climate, and then poverty, could drive migrations.
When world leaders meet at the Paris Summit, the focus of their discussions, and the focus of the media coverage, will be that of reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Whilst those discussions are central in the long-term, governments need to consider policies to deal with the socio-economic effects of climate change that we are already seeing.
Urban policy over the next few decades is going to be crucial. In the words of the Mayor of Mexico City, “cities are drivers for change”. Leaders from the C40 group of mega cities, including the Mayor, will bring a plan to the Paris summit. It will outline how cities can help to cut emissions, and manage their waste and water. This is very encouraging. Not only are the cities seeking to tackle the long-term issue of emissions, but they are also engaging with the concerns of their people by looking to improve public services.
Hopefully, this plan places emphasis on developing public services in the informal ‘slum’ settlements in their cities—where 1 billion of the world’s population live. These areas have been the birthplace of social movements over decades—with the recent notable examples of Cairo and Damascus in 2011. The Western mainstream media portrayed these uprisings as purely about religion and democracy. However, various studies claim the beginnings of it were more to do with inadequate provision of public services in those areas of informal settlement. Climate change places extra strain on these services. 14 of the world’s most 31 water-stressed countries are in the Middle East. This furthers concerns about the region’s future.
The effects of climate change are not distant; they are right in front of us. A growing body of research is showing how changes in our climate are causing dangerous conflicts in the world. What is certain is that the damage we have already done to our planet means that emissions reductions will not be enough. Paris’ conference is the opportunity to win greater equality, freedom, and social justice—the requirements for and results of tackling climate change.