Saturday, November 28, 2009

Climate change conflict

Over the last year or two I have noticed a pronounced trend towards linking climate change with national security. It's a development that should be regarded as unsurprising. After all, if a linkage can be established between a pet cause and national security, its profile can not only be elevated but criticism rendered much more difficult -- who can possibly dismiss something which impacts the country's security?

It's with this in mind that I read the following story in today's Los Angeles Times:
Have the climate wars of Africa begun?

...Tribes that lived side by side for decades say they've been pushed to warfare by competition for disappearing water and pasture. The government is accused of exacerbating tensions by taking sides and arming combatants who once used spears and arrows.

...It's a combustible mix of forces that the United Nations estimates has resulted in at least 400 deaths in northern Kenya this year. Moreover, experts worry that it's just the beginning of a new era of climate-driven conflict in Africa.

"There is a lesson in Darfur," said Richard Odingo, vice chairman of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a global scientific body that shared the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize with former Vice President Al Gore. "Every dry area has the potential to be a flash point if we are not careful."
Africa is no stranger to conflict: The continent has been rocked by war, ethnic hatred, post-colonial border disputes and competition for resources, including oil and diamonds. But as the deserts encroach in Sudan, rainfall declines in the Horn of Africa -- a 15% decrease is predicted over the next few decades -- and fresh water evaporates in the south, climate change is transforming conflicts and kicking old tensions into overdrive.

"Climate change amplifies and escalates vulnerability," said Achim Steiner, director of the U.N. Environment Program. "It doesn't mean that conflict is inevitable, but it's much more likely."

Scientific and anecdotal evidence is mounting that the changes underway here are more than climatic variation. Droughts that once appeared every decade now hit every two or three years. Icecaps atop Mt. Kenya and Mt. Kilimanjaro are evaporating, and Lake Chad has lost 90% of its water since the 1960s.

And Africa is getting hotter. Maximum temperatures in Kenya's Rift Valley and on its northern coast have risen by more than 5 degrees over the last 20 to 40 years, according to research by the group Christian Aid. Malaria, once rare in Kenya's central highlands because the weather was too cold for the disease-spreading mosquitoes, has become a major health challenge.
There is so much wrong with this article one hardly knows where to begin. First off, this is less a story about climate change than a lack of rule of law, democracy and free markets. There is absolutely no problem cited which a system of property rights, free people and capitalism couldn't solve. Several points in particular need to be made:
  • The article admits that the government is playing a major -- indeed, arguably the most significant -- role in fomenting violence. But writing about another corrupt and repressive African government is probably less interesting than a conflict fueled by climate change.
  • Nobel laureate Richard Odingo's quote that "Every dry area has the potential to be a flash point if we are not careful" is absolutely laughable. Las Vegas is dry -- does it have the potential to erupt in conflict? California experienced a severe drought during the late 1980s-early 1990s, did it erupt in conflict?
  • Desertification, as wikