Report October 2017: The Nexus Between Climate Change And Humanitarian Crises


The Issue

A huge proportion of the world’s population lives near oceans. If they start moving, then you start seeing scarce resources that are subject to competition between population.” – Barack Obama 2016

 “The world is warming, it’s because of us, we are sure, ice is melting, weather is getting intense, wildlife is already hurting, we can do something about it” (National Geographic, 2017).

These quotations point to the current climate change crisis. We are well-versed in the causes and consequences of climate change. Since the industrial revolution, humans, particularly in the developed world, have been consuming finite resources at a speed unmatched by natural reproduction. What is often overlooked is the nexus between climate change, humanitarian crises, and conflict.

Our consumption creates unprecedented amounts of pollution, whether it be plastic goods, CO2, methane, chemical run off from agricultural practices, petrochemicals, or air pollution. Historically, humans had emitted amounts of waste small enough that the planet could manage. Carbon sinks such as the Amazon or the Great Barrier Reef could lock up carbon and safely store it, and trash made from biodegradable materials would eventually break down. Small amounts of human waste thus would be dispersed over such large distances that it would be inconsequential.

However, in the 21st century, we are well beyond that. The climate is changing, the average global temperature is rising, and with them sea levels. Polar ice caps are melting at alarming rates, acidification of oceans is occurring, petrochemicals are running out, and carbon sink holes are being destroyed and degraded at a rate that they can no longer perform their functions. Island nations are bearing the brunt of changing weather patterns. Places like Kiribati have already put in place immigration deals with other islands like Fiji for ‘migration with dignity’ whereby if the population so chooses, they may move before their island disappears. America and Central America have seen the landfall of three “once in every fifty year” hurricanes in one month and Florida is coping with a phenomenon described as “sunny day flooding.” Unsustainable farming and agricultural practices are degrading the land to a point where it is rendered unusable and fertile land is being used for urban development. Humans and other species have survived times of climate change before, but it occurred gradually, and we were able to slowly adapt to our new habitats. Never has the climate and our surroundings changed so fast. We will not have time to adapt if we do not change our behaviour.

Consequently, climate change will be the primary factor in humanitarian crises in the foreseeable future and it is something our generation must come to terms with now. At our most primal state, humans require food, clean potable water, warmth, shelter, and community for survival. Our contemporary consumption threatens our livelihoods at the most basic level. If we continue on our current trajectory “the impacts of climate change can exacerbate resource competition, threaten livelihoods, and increase the risk of instability and conflict, especially in places already undergoing economic, political, and social stress — and because the world is so extraordinarily interconnected today – economically, technologically, militarily , in every way imaginable – instability anywhere can be a threat to instability everywhere. “The kind of strife that we are talking about is not going to be contained by international borders any more than all of those refugees pouring out of Syria are contained by the borders or Europe” (Secretary of State John Kerry, 2016).  This is because climate change increases volatility within economic and social systems. Rapidly changing weather conditions result in sudden population displacement, changes in the distribution of resources within society, exacerbating gender inequalities, undermining livelihoods, the destruction of infrastructure, increased resource scarcity, and reduce a government’s ability to respond to these stressors. This can lead to widespread famine, poverty, population displacement, and thus grievances in society.

Syria is an example of such a phenomenon. A recent publication in the U.S. Journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences outlined exactly how climate change had contributed directly to the 2007-10 drought. This is a primary factor in the breakout of violence in Syria. The drought was the worst on the instrumental record and directly attributable to man-made climate change. Mass migration of up to 1.5 million people from rural farming areas to urban centres occurred as a result. Coupled with the influx of Iraqi refugees, this amounted to a huge strain on urban resources that were unsupported by the Assad regime, and resulted in inequality, poverty, and crime. The spill-over violence and tension grew and it is not surprising that these were the same neighbourhoods that were the first to revolt at the start of the Syrian Civil war.

The international community collectively came together with the Paris Accord in 2016. The Accord was the biggest first-day endorsement of a treaty in history (United Nations). More countries came together to sign the agreement than for any other cause in the history of humankind with 175 countries promising to uphold the treaty’s terms in combating climate change as a global community (National Geographic, 2017). The response was so grand and common because the facts are becoming self-evident and undeniable. The Paris Accord requires cuts in greenhouse gas emissions by both poor and rich nations, but it allows for all countries to set their own national targets.

