The Globe’s Not Only Getting Hotter. It’s More Unjust and Unstable, Too
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Over the next few decades, tens of millions of people will be driven from their homes. Braving violence and poverty, they’ll roam desperately across continents and borders in search of work and shelter. Unlike other refugees, though, their plight won’t be blamed simply on the familiar horrors of war or persecution; they’ll blame the weather.
If you haven’t heard about the rising tide of environmental migrants, that’s because throngs of displaced black and brown people don’t evoke the same public sympathy as photos of polar bear cubs. The governments of rich industrialized nations will scramble to shut the gates on the desperate hordes with the same self-serving efficiency with which they’ve long ignored the social, ecological and economic consequences of their prosperity. But both efforts at blissful ignorance will fail, because climate change is forcing society to confront the mounting natural and man-made disasters on the horizon.
In 2010, according to the Pew Center on Global Climate Change, “more than 90 percent of all disasters and 65 percent of associated economic damages were weather and climate related (i.e. high winds, flooding, heavy snowfall, heat waves, droughts, wildfires). In all, 874 weather and climate-related disasters resulted in 68,000 deaths and $99 billion in damages worldwide.”
Those numbers look worse on the ground. In rural Bangladesh, where some of South Asia’s major riverways converge, rising waters are threatening to swallow vulnerable coastal communities and leave millions without homes. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the sea level need only rise by a few feet to turn a cultivated area of 1,000 kilometers squared into sopping marsh. The frequency and intensity of floods continues to escalate exponentially, pushing young workers into the cities to earn a living and eroding rural communities and their cultures.
While some places soak, others bake. An ongoing drought crisis in East Africa has created massive hunger and aggravated conflict between groups vying for dwindling resources in an increasingly barren terrain. The United Nations estimated that in 2009, conflicts over cattle grazing and water resources led to several hundred deaths.
It’s hard to pinpoint climate as a decisive factor in this sort of social upheaval, but the evidence grows more pronounced with each violent storm, ruined harvest and tribal clash: the cumulus of natural calamities makes it harder to live and thus harder to coexist with our neighbors.
On “Democracy Now!”, Christian Parenti, author of “Tropic of Chaos,” described how climate-driven warfare brings the environmental toll of imperialism full circle.
From 1945 to 1990 the U.N. said there were 150 or so armed conflicts that killed 20 million people, displaced 15 million, 16 million were wounded. That all happened in the “global south” in this belt of states. And so now that’s where climate change is kicking in and that was also the same terrain where the last 30 years of IMF and World Bank-backed structural adjustment of privatization, deregulation of economies, cutting state support for farmers and fishermen—that program affected those states most intensely.
And now the weather associated with climate change, extreme weather such as the drought, punctuated by flooding in East Africa, is adding to this. And there’s this catastrophic convergence.
Grassroots environmental groups have rallied around the concept of “ climate debt” to demand justice for the ecological destruction of the Global South. Still, the immediate humanitarian threats posed by climate change reveal the difficulty of thinking long term in the face of intense scarcity.
A warming planet is a thirsty one.