26 Sep 2013

Climate change and conflict from Tunisia to Texas

I’ve just returned from Tunisia filming a piece on climate change and human conflict.

The thrust of the film is a simple enough: If climate change predictions are correct it will take a few decades, possibly centuries for things like ice caps to melt or polar bears to die out. But it only takes a few extreme weather events or a prolonged drought to pit humans against each other. The most noticeable and most immediate impacts of climate change could be human responses to subtle environmental changes, not huge environmental change itself.

History is full of examples of where conflict has arisen as a result of extreme weather or climatic change. This recent study tried to analyse many of them (though has been criticised for making to much of a controversial link between temperature and violence).

We focused on the Arab spring as an interesting case-study. Climate change didn’t cause the Arab spring. The levels of unemployment, inequality, poverty and dicatatorship in many North African and Middle Eastern nations meant the wave of violence was going to spread at some point.

But one factor is now acknowleged to have played an important part: Food price spikes, partuicularly in Tunisia and Egypt in 2011. These were linked to poor harvests due to drought in Russia and wet weather in Canada. Independently, long-term crop faiure due to drought in Syria has been linked to unrest there.

But Tunisia opened my eyes to another imortant aspect of the climate change story.  Talking to anti-government protestors still camped outside the parliament building they were understandably confused by why I wanted to speak with them about food prices and climate change.

I tried to explain that it’s an important issue for people concerned about how human activities — especially of those of us in the rich west – could be having on conflict a long way from where we live.

“But we’re in the middle of a revolution here!” one protestor told me. “Why do you want to talk about climate change?”

“It’s just one part of the revolution,” said another. “The central factor is unemployment, dictatorship and inequality.”

And therein lies the rub. The solution to Tunisia’s societal problems are political and economic. And so too, are the solutions to its vulnerability to climate change.

Wealthy, well-governed societies are not as susceptible to environmental stress. Their resilience is based on well-functioning marketplaces for things like food and economies robust enough to absorb price shocks. In times of drought or flood infrastructure like reservoirs and drains help, as do planning laws.  It’s why the worst effects of climate change are expected to impact the poorest countries first.

Which leaves us with the simple conclusion that a humane response to a changing climate is the increased development of poorer countries. Unless alternative energy sources are scaled up massively that means using fossil fuels to grow economies — which itself worsens the odds of dangerous levels of warming.

But I saw something else in Tunisia that shone a ray of hope on that otherwise gloomy paradox.  Two thousand years ago Tunisia was so green it was the called the “breadbasket of Rome”.  In the modern city of Carthage the aquaduct the Romans built to bring water from the Atlas mountains the increasingly arid city is still there. Parts of it are still used to move water. It’s a monument to humankind’s other response to environmental stress: cooperation and innovation to solve the problems its confronted with.

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