In 2015, nearly every nation collectively recognized the threat of climate change. This was done by signing the Paris Agreement which seeks to combat greenhouse effects. The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCC) stated that the document’s central aim is to “strengthen the global response to the threat of climate change by keeping a global temperature rise this century well below 2 degrees Celsius.” In addition, the UNFCC provides countries with tools to deal with the consequences of drastic temperature fluctuations. All countries that participate in the Paris Agreement must implement a nationally determined contribution, which is the amount of carbon emissions that a state pledges to reduce. Despite America’s withdrawal from the deal in 2017, the existence of the Agreement signals that nations have realized the detrimental effects climate change has on the entire world. Especially given that global warming threatens countries’ security on both domestic and international levels. Locally, an ever-increasing number of extreme weather events take a massive toll on infrastructure and human lives, affecting domestic economies and livelihoods. Internationally, countries face resource competition particularly over shared rivers and water basins thus increasing the chances of a direct conflict. Multiple global warming consequences create a wide range of tasks for each nation such as maintaining citizens’ wellbeing and not clashing with other countries. This article will examine how failure to address domestic challenges has resulted in one of the bloodiest civil wars in the modern era, as well as international tensions that will likely deteriorate into an open conflict if not addressed soon.
The World Economic Forum (WEF) identifies the domestic challenges of climate changes livelihood insecurity, local resource competition, and volatility in food prices. These problems arose in 2011 when the Arab Spring happened in the Middle East. Most notably, Syria sank into a bloody civil war that has persisted since 2011 with over 350,000 casualties and millions displaced. Dr. Irwin Redlener in a Huffington Post article suggests that the Arab Spring was provoked “by a large-scale population movement due to drought and other climate-related condition.” He explains that prior to Syria’s Arab Spring, the country had experienced a drought between 2005 and 2010. Although droughts are naturally occurring phenomena in the region, it is well known that climate change amplified it. During this 5 year drought, the Syrian government was ill-equipped to deal with such circumstances and was unable to support rural citizens with resources to maintain their livelihoods. This caused migration to the country’s major cities. These large scale movements increased the strain on social and economic security. Government corruption, inequality, and lack of infrastructure further exasperated the strain. The failure to cope with the challenges of domestic climate change coupled with the extreme oppression lead to the eruption of the Syrian Civil War. Now, the conflict has developed largely into a proxy war involving Israel, the United States, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Russia. The violence has led to a mass exodus of Syrians into Turkey and across the Mediterranean into Europe. Climate change acted as the proximate cause, and the inability to handle the impact has resulted in a chain of events that have disrupted peace in the region and torn Syria apart.
The WEF identified a significant future international problem to be a “transboundary water sharing,” which means that countries will have to use the same rivers and water basins. There are two notable examples in Central Eurasia that are directly linked to this issue. The first was identified by Peter Zeihan in his book, The Accidental Superpower where he portrays the mounting challenges Uzbekistan faces as its water sources begin to diminish due to the effects of global warming. Uzbekistan’s main sources of water are the Amu Darya and Syr Darya rivers which are becoming smaller in size year after year. Because of the increasing temperatures in the area, the glaciers that feed the Amu and Syr rivers are melting at a terminal pace. Historically, this region was regulated by the massive Aral Sea; however, in the 1960s hydrological projects were implemented diverting the Aral Sea’s main water sources for irrigation purposes. Choking off the Aral Sea has caused the rivers to lose nearly 75% of their sizes. Without the Aral Sea, precipitation has decreased resulting in the encroachment of deserts, further compounding the temperature rises. With a diminishing supply of water, Uzbekistan faces similar domestic challenges Syria faced during its droughts. However, Peter Zeihan suggests that Uzbekistan will look beyond its borders and try to control the headwaters of both the Amu and Syr rivers. Uzbekistan’s neighbors, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan currently control portions of the Amu and Syr rivers and are direct competitors of Uzbekistan. Zeihan believes that Uzbekistan will take aggressive action to secure resources for the nation. In a region surrounded by Turkey, Russia, and China any such act will likely draw the interest of major powers which could create a proxy war similar to that in Syria. The second example of transboundary water sharing is between Kazakhstan and China. China and Kazakhstan have a history of conflict over shared water resources, specifically over the Ili River basin. The Ili River flows from China into Kazakhstan which the Kazakhs use for irrigation and energy generation. However, the amount flowing across the border is unequal; China has 15.7 billion cubic meters while Kazakhstan has only 8.4 billion cubic meters. This creates a political challenge for both countries to determine how to fairly extract the water. Kazakhstan has adopted a Green Economy agenda which focuses on improving water management making the country less dependent on the water flowing from China. China has adopted a relatively cooperative stance seeing Kazakhstan as a strong economic partner that can benefit its economic initiatives. Unlike the predictions Zeihan has for Uzbekistan, China and Kazakhstan are keen to ease tensions through diplomacy. The question remaining is, will diplomacy be enough when the effects of climate change reduce the availability of water in the Ili River? As noted by the WEF, climate change will likely tilt the relationship from cooperative to tense, especially when China has economic and military leverage it can use to develop a favorable deal. These examples establish a connection between the direct effects of climate change such as increasing temperatures and the indirect impacts of rising tensions and political unrest. Climate change is not only making the world more inhospitable but may also deteriorate the peace and prosperity many nations have enjoyed for the last number of decades.
Climate change challenges will increase in frequency and severity as countries fail to prevent and mitigate the causes and effects. The Scientific American reported that global carbon dioxide emissions surged in 2016, even though the Paris Agreement was signed a year earlier. Global population growth and emerging new economies have increased the demand for energy resources which still largely consist of fossil fuels. As a result, the world is experiencing extreme weather events: abnormal temperatures, sea level rises, etc. With no real accountability, countries have not met their reduction targets and in many cases, the amount of emissions even increased. Nations have failed to take adequate measures to limit the causes of global warming. Where prevention of climate change fails so does the mitigation as a consequence of indifference. The current international approach to mitigating the effects of climate change is ill-structured and poorly equipped. The WEF states that the international policy stance is “set aside as somebody else’s problem” as global warming solutions, national developments, and peacebuilding tactics do not fully address the risks associated with extreme fluctuations in temperature. A drastic shift is required away from short term solutions towards long term peace.
Dr. Redlener quotes the Center for Naval Analysis in his article, “Climate change can act as a threat multiplier for instability in some of the most volatile regions in the world.” This means that the effects of climate change are likely going to take a more significant toll on developing, unstable and vulnerable countries. Developed countries in the European Union, the United States and Canada are unlikely to face the same problems that developing nations will as they are better equipped to deal with issues of global warming. As such, it is up to the progressive states to create methodologies to better prevent and mitigate climate change. The WEF strongly suggests that the G7 governments need to make solutions to climate-related risks central to their foreign policy strategies. Through an integrated approach, these countries can hold themselves and other nations accountable for reducing carbon emissions. Especially given that many of the effects of climate change are already significant and need to be immediately addressed by the G7 countries. As has been said these states will need to develop anti-global warming action plans: climate change risk assessment with transparent and shared results, improvement of food security, development of agreements that will settle transboundary water disputes, and recalibration of international development assistance to build local resilience. Countries like Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan need to be provided with tools and support in their effort to prevent the outbreak of a conflict. If all these solutions are undertaken by strong leaders then the progression of climate change can be significantly limited. However, without effective leadership, conventional policy norms will fail to regulate global warming, thus increasing the risks of instability and conflict. The Syrian Civil War is a warning that indifference to climate change will threaten world peace and the lives of many.
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