Global Warming and Global War
March 3, 2015
Lindsay Abrams / Salon.com
Climate change caused by human activity contributed to four years of record drought in Syria, and that drought helped spark Syria's civil war. From 2006-2010, an unprecedented drought spread over much of Turkey, Syria and Iraq. Syria was especially vulnerable to its effects. A new study now connects the dots between drought, climate change and violent conflict.
From Warming to War:
How Climate Change Helped Instigate Syria's Deadly Uprising
Lindsay Abrams / Salon.com
(March 2, 2015) -- Climate change caused by human activity contributed to four years of record drought in Syria, and that drought helped spark Syria's civil war.
A major new study in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences examines climate change as a contributing factor to the 2011 uprising in Syria, connecting the dots from our greenhouse gas emissions to an international conflict that's killed 200,000 and displaced millions.
The study echoes previous theories that the drought of 2006 to 2010, which wreaked havoc on agriculture and drove displaced farmers to urban areas, contributed to the unrest already at play in the region, and others that link rising temperatures to an increase in violence.
"We're not saying the drought caused the war," cautioned study coauthor Richard Seager, a climate scientist at Columbia University's Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, in a statement. "We're saying that added to all the other stressors, it helped kick things over the threshold into open conflict. And a drought of that severity was made much more likely by the ongoing human-driven drying of that region."
It also, experts say, makes a strong case for the role climate change played in increasing the length and severity of that drought: through higher-than-normal temperatures that dried out the soil and by indirectly weakening wind patterns that typically carry precipitation from the Mediterranean.
Put together, the study makes a power argument for how climate change is already impacting us in real and frightening ways. And it lays to rest the false comparison some in the GOP have set up between climate change and ISIS: rather than arguing over whether one is scarier or more important to address than the other, it suggests, we should be focusing on the ways in which the two are intertwined, and bearing in mind the ways in which extreme environmental conditions can help push an already vulnerable region over the edge.
It's a risk the US military is already taking extremely seriously. The Pentagon, which has called climate change an "immediate threat" to national security, considers it to be a "threat multiplier": an underlying factor that exacerbate risks like food and water insecurity much as it works to exacerbate extreme weather conditions.
It's difficult if not impossible to prove that climate change caused either. But as scientists turn their attention to the complex ways manmade climate change is transforming our world, its outsized influence is becoming impossible to ignore.
Lindsay Abrams is a staff writer at Salon, reporting on all things sustainable. Follow her on Twitter @readingirl, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
GOP's Man-made Idiocy: Mike Huckabee's No Scientist -- or Mathematician
The military sees climate change as a national security issue. What will it take for the right to accept reality?
Lindsay Abrams / Salon.com
(February 13, 2015) -- Global pandemics, nuclear weapons, terrorism … and climate change. The Obama administration last Friday released its 2015 national security strategy, which listed, alongside the usual suspects, the "urgent and growing threat" of a changing climate.
The inclusion of a phenomenon already treated (if not deservedly so) as controversial was bound to ruffle feathers. And that was before the White House stepped it up a notch, suggesting that climate change is not only a threat on par with that of terrorism, but perhaps even worse.
This line of thinking stems from a small moment that occurred during his recent Vox interview, in which President Obama said that the media "absolutely" overstates the dangers of terrorism as compared to those of longer-term problems like climate change.
Following up on Tuesday, White House press secretary Josh Earnest backed that statement, explaining: "The point that the president is making is that there are many more people on an annual basis who have to confront the direct impact on their lives of climate change or on the spread of a disease than on terrorism."
The knee-jerk reaction to such an idea can best be summed up by potential Republican 2016 presidential candidate Mike Huckabee, who, in defiance of a basic understanding of both national security strategy and the effects of climate change, has quipped, repeatedly, that "a beheading is much worse than a sunburn."
Huckabee's comment entirely misses the point, but the sentiment (or, if you want to be cynical about it, the political savvy) that's driving it is understandable: It's going to be difficult, if not impossible, to convince people that climate change, with its dense scientific papers and endless diplomacy, is scarier than ISIS.
The White House, for what it's worth, is absolutely correct in stating that climate change kills more people than terrorism: Rebecca Leber at the New Republic points to a 2012 report, commissioned by 20 countries, that added up the impacts of food insecurity, nutrition and water safety to arrive at an annual climate change death toll of 400,000 -- and nearly 5 million if you count the direct health impacts of fossil fuel emissions.
The 2014 Global Terrorism Index, by comparison, counted 18,000 deaths in the peak year of 2013, and 100,000 in total over the 13-year period studied.
But adding up death tolls isn't necessarily the most constructive way to convince the greater public that climate change is something worth taking seriously. It's like trying to compare apples to…something pretty similar to apples, but which also helps those apples grow and flourish. Compost, maybe?
The point is, aside from being considered a threat in and of itself -- many of the United States' naval bases, for example, are vulnerable to rising sea levels – climate change, from a national security perspective, is what's typically described as a "threat multiplier."
It's an underlying factor that can exacerbate risks already in place -- things like food, water and energy insecurity -- creating the sort of conditions that lead to unrest, instability and, consequently, terrorism. The great example of where that very chain of events is already in play is in the Middle East and North Africa, where drought begat water shortages and contributed, some experts argue, to Syria's civil war and the rise of ISIS.
"I don't think it's necessarily helpful to try to disentangle these risks or rank them," Franceso Femia, the founding director of the nonprofit Center for Climate and Security, told Salon. But, he added, "it's fair to say that climate change should be treated in a very similar way to these other risks that we hear about all the time."
That we still don't tend to think of climate change in this context could be because, as Obama suggested to Vox, it's not a very "sexy" story. It also poses problems of a very different nature from what we tend to picture in our nightmares.
"It's not a threat like ISIS or ISIL, where somebody is targeting you and just you and just to do you harm," David Titley, a retired Navy rear admiral and a professor of meteorology at Penn State, told Salon. "It's the environment -- land, air, ocean -- in which we operate. And it's changing."
Sexy or not, the military has recognized the climate threat for a while now. Last October, the Pentagon released a report calling climate change an "immediate threat" to national security, citing its contributions not only to terrorism, but to infectious disease, global poverty and humanitarian crises as well. It was, the New York Times reported, one of the first indications that the military was thinking about climate risks along those broadened parameters.
That it also lent weight to Obama's efforts to negotiate a global climate agreement in Paris at the end of this year does not, however, mean that it was politically motivated. After all, it was in 2003, under the climate-denying Bush administration, that the Pentagon first released a report examining the worst-case scenario impacts of climate change, which even then it characterized as having the potential to "prove a greater risk to the world than terrorism."
The 2003 study flirted with the apocalyptic: It warned of a scenario in which "once again, warfare would define human life." But, according to Titley and Femia, the military is simply treating climate change the way it would assess any risk -- which is to say, it's working off of the best available information to evaluate the probability of a threat occurring multiplied by its potential consequences.
"For the Department of Defense, at the end of the day, it's all about being ready," said Titley. "Just as we are ready to fight and defeat an adversary, if deterrence fails, we need to make sure that all of our training, all of our equipment and all of our infrastructure works -- no matter what Mother Nature throws at us."
To a civilian like me, that doesn't sound like what Huckabee's ilk might call "alarmist." It sounds like good policy, and it's a reassuring indication that, while Congress wastes its time debating whether human activity has anything to do with the changing climate, the military has accepted the science and moved on to figuring out how it can use that information to protect us.
And while we're not likely to win anyone over by arguing that climate change is the new ISIS, that the military is treating it as such should be reason enough for the rest of us to trust that it's a legitimate threat.
"The fact that our top military generals and admirals are elevating climate to one of their lists of concerns speaks volumes to me to the fact that this is an issue that, perhaps, needs to move beyond the policy debate stage and needs to be considered on those merits," Marshall Shepherd, a meteorologist and the co-author of a 2011 National Academy of Sciences report on the national security implications of climate change, told Salon. "These folks don't play around and worry about hoaxes."
How Climate Change is Linked to Syria's War
Severe drought and water shortages are an overlooked factor in the region's unrest
Lindsay Abrams / Salon.com
(September 10, 2013) -- A study out last month linked rising global temperatures to war, foretelling a 50 percent increase in violent conflict by 2050. This could be the same thing we're seeing now in Syria, according to the Center for Climate and Security. The think tank's co-founders, Francesco Femia and Caitlin Werrell, told the Washington Post's Brad Plumer that severe drought in the region -- which displaced over 1.5 million people -- likely contributed to Syria's civil war. According to Femia:
We found it very interesting that right up to the day before the revolt began in Daraa, many international security analysts were essentially predicting that Syria was immune to the Arab Spring. They concluded it was generally a stable country. What they had missed was that a massive internal migration was happening, mainly on the periphery, from farmers and herders who had lost their livelihoods completely.
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.
Femia and Werrell aren't trying to convince anyone that drought caused Syria, only that climate conditions can contribute to unrest. They've traced a path, for example, from climate change, to droughts, to a wheat shortage, to rising prices, to the revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia, where "food prices may have played a role in broadening the appeal of the protests."
A lot of the way we approach climate change as a risk is to say it's a "threat multiplier." The way it combines with water or food can take an existing conflict and make it worse, or take a stable situation and make it worse.
One example we find is if you look at egypt, at the Nile Delta, the projections from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change say that they'll see at least 0.59 cm of sea-level rise by 2100. Not only does that create a problem with flooding in urban areas, but there's also the problem of saltwater intrusion in fresh aquifers.
About 34 percent of agricultural production occurs in that area. A lot of focus in Egypt right now is how to get a more stable government, but if you want to look at how to build a stable government, you'll need to be looking at issues like sea-level rise.
Mostly, they're only able to conclude from their research that more research is needed. We already know that mitigating climate change would be in the world's best interest. Barring our ability to do that, they say, the U.S. might want to consider helping vulnerable nations prepare and adapt before the instability caused by global warming helps spark further chaos.
A New Study Finds that as
Global Temperatures Rise, So Do our Tempers
Increased murder and war linked to climate change
Lindsay Abrams / Salon.com
(August 1, 2013) -- Climate change rage may soon become a thing. A comprehensive new study in the journal Science has linked historic shifts in global temperatures with violence — encompassing everything from irate horn honking to rape and murder — and predicts that violent conflict will increase by as much as 50 percent by the year 2050. Reports CNN:
When Hsiang [the lead author of the study] and colleagues put together evidence from 190 researchers, they determined that intergroup conflict increases 14% and interpersonal violence increases 4% for each standard deviation in climate variables.
For instance, in terms of temperature, one standard deviation is about halfway between what you would expect for an average year and a really hot year.
"If your local level of violence increased by 10 to 15%, you would probably notice that," Hsiang said.
The study's authors didn't suggest any explanations for the association, but scientists have a few ideas, speculating to National Geographic that it could be the human effect of irregular weather patterns destroying crops, and thus economies.
Or, it could just be that those irregular weather patterns are making people cranky. Per Ohio State University professor Brad Bushman, who specializes in such things: "When people are in a cranky mood, they're more likely to behave aggressively."
As Hsiang points out, the results could go a long way toward convincing people that climate change can directly affect their lives. We just need to make it all about us, and our unwillingness to get murdered.
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