Wednesday, March 21, 2007

global warming and Darfur

Eric Martin explains why global warming is a big deal. It’s not necessarily that the planet will end up submerged like in Waterworld or that we’ll all burn to a crisp. It’s that human societies are delicately calibrated and easily upset by things like floods, storms, droughts, and resource scarcity, all of which are predicted consequences of climate change.

An article by Stephen Faris in the most recent issue of The Atlantic provides a chilling look at just how severe those consequences may end up being for many of the Earth's inhabitants. It's not just the effect that extreme weather phenomena like floods, landslides, droughts and hurricanes will have on the populations immediately impacted by such events. While the death and destruction from those events can be enormous, the specter of more catastrophic outcomes looms on the horizon.

The repercussions from dramatic shifts in temperature, rainfall and overall patterns will likely exacerbate, if not directly instigate, bloody conflict on a massive scale. The upending of societal orders that are, at least in part, dependent on a continuation of the existing pattern of sustainable interaction with the local environment will lead to new-found competition over suddenly scarce resources such as arable land, viable real estate and water.

To put it in less colorful language: previously peaceful neighbors will start fighting in desperation over what little is left after the Earth literally moves from beneath their feet. Faris offers a glimpse:

To truly understand the crisis in Darfur—and it has been profoundly misunderstood—you need to look back to the mid-1980s, before the violence between African and Arab began to simmer. Alex de Waal...was there at that time, as a doctoral candidate doing anthropological fieldwork. Earlier this year, he told me a story that, he says, keeps coming back to him.

De Waal was traveling through the dry scrub of Darfur, studying indigenous reactions to the drought that gripped the region. In a herders’ camp near the desert’s border, he met with a bedridden and nearly blind Arab sheikh named Hilal Abdalla, who said he was noticing things he had never seen before: Sand blew into fertile land, and the rare rain washed away alluvial soil. Farmers who had once hosted his tribe and his camels were now blocking their migration; the land could no longer support both herder and farmer. Many tribesmen had lost their stock and scratched at millet farming on marginal plots.

The God-given order was broken, the sheikh said, and he feared the future. “The way the world was set up since time immemorial was being disturbed,” recalled de Waal. “And it was bewildering, depressing. And the consequences were terrible.”

In 2003, another scourge, now infamous, swept across Darfur. Janjaweed fighters in military uniforms, mounted on camels and horses, laid waste to the region. In a campaign of ethnic cleansing targeting Darfur’s blacks, the armed militiamen raped women, burned houses, and tortured and killed men of fighting age. Through whole swaths of the region, they left only smoke curling into the sky.

At their head was a 6-foot-4 Arab with an athletic build and a commanding presence. In a conflict the United States would later call genocide, he topped the State Department’s list of suspected war criminals. De Waal recognized him: His name was Musa Hilal, and he was the sheikh’s son.

The fighting in Darfur is usually described as racially motivated, pitting mounted Arabs against black rebels and civilians. But the fault lines have their origins in another distinction, between settled farmers and nomadic herders fighting over failing lands. The aggression of the warlord Musa Hilal can be traced to the fears of his father, and to how climate change shattered a way of life.

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Environmental degradation “creates very dry tinder,” says de Waal. “So if anyone wants to put a match to it, they can light it up.” Combustion might be particularly likely in areas where the political or social geography is already fragile.

As Faris indicates, the social context here matters a lot. Water scarcity in the U.S. Mountain West may lead to harsh words between state bureaucrats and politicians, but it's not going to lead the people of Southern Utah to rise up against their rivals in Las Vegas. While the situation is bad now in much of Africa, widescale weather disruption could make things much worse. The solution in my view, aside from working to minimize climate change, is to immunize weak societies against the coming sickness by strengthening rule of law and international institutions. The fragmented nature of modern international politics should not be seen as an end state, but as transitional, although it may take a global crisis to make this as apparent as it was to American leaders after the last two world wars.

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