Criticism and Response

Although the Paris agreement was historic and countries such as Sweden quickly moved to fulfill their obligations, our behaviour collectively is not changing fast enough. This has only been exacerbated by the United States formally denouncing the anthropogenic causes of climate change and its failure to ratify the agreement. Consequently, climate change’s devastating contribution to conflict and inequality persists.

The default of the USA in 2017 to formally address climate change issues fails to address the global scale of the potential for conflict. It is an insular, contradictory and short-sighted approach to the issue. The USA will in the short term be less affected by climatic change and spill-over violence than other nations. The greatest level of human vulnerability due to climate change is observed in Africa, Central and South Asia, and Southeast Asia (CARE, Maplecroft, 2009). However, globalization means that borders are no longer impermeable, and there is nothing to stop populations from seeking sanctuary in more stable nations. This leaves the USA susceptible to spill-over violence, refugee influxes, limited resources, and having to find ways to cope with its own climatic changes.

How/ Why Things Should be Done Differently

  1. The United States

The United States needs to ratify the Paris Accord and take meaningful action to reduce its contribution to climate change. The Paris Accord aims to reduce global carbon emissions by 55%. The USA and China combined contribute 38% to global emissions, according to Reuters. More vividly, electricity consumption by one U.S. household is the equivalent to 61 Nigerian homes (National Geographic, 2016). The USA needs to employ the foresight to understand that by being one of the greatest contributors to climate change, it too will suffer immensely in the long term. Additionally, because the USA has the resources and wealth to take meaningful steps towards a reduction, other developing countries with greater economic and political hurdles look to the USA. It is on a pedestal: “if the USA can do it then so can we” (Sunita Narain, The Centre for Science and Environment: New Delhi, 2016). Being a wealthy democratic state does not make it immune to the consequences of climate change. It simply allows the USA to cope with the fallout slightly better than other countries for an unsustainable amount of time. However, a robust climate change policy implemented at the federal government level seems increasingly unlikely during the Trump presidency and so, the private sector must continue to contribute to the powerhouse’s response. Ingenuity and entrepreneurship must prevail.

  1. From Public Sphere to Private Sphere

We have known about climate change and its effects for almost half a century. However, the science and agreement on the anthropological causes as well as the direct correlation with resource conflicts has only recently been agreed upon. The public sphere has been too slow to react to climate change, partially because of the democratic process, but also due to the massive disinformation campaign that has led to public confusion and the influence of the issues they vote on (National Geographic, 2016). It sounds like a conspiracy theory, but it is happening and it has finally come to the fore.

Scientists and politicians have been threatened and their work discounted by powerful institutions, particularly in the USA, reported National Geographic (2016). Climate change scientists have received death threats from congressmen, some of which were actionable enough to warrant FBI investigations. In 2011, officials in Florida were banned from using the words “climate change”, a policy proudly supported by US senator Marco Rubio. “These folks know they do not need to win a legitimate scientific debate, they just need to divide the public” (National Geographic, 2016). It is surprising to learn that all the hatred and fear is funded by a few key players. These include influential businessmen in the fossil fuel industry, like the Koch brothers. Koch industries is one of the largest privately held fossil fuel industries in the world, and they are doing everything to protect their wealth. James Inhofe is one of the most prominent congressional climate change deniers, and he is simultaneously one of the largest recipients of fossil fuel money in the U.S. senate. National Geographic has stated that “we can’t get climate bills passed through congress because it is controlled by fossil fuel funded climate change deniers who are blocking any bills that would attempt to deal with the problem.” Further, they sway public opinion by “finding people with fairly impressive credentials, who are willing to sell those credentials to fossil fuel interests.” Evidentally, the public sphere has become too entangled in short-term monetary gain to enable meaningful change. Therefore, we have to look to the private sphere to overcome humanitarian crises and conflict connected to climate change.

