On War and Climate Change

The Fierce Urgency of Now
by Paul A. Olson

When news of the scientific consensus about human-caused global warming first entered the public eye over 20 years ago, a group of us connected with the Center for Rural Affairs thought the Center should study the findings and the models to see what they said about the future of agriculture in Nebraska. We got a small grant to look at what was out there, and what we found was that the models provided no consensus as to what climate change would mean to the Plains—whether it would be warmer or colder, rainier or dryer. One thing, though, was certain. The weather would become more extreme. That forecasted weather scenario has now become the ‘new normal,’ with extreme drought in the southern Plains, out-of-control wildfires, unprecedented snowfalls and blizzards, flash floods, record river rises (like on our own Missouri), tornadoes in areas that never had them before, and larger hurricane systems. In 2011 alone, the U.S. experienced 14 weather disasters causing over a billion dollars in damage—six more than the previous record set in 2008.

Now we have a book about what this kind of extreme weather is doing to peace in the world. Though Nebraskans for Peace agrees with the Pentagon that global warming is real and an imminent threat to global security, we have not argued that it has already created war after war. But that’s the argument Christian Parenti, an editor for The Nation magazine, makes in his new book, Tropic of Chaos: Climate Change and the New Geography of Violence. Parenti does not claim to be a climate scientist, but he focuses on the military effects of phenomena that climate scientists say are outcomes of global warming: extreme weather events and the alteration of unusual major rainfall and drought patterns. Holdover regimes from the Cold War era (originally promulgated by the U.S. and the Soviet Union) and neo-liberal governments under the rule of the International Monetary Fund and other global financial institutions have added to the military destabilization of the global warming-injured ‘Tropic of Chaos’—the latitudes between the Tropics of Cancer and of Capricorn. In this region, the most damaged parts of the globe are East Africa, Asia south of the Himalayas, and Brazil and Mexico in the Western Hemisphere.

The story begins with the killing of a Turkana tribesman in Kenya’s “Great Rift Valley” by a raiding member of a neighboring pastoral-nomadic tribe whose cattle herding business was destroyed by drought. Parenti says that the man was killed by climate change. In the Horn of Africa, he states, over half a million people have been forced away from pastoralism and into the cities by protracted drought, and 60 percent of the remainder need outside aid because their flocks are decimated. The destabilization of the area—including Somalia, Ethiopia, the Sudan, Kenya and Uganda—by the effects of global warming, stupid Marxist autocracies, the imposition of free-market dogmatism on social policy, and plain pig-headedness has often led to the disintegration of genuine government (i.e. institutions that provide law and order impartially in the common interest) to pseudo-governments made up of criminal elements claiming legitimacy. For example, 29 different entities now claim the mantle of government in Somalia and war endlessly with their rivals.

Parenti next turns to south-central Asia—the countries of Afghanistan, Kyrgyzstan, Pakistan and the internal rebellions within India. He shows how climate change and drought in Afghanistan in the 1970s upended the regime of King Zahir Shah, then of his usurper, then of the local Afghan Communists, and then of the invading Soviets. As Afghanistan’s mean annual temperature increased and both annual rainfall and the run-off from mountain snowpack that fueled Afghan agriculture decreased, production of wheat and other cereal grains dropped and reliance on the drought-tolerant opium poppy grew. The drug trade became the struggling nation’s primary economic engine and, simultaneously, source of contention. Drug warlords fractured the country into fiefdoms, fostering lawlessness and setting the stage for the rise of the Taliban—aided and abetted by the neighboring Pakistanis. After the Taliban were ousted from power in 2001, they found refuge in Pakistan’s “Federally Administered Tribal Areas” just over the border, from where they now mastermind their return to power, funded in part by the very opium industry they once swore to destroy. Afghanistan’s weak central government, in response, has sought to ally itself with India, Pakistan’s historic enemy and nuclear rival, further destabilizing this already volatile region.

The stakes are so high and the consequences so tragic, it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that this entire chain reaction—from the environmental to the economic to the political and military—was set in motion by our burning of carbon fuels.

Neighboring Kyrgyzstan’s civil war arose from somewhat similar causes, only there drought produced an alarming deficit of hydroelectric power and a stupidly implemented liberalization of the economy produced a deindustrialization of the country and huge dependence of imported foreign goods that left the country utterly impoverished. Civil war resulted.

In the Pakistan/India area, Parenti does a good job of showing how parallel drought and monsoon cycles in region have contributed to the escalating militarization of the two countries and how Pakistan’s fear of Indian/Kashmiri control of the Ganges—so that it dries out the breadbasket of Southern Pakistan—dominates Pakistani thinking about military action against India. To counter India’s strength in the Kashmir and keep it off balance, Pakistan has, through its Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), supported the Taliban penetration into Afghanistan, the vale of Kashmir, and Afghan and Indian cities, all to keep India off balance and unable to shut off Pakistan’s water. A final Asian chapter shows how monsoon variability and drought have sparked civil war in India and produced inefficient industrialized farming and dumb neo-liberal reforms.

Roughly the same interplay of effects from climate change, Cold War leftovers, and neo-liberal pseudo-reforms have brought drought to Brazil’s northeast and mass immigration to Rio’s slums where the police now war on the people in the name of law and order. Again, similar practices (in conjunction with the neo-liberal NAFTA agreement) have created massive unemployment and uprooting among the traditional ejido farmers of Mexico and driven them into the cities and drug trade, where they and the army and police fight an endless war over the control of illegal drugs that flow into the U.S. along with waves of needy immigrants.

The Pentagon’s studies of global warming predicted that what would emerge from global warming would be ‘fortress states.’ These already seem to be emerging as Europe and the U.S. seek to stem the tide of immigrants seeking refuge.

Obviously these kinds of wars are new. They are not nation-state wars, but small scale, chaotic, random—the product of failed states and desperate economic conditions, and we do not know how to fight them. The best solution, as Parenti argues, is to stop warming the planet by mandating carbon emissions standards like those envisaged in the Kyoto Protocols, practicing large-scale reforestation as is being done in the African nation of Burkina Faso, ramping up clean renewable energy generation and enacting legislation that encourages reduced consumption and greener lifestyles. The solution also involves green resistance at the local level like we’ve seen with the TransCanada Pipeline and our sister organization, 350.org. Sometimes it may involve stronger measures like the strikes in Bolivia that brought the fossil fuels industry under social and governmental control. Even a serious enforcement of the “Clean Air Act” would do a lot of good.

Parenti believe that humankind has a future. We can change things as Europe and the U.S. in the 19th century got on top of epidemic diseases in their cities by implementing public health measures. But we must act now. If we don’t, we face, in his view, an endless war—and one that no one can win.

Remember that Nebraska is in the semi-arid Great Plains, an area where climate change and extreme weather events are most likely to happen. If they do (as they already have in Africa, Asia, and Central and South America), we stand to lose more than ever we could gain from all of the wars that StratCom—on behalf of our fortress state—can contrive and execute.

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