On August 7, 2021, the United Nations published its now infamous report on the state of the climate crisis. The report states plainly and grimly: humans have been making dramatic changes to the earth’s climate such that temperatures are unlikely to stop rising for the next thirty years. Following the report’s release, the UN Secretary-General António Guterres stated, “the alarm bells are deafening, and the evidence is irrefutable: greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuel burning and deforestation are choking our planet and putting billions of people at immediate risk.” The evidence is incontrovertible. Humans are contributing to climate change, and we are nearing a point of no return. While the environmental implications are dire, there is the potential humanitarian crisis that could arise from climate change; shifting temperatures are likely to lead to frequent, more devastating wars.
Climate change has had an impact on humans for centuries and has led to many wars throughout history. As stated by Thomas Ritzer of the Policy and Mediation Division of the Department of Political and Peacebuilding Affairs (DPPA), climate change “can intensify competition over natural resources, drive up food prices, and increase geopolitical tensions.” There are historical examples of how shifting global temperatures eventually lead to conflict. Some examples include the fall of the Ming Dynasty in China, the English Revolution, the Thirty Years War in Europe, and the French Revolution. All of these conflicts began with extreme weather, which led to insufficient harvests and higher food prices. The rise in food prices resulted in higher political tensions that eventually escalated into conflict and violence.
These examples are dated, but the Syrian Civil War is a modern example of how climate change can contribute to conflict. According to Professor Jamal Saghir at McGill University, “Syria serves as a prime example for the impact of climate change on pre-existing issues such as political instability, poverty, and scarce resources.” Syria experienced a drought between 2006 and 2010, which was reported to be the most devastating the region had seen in nine hundred years. Much of Syria’s domestic resources rely on agricultural labor, so the drought resulted in poor harvests. Thousands of farmers were forced to move into cities and take up new jobs, which increased an already tense political situation. Additionally, the bad harvests resulted in higher food prices which, as noted earlier, added to the tension. The drought did not create the conflict in Syria, but it contributed to the unrest that fueled the civil war.
Climate change poses potentially the greatest threat to human existence. The effects of shifting global temperatures are already visible and have made a direct impact across the world. This year alone we’ve witnessed fires on the west coast of North America, an increased number of tropical storms and hurricanes from the Gulf of Mexico, and tragic flooding across Europe. Not only should there be alarm for the environmental effects of climate change, but also for the humanitarian problems it is likely to cause. Climate change can contribute to wars, and according to the International Committee of the Red Cross “people living in conflict zones are […] among the most vulnerable to the climate crisis and most neglected by climate action.”
The only way to end this potential catastrophe is to push for new policies to combat climate change, such as carbon taxes and renewable energy incentives. The report from the United Nations said that there is still hope for humanity, but the world needs to come together and act now, align on shared policies and bold goals, and invest in technologies and incentives to avoid a climate disaster, preventing the otherwise inevitable conflict and fight over resources that will come with it.
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