  1. What the Private Sphere can do

The free markets are often lauded for their efficient results. In this connected age there is great potential for economics to combat climate change regardless of governmental debates. The cost of solar energy is plummeting even without a carbon tax. The most efficient way to wean a fossil fuel-addicted economy off finite resources is to make renewables cheaper. Thankfully, this is beginning to occur (National Geographic 2016). Worldwide, renewables account for more than half of the world’s electricity generation in 2015. Solar energy now employs more people than coal, oil, and gas combined. In the USA, sales of solar panels have exploded and the cost has plummeted faster than expected, a result of technological progress and economies of scale. While wind and solar energy do pose threats of their own, the booming economy is seeing the rise in innovative technologies to sidestep anthropological contributions to climate change, and our dependency on finite resources that ultimately drive conflict.

Some examples of ingenious climate-conflic- combating technologies are visible all over the world. Because wind and solar power use a lot of land space, Japan is putting solar panels on ponds as well as rooftops. Sweden has successfully developed not only “passive houses”, but passive train stations and shopping malls. The structures are so well insulated and ventilated, they are heated solely by warmth generated from small appliances and the movement of humans within the buildings. This is one of the reasons Sweden is already on track to surpass its CO2 emissions target for 2020. In the Indian Himalayas, engineer Sonam Wangchuck has successfully developed an ice stupa, and is currently laying a pipeline to support fifty more. The ice stupas are artificial glaciers made by pumping excess river water into villages during the winter. The water spouts like a geyser from a vertical pipe, freezing and forming cone of ice. It is designed to stay frozen until the spring warms the ice, melts it and supplies the village farms and agricultural businesses with a slow and steady supply of water for crops and goods. This sidesteps land degradation caused by inefficient irrigation over the summer months. Wangchuck hopes that if locals adapt now, they will not became climate refugees, and subject to resource-based conflict. He explains that “we in the mountains are minorities, not just ethnically, but climatewise.” We are more vulnerable and therefore we need to address the issue now to avoid conflict and extinction later.

However, it is the author’s opinion that the focus on our attention in order to avoid climate-based conflict, inequalities, and humanitarian crises, should be on Gigafactories. The purpose of gigafactories is to reduce the price of batteries, which will be crucial in the production of renewables. Elon Musk notes that “the sun doesn’t shine all the time, so there must be a way to store it in a battery.” Further, batteries help to level out resource inequalities in developing countries because building electricity plants can be completely avoided. “You can be in a remote village, and have solar panels that charge a battery pack, that then supplies power to the whole village without ever having to run thousands of miles of expensive high voltage cable over the place” (Elon Musk, 2016). All it would take to transition the entire world to renewable sustainable energy is 100 Gigafactories. However, Tesla cannot on its own build 100 Gigafactories, companies that are bigger and more powerful than Tesla need to do the same thing. Consequently, if a carbon tax was introduced, larger companies would have an economic incentive to invest in such technologies (Elon Musk, 2016).

Conclusion

Climate change is inevitable and it is already causing humanitarian crises and conflict. The conflict in Syria is simply one example, but it is one that the whole world has been affected by. The conflict is partially directly attributable to a human-induced drought, which allowed tensions to fissure and violence to erupt, resulting in a mass exodus of the Syrian population, who are now being hosted by countries all over the world from Europe to the United States. Syria highlights a pattern that is only going to repeat unless we take action now. Politics and power play have shown that the public sphere will be unable to make the change required on time, and it is now in the interest and power of the private sphere to make the shift to renewable incentives, self-sufficiency, and sustainable ways of living to reduce our vulnerability to climate-induced resource strains and competition between populations. Tesla’s Gigafactory is one way the entire world can make this transition. The money and the resources to make the transition already exist. We just need to make an educated, collective decision to push the free market in that direction. Supply and demand, it is that simple. Peace is possible.

Megan Fraser

Megan is a Postgraduate student at the University of Canterbury New Zealand. She studying towards a Masters of Laws in International Relations and Politics.
Megan Fraser

About Megan Fraser

Megan is a Postgraduate student at the University of Canterbury New Zealand. She studying towards a Masters of Laws in International Relations and Politics.