by Randolph T. Holhut
American Reporter Correspondent
August 18, 2011
THE NEXUS OF CLIMATE CHANGE AND WAR
DUMMERSTON, Vt. -- There is virtually no doubt that global warming exists. Aside from a few cranks and those heavily invested in the fossil fuel industry, the scientific consensus is that the Earth's climate is changing, and changing faster than ever before.
What happens when the Earth's climate changes faster than humans can adapt to those changes?
The answer to this question is provided in Christian Parenti's new book, "Tropic of Chaos: Climate Change and the New Geography of Violence."
Parenti, a contributing editor at The Nation, describes what he calls a "catastrophic convergence" of the legacy of Cold War-era militarism, neoliberal economic restructuring and the onset of climate change, and how they combine and express themselves as warfare, crime, repression and state failure.
Speaking in Brattleboro, Vt., on Aug. 10, Parenti said his book is the product of six years of traveling and reporting in war zones and failed states from east Africa to central Asia. He was working what was to be a book on the past decade of war in Afghanistan, but as it turned out, that was where he got the first hint of how climate change was affecting the NATO-led counterinsurgency campaign against the Taliban.
The worst drought in Afghanistan's history has coincided with the war and occupation that began in 2001. The Afghan and U.S. governments are trying to prevent farmers from planting opium poppies and plant wheat instead. But it is impossible to grow wheat in a drought, while poppies use one-sixth of the water that wheat requires.
The Taliban is supporting the cultivation of poppies. The NATO forces, which are trying win the loyalty of these tribal farmers, is destroying poppy crops. It is easy to see which side the farmers are on.
While the drought is not the sole reason for the continuing unrest in Afghanistan, it is but one example of how climate change is contributing to global instability.
From the heavily-armed tribes on the Kenya-Uganda border stealing cattle; to the battles over access to water on the India-Pakistan border; to displaced farmers fleeing Mexico who are caught between warring drug cartels and an increasingly militarized U.S. border, the future of our planet looks more and more like an endless global conflict over dwindling resources.
Parenti is quick to point out that this is a man-made disaster where "people are killed by bad policies as much as they are being killed by drought or famine."
Even if climate change wasn't a factor, there are plenty of other factors contributing to the misery, starting with the push to impose what Parenti called "radical free market ideology" on the global South.
Privatization of government services, he said, left few resources in place to deal with drought, famine, and unrest. Add to that the flood of cheap weaponry left over from the various proxy wars of the Cold War era in Africa, the Middle East and central Asia, and you get civil wars and terrorism.
Parenti said that in the language of the Pentagon, climate change is a "force multiplier," something that can make an existing situation much worse and much more unpredictable.
The so-called Arab Spring earlier this year is an example of this. One of the biggest factors behind the political movements that overthrew the governments of Tunisia and Egypt was a huge increase in food prices.
How did this happen? Parenti said a severe drought in Russia, the worst to hit that country in 100 years, wiped out much of that nation's grain harvest. Russia cut off its wheat exports, which helped drive up food prices around the world. In Egypt, food prices went up 20 percent, which was already too much for a country where most of its citizens can't afford to buy food.
So are we a planet doomed to an endless loop of violence fueled by climate change? Parenti said the science points to a scenario where it is already too late to reduce the amount of greenhouse gases entering the atmosphere that's causing the planet to get steadily warmer and the extremes in weather to get more extreme. All that can be done is to minimize the damage done by climate change.
"The main source of greenhouse gases is human activity, and we have to drastically cut carbon emissions in the next 30 years," said Parenti. "That's not enough time to completely transform our society, so we have to avoid pie-in-the-sky solutions. This is not an economic problem, and it is not a technological problem. It is a political problem. We don't have the will to make changes happen."
While Congress has failed to pass comprehensive climate legislation, Parenti said there is enough legislation already on the books to regulate greenhouse emissions. He also advocates a bigger role for the U.S. Government in creating a market for renewable energy.
"The federal government accounts for one-third of the gross domestic product," he said. "It can use its tremendous buying power to create markets for clean energy such as solar, wind, hydropower, and electric vehicles. This would have a tremendous impact on the private sector because it would drive down the cost of clean energy and speed the transition away from fossil fuels."
He realizes that even these proposals seem out of reach in today's political climate, but it has to be done. The problem is that "there's no adult supervision" in Washington.
With the end of the Cold War and the defeat of the American left as a political force in the United States, Parenti said there is no longer a countervailing force that can rein in the greed of the elites, which he said has led to a "smash-and-grab" style of capitalism and government.
"We don't want to be the generation that catches the final curtain on civilization," he said. "We know it can't last forever, but we'd at least like it to last a little bit longer."
AR Chief Correspondent Randolph T. Holhut has been a journalist in New England for more than 30 years. He edited "The George Seldes Reader" (Barricade Books). He can be reached at email@example.com.