Climate change linked to violence
We live in an environment surrounded with the vulnerability of negative impacts. There is so much hype about the term “climate change” since it has had measurable impacts on humans and our planet. The security of our nation and humans on this planet are at risk with every turn of the environmental clock. Our vault of finite resources is depleting exponentially, and our reduced access to natural resources that are important to livelihood is undermining human security. This human insecurity has the potential, in turn, to increase the risk of violent conflicts. The capacity of state actions to promote human security and peace is also degraded with the social-ecological effects faced in the light of global climate change.
We have already seen most of the short-term effects of climate change, like changes in the frequency of floods, droughts, storms, cyclones, fires, heat waves and epidemics, but what happens in the long term when the glaciers and permafrost have all melted and raise the sea level? Will the coastal cities become vulnerable to similar effects we have seen with other highly impacted regions that now experience poverty and violent conflict? It seems both economically inefficient and unnecessary to start a war when resources are already scarce, because war only worsens the state of the environment. Unfortunately, the changes we have faced have already led us to violent conflict. Some of the conversations we hear on climate change have a negative outcome similar to the apocalypse and end-of-the-world movies where it all ends in violence and chaos. In order to avoid a future such as this, we must first look at the small-scale and local impacts that have occurred so far.
Individuals’ vulnerability is dependent on the sensitivity of natural resources and ecosystems to climate change, their reliance on the resources and the capacity to adapt to changes in resources and services. One looks at East Timor in Southeast Asia and the high dependency on agriculture, combined with the low rainfall associated with changes in climatic patterns, which resulted in widespread hunger and malnutrition because of the lack of ability to adapt when maize, the primary food crop, could not be grown. Examples like these leave one to wonder what it would be like to be in that situation; however, how close to home does it hit for the individuals living half a world away from those experiencing this kind of scarcity and insecurity? The message comes across as powerful and depressing, yet the reality is that these small-scale and short-term effects may eventually become a larger calling for adaptation and mitigation by the rest of the world if more large-scale climate change effects occur.
The United States is considered a First World country; however, this does not mean similar effects are not felt by some individuals in our home country. Humans tend to be most impacted by the things they see rather than what they hear about. The violence occurring in Syria is a current topic of discussion by many, but the effects are only felt by those at risk of the violence or those who have seen firsthand how intense the situation is. It is important to note that it is not just chronic poverty but the risk or realization of sudden poverty that increases an individual’s propensity to join an armed group. In this sense it is not just potential or actual insecurity that increases the risk of violent conflict, but also the perception of future insecurity. Third World countries have developed effective welfare systems to avoid this. In the United States, some of our security as individuals is dependent on economic markets, and our money is the standard for how well off we are. If there is any threat to the economy, there is suddenly an immediate risk of poverty, and this fear drives the insecurity that can lead to violent conflict. The majority of individuals in the United States also have access to education and health care. When a state cannot provide such functions of society, the risk of violence again rises. Democracy also gives individuals the power to act to affect change and creates opportunities for nonviolent resolutions to conflict. We begin to see the pattern develop between the ties of human security and dependency on the environment in which one lives.
Climate change reduces one’s access to natural resources that sustain livelihoods and provide security. It also is likely to undermine the capacity of states to provide the opportunities and services that help to maintain and build peace. As a society, we need to be able to assess one’s vulnerability to climate change, the ability to adapt and the availability of resources that will allow for less violent conflicts among stressed individuals. With an enhanced understanding of climate insecurity by the individuals of our nation, we will be able to comprehend ways in which the climate changes affect states and provide incentive to maintain or establish peace.
Justin Dalaba is a student at St. Lawrence University in Canton, pursuing a career in conservation biology.