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Climate, Conflict, and Culture

By Abby Shamray

Depending on who you ask, it is either climate change or terrorism that poses the biggest threat to global security. After the Nov. 13 terrorist attacks in Paris, many pointed to the incidents as proof that terrorism is overwhelmingly the greater enemy. In response, many, including U.S. President Barack Obama, were quick to say this is not a either-or dilemma. Rather, the rise of terrorist organizations in the past decade is a result of climate change. A parade of think pieces followed, either embracing or denouncing the link.

So how, exactly, did climate change lead to Syria’s civil war? A long-form online cartoon, written by Audrey Quinn and illustrated by Jackie Roche, details how a drought in Syria led to famine, the loss of employment for 1.5 million people. Ultimately, protests against a cruel dictator whose power had been stable for forty years went viral. Many experts are looking at climate-related stressors such as the drought in the Middle East as “threat multipliers” that can exacerbate a bad situation and cause action where there may not otherwise be incentive to act.

The connection between climate and conflict has been made before. A study that made headlines in 2009 found that in sub-Saharan Africa, armed conflict increased along with a rise in temperature, which came with an increase in droughts. If global warming continues on as projected, armed conflict in Africa would increase 54 percent, or lead to an additional 393,000 battle deaths. The study concluded that in order for aid efforts to be more effective, African governments and aid donors needed to take into account rising temperatures.

A recent report from the Overseas Development Institute (ODI) found that from 2005 to 2009, “more than 50 percent of people affected by ‘natural’ disasters lived in fragile and conflict-affected states.” In most of those cases, the disasters worsened the conflict by depleting resources and, in some cases, facilitating military maneuvers. The addition of climate-related crises augmented the existing suffering in the region.

The 2014 World Disasters Report from Red Cross Red Crescent included a section in the report focusing on culture and disaster risk reduction. Many people stay in areas that are considered vulnerable to climate change because of a religious tradition tied to the land or a fear that they may lose a livelihood that has sustained their family for generations, even if given warning of a hazard. In turn, aid workers and governments are tasked with developing ways to communicate issues without ignoring a group’s history and traditions.

When NGOs and governmental organizations go into the field to provide assistance in situations of conflict, ignoring the culture and tradition in formulating solutions can further exacerbate problems. Lisa Schipper, Research Associate at the ODI, told World Policy Journal that, “There needs to be acknowledgements of the role of tradition and cultural beliefs not as vulnerabilities but as having potential to help figure out how to help people help themselves.” Policy-makers need to consult psychologists, sociologists, behavioral economists, and others whose expertise is not limited to climate change in order to create effective solutions.

A lot of opportunity still exists in the developing world to mitigate the negative effects of industrialization and urbanization. According to the U.N., over half of the world lives in urban areas and that number is increasing rapidly. According to John Kraus, Special Adviser to the Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors (RICS) “In the developing economies, there is a greater opportunity to build in green features from the outset, from the city planning level down to the level of individual buildings design.”

While a complaint of many developing countries at COP21 was that the financial cost of sustainability is unfair compared to the freedom developed countries had, keeping climate factors in mind when creating policy goes beyond just keeping the global temperature from rising 2 degrees Celsius. A built environment that is planned to accommodate various ecological disasters and produce less pollution benefits the individuals who live there. Accommodating for potential hazards before resources are forced to be spent on adapting to their aftermath is ultimately more cost effective.

The Paris Agreement acknowledges the importance of taking actions toward adaptation on all ends. For it to be effective, there needs to be a way for countries to stay accountable and knowledgeable. The World Resources Institute described a good adaptation incentive plan as focusing on goals, assessment, and measuring results in order to give countries an idea of how to adapt along with how to help vulnerable countries adapt. This includes a high-level session with business, civil society, city governments, and other non-state actors with seats at the table when it comes to the conversation about adaptation.

Both tradition and urbanization need to be included in conversations surrounding conflict and climate. While politicians argue about which is the greater peril, or whether they are indeed linked, individuals living in high risk areas for both natural disasters and armed conflict are adjusting to living in the face of both threats every day. The solution includes making sure that the affected parties have a say in how they adapt and what aid they are given. To best fight the joint terror and climate front, the world must facilitate developing economies by making sustainable choices the best option.



Abby Shamray is an editorial assistant at World Policy Journal.

[Photo courtesy of Wikimedia]

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