Climate is new driver of global conflict
September 7, 2018
When I first went overseas as a foreign correspondent in the 1960s, the style of foreign coverage fit the stories of the time. But those stories were tremendously different from the important stories of today, and we ignore the startling changes facing us only at serious risk.
In those early days, coverage tended to be boringly acronymic. The MNR was pitted in elections in the Andes against other acronyms of political parties; the PRD in Santo Domingo led another procession of largely ho-hum stories. Wars and internal struggles occurred between countries and between militaries, and not only our atlases but our minds assumed that the proclaimed borders of even politically fragile nation-states were what we should be writing about.
Today those borders are no longer the true lines dividing — and destroying — peoples. The new threats do not adhere to lines drawn by statesmen in London or Paris. The political parties are largely mute about these new questions, and terrorists do not understand them either. These new threats move stealthily, making the old secrets of MI6, the CIA and the KGB seem simple.
You don't believe it? Think of Africa, source of many of the waves of despairing migrants flooding Europe. Why? In great part because the Earth's largest hot desert, the Sahara, is rapidly advancing south, turning formerly green vegetation dry and making it impossible for farmers to live there. Scientists publishing in the Journal of Climate now see the Sahara taking over a water basin that drains into Lake Chad — and they see other deserts expanding as well, largely from climate change.
In Iraq, 14 years after we Americans so blithely thought we were "liberating" Iraqis, what is really happening is what some scientists are calling an "existential threat" — the Tigris River and the 1,700-mile-long Euphrates are being diverted by Syrian and Iranian dams and poisoned by American policies.
"If there's a new frontier in political science, it's the realization that environmental problems, particularly water shortages, not only worsen conflict but may actually cause it," the respected writer Joshua Hammer wrote in Smithsonian Magazine, the journal of the Smithsonian Institution. He then notes how the terrible Syrian civil war started with a "devastating drought in the Euphrates Valley beginning in 2006," which forced farmers to migrate to urban centers, thus driving the unemployment that led young men to start the revolution.
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In the oil-rich country of Nigeria, the dry seasons are getting longer, and desertification and population explosions have pitted the "killer herdsmen," or Fulani pastoralists, now armed with AK-47s, against the sedentary farmers. The old relative harmony between the two is being destroyed before our eyes, as violent conflicts killed some 2,500 in 2016, more than those killed by Boko Haram, the African ISIS.
Nor is the Western Hemisphere exempt from these secretive movements. In Guatemala, home to so many poor human beings trying to live out their destiny by crossing the American borders of "El Norte," drought and rising temperatures are destroying hopes for natives to remain at home. El Salvador, too, has been hit by a devastating drought, which has been little reported since there are almost no regular foreign correspondents based now in Latin America.
Already, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees estimates that, since 2008, 22.5 million people have been violently uprooted by climate-related or extreme weather events and are searching for new homes across the globe, from Darfur, to Bangladesh, to Puerto Rico, to Gambia, to Ethiopia. For starters!
How do we report this "new" news? How does one measure accuracy in grains of sand, in drops of water, in the winds that rise silently at night? These stories stubbornly refuse to adhere to the old conventions of coverage of political parties, of votes, of decisions in the Security Council. We might also ask what kind of government, what kind of institutions in the future might serve to deal with these new problems.
Of course, we need a presidency and a Congress and institutions that will study these developments. We, as journalists, need to use whatever ingenuity we can scrape up to report these stories effectively in new ways. And above all, we will need the attention and anger of the American people. Without them, all the efforts will simply be scratching an increasingly dangerous surface.
Georgie Anne Geyer has been a foreign correspondent and commentator on international affairs for more than 40 years. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.