The climate crisis increases the likelihood of war and refugee flows.
War will make the impacts of the crisis, and the suffering it will bring, very much worse. The need for peace must be brought into discussion about the crisis.
Professor Jem Bendell, a British academic, has concluded “that climate-induced societal collapse is now inevitable in the near term”. He invites us to explore the implications of this and prepare for it. His position may be extreme. But whether he is prescient or not, with the fires of this summer, it must be acknowledged that the crisis is upon us and that it is likely to get more intense as the years go by.
Thus far, most of the attention has been focussed on the physical aspects of a warming planet – how much temperatures will rise, how far the sea level will rise, the risk of drought, flood, storms and fire. Bendell writes, “We might pray for time. But the evidence before us suggests that we are set for disruptive and uncontrollable levels of climate change, bringing starvation, destruction, migration, disease and war”. If humanity is to come through this impending catastrophe with any semblance of what we like to call “civilisation”, it needs to confront the implications of all of these impacts. However, it is the last one, war, that is the focus of what follows.
The uncontrollable nature of the physical aspects lie at the base of the matter. War, on the other hand, being an entirely human creation, should be controllable. Its theoretical ability to be controlled separates it from the other components of the crisis. It is something that we can do something about.
Reporter, Murtaza Hussain, invokes the thoughts of Indian author Rabindranath Tagore. Tagore lived under British colonial rule in India in the early 20th century and had a clear appreciation of the destructiveness of colonialism, militarism and industrialised warfare (exemplified in WW1). Taking up his theme, Hussain writes “In the era of climate crisis, the relationship between environmental destruction and the destruction of human life that Tagore decried in his writings has become perhaps the central issue of our time.”
As was the case with climate change itself, no academic consensus has been reached on the question of whether or not it is a direct cause of war. It will be some time (probably too long) before a consensus emerges. All parties in this debate (including military thinkers) do, though, tend to agree that the climate crisis is a “threat multiplier”. If there are existing tensions that threaten an outbreak of violence, the crisis makes such an outbreak more likely. In just one example, reports from Lake Chad in Central Africa indicate that violence in the area has increased as the lake has diminished in size due to the changing climate. On balance, it is fair to conclude that climate change contributes to the risk of war.
As we experience unprecedented fires in Australia, the incidence elsewhere of flooding, drought, insect plagues, storms etc. is climbing. All of these tend to cause reduction in agricultural production. Scarcity of resources, the basic necessities of food and water in particular, is, without question, de-stabilising. Failure of crops means famine. The impacts of the climate crisis are going to cause extreme distress, particularly in the poorer nations of Earth. There will be suffering on a grand scale. When facing such dire situations, how are populations likely to respond?
Whenever people find that their lives are no longer sustainable in one location, they will move to another. Humankind has done this as long as it has been able to walk. We know that the war in Syria produced a refugee crisis in Europe, and refugees from war are definitely one part of the picture. Add to that refugees from famine or resource shortages, and then a third category – those forced to move as a result of their homes being inundated or their land becoming unproductive as sea levels rise. Migrations of people are a very likely outcomes of the effects of the impending crisis. With it, the numbers of people on the move could rise to millions. Mass migrations will become an enormous problem.
As the poor nations of the Earth feel the full brunt of the crisis, the gap between rich and poor is wide and widening. Migrants from poor, impacted areas will be drawn towards lands that appear to have resources in abundance – i.e. the rich nations of the West. So the next question to ask is this;- How will nations on the receiving end of mass migrations respond?
Here, we can already see signs of the likely response. Think of President Trump’s wall along the Mexican border and the establishment of ‘Border Force’ in Australia. (Note use of the word ‘force’ in the title.) The uncomfortable truth is that the rich nations of the West are likely to respond to mass migrations by closing borders, trying to prevent the arrival of people who might want a share of their wealth, using force ‘where appropriate’.
In this scenario, the likely result will be violence in one form or another. The rich are always unwilling to share their wealth and the evident reluctance of the rich to accommodate the poor could well result in the poor taking up arms in resentment and desparation. The West’s xenophobia could become entirely self-fulfilling. War between nations might result. Indeed, it is hard to imagine any other outcome in the scenario described.
In this connection, one should recognise that the inequality we see today is the consequence of four centuries of colonialism, underpinned by the military might of the rich and ruthless nations of the West. The privileged position of the rich nations and the ongoing poverty of most of the world’s population is perpetuated by a (capitalist) system of exploitation that, ultimately, relies on militarism to maintain itself. If poor countries challenge the power that lies beneath the inequality and the forces that prevents them from sharing of the West’s abundance, military conflicts become more likely.
Political and military leaders of the West are definitely not blind to the coming impacts of climate change. On the contrary, what they correctly foresee (and fear) is a dynamic situation and increased instability on a global scale. Instability represents a threat in their eyes; the possibility that they might lose control. It should be no surprise that the likely response could be a military one. For example, a recent report from the US Army War College recommends the allocation of more military resources to the Arctic, as ice reteats (and exploitation of resources increases).
The same leaders probably also experience fear of losing control of events within their own borders. They know that, in the last analysis, their control depends on their monopoly over the exercise of organised violence. A hardening of the authorities’ control over internal opposition to developments is evident. Consider the governmental response to the Standing Rock protests in the USA – and the impending response to protests about the Adani coal mine.
The point to be made is that those in power are displaying an instinctive, reflexive reaction – to arm up, and be prepared for war, just in case matters get out of their control.
What we are witnessing in plain view, right now, is a general increase in the level of military preparedness, within our region and throughout the world. We can see it in the SIPRI figures for expenditure on armaments. We can see it locally in an increasing Defence Budget; the militarisation of Border Force; the presence of US marines in Darwin, and discussion about events in the South China Sea. It is reflected in the rise of right-wing political organisations, calling for tougher action against would-be immigrants.
As the crisis intensifies, the quantity and availability of weaponry rises in parallel. Those in power are not imagining that they can fight off climate change through force of arms – but they might just as well! If this aspect is not addressed, the likelihood of war as an adjunct to climate change is greatly increased.
In this scenario, humanity could, might and probably will make the bad effects of the climate crisis worse by orders of magnitude. Uncontrollable aspects of climate change are going to bring suffering and misery to millions of people in any case. The societal collapse that Bendell foresees could well be a global phenomenon that includes a collapse of any restraint on warfare, as the privileged sectors of the global community try to maintain wealth and dominance. If the response to the crisis is a military one, as is suggested here, and war is a consequence of the climate crisis, the sum total of human suffering will be amplified beyond imagining.
These considerations make it necessary to urgently bring the need for peace into the debate about the climate crisis. There will be no resolution of the crisis, no sustainable future, unless we resist the drift into violence and war. There will be no sustainability without peace and no peace without sustainability. The people of the world should cry out to tell their leaders to “Bring us Peace!”
Nick Deane is an ex-public servant with a degree in Sociology. He is a member of the co-ordinating committee of the Independent and Peaceful Australia Network (IPAN) and convenor of the Marrickville Peace Group.