When global warming goes to war

By Adriano Mancinelli

We used to think about climate change as a global issue in itself, separated from more traditional security threats such as military and strategic issues. However, this assumption has to be challenged. As a matter of fact, climate change is already a driver of violence.

On October 24th I attended a public lecture at LSE; the host, Professor Christian Parenti, presenting his book ‘Tropic of Chaos‘, edited in 2011. The core thesis of his work is that climate change and its effects have a growing importance in explaining the causes of violence in the developing world: global warming is not a direct cause of conflict, but it exacerbates the pre-existing root causes for violence and war. In particular, climate change aggravates the problems arising from the legacies of both the cold war  and the neo-liberal economic discourse.

Professor Parenti gave many examples of his claims. Perhaps, the most straightforward case he has studied is Northwest Kenya. The region is affected by periods of chronic drought followed by heavy rains and floods, which have left people without means of survival. They cannot find any relief from government – said Parenti – because of the reduction of the role of the state imposed by World Bank and IMF’s neo-liberal demands and recipes. Furthermore, they are able to procure and purchase cheap guns: after the 1977-78 Ethio-Somali war, a typical proxy war influenced by the confrontation between the US and USSR, the whole region has been inundated by light weapons. The result is what Parenti calls a “catastrophic convergence”: the only solution in order to survive is to conquest more land, attacking the neighbouring villages and triggering a spiral of violence and insecurity that grips the whole region.

Professor Parenti showed how environmental factors, and climate change, are influencing even the war on terror in Afghanistan. When he was there, he asked many farmers the reason why they keep growing poppy flowers. The most recurrent answer was – he reported – that poppy is drought-resistant. In fact, recent decades have seen Afghanistan affected by severe droughts. In such dry an environment, the poppy is one of the most feasible crops, as it uses only 1/6 of the amount of water needed by wheat. Considering that one of the crucial issues that ISAF have been facing in Afghanistan is the eradication of poppy crops, it is quite clear that global warming does matter as a cause of violence, or at least of prolonged violence.

As a solution to all this, Professor Parenti suggested that governments, particularly the US, “take climate science seriously” and start spending money to fund research on global warming and green energy. In his opinion there is still room for action. The problem is, however, that the political discourse in the United States does not seem to be changing, and the global warming subject is still frequently ignored.

I share Professor Parenti’s view on climate change as a driver of violence. I do not share his optimistic conclusions, though. Even if we hope that Obama, if re-elected, would tackle the issue of global warming and green energy in the US, the future appears gloomy. Firstly, it is unclear where to find the money for research and implementation – Parenti appears unjustifiably optimistic as to the location of funds. Secondly, the United States is a polluter, but it is not the only one, and it is uncertain whether China, India, and other developing countries would follow the same path. Finally and perhaps most importantly, even in the happy event of a mitigation of global warming, it would be a long-term victory, whilst the problems caused by the climate change are urgent. This creates a time gap; to address global warming is not to address conflicts caused by the global warming: nobody is going to provide Afghan farmers with drought-resistant wheat in the next few weeks.

Professor Parenti’s lecture has made it clear that global warming represents a serious and pressing challenge, not only because of the threats to the well-being of future generations, but also because it is creating new – and exacerbating old – reasons for violence and instability throughout the developing world. The answer to this challenge is one of the utmost importance and one that the whole international community should commit to. The methods and possibilities are uncertain, and academic research on the subject is still poorly taken into account.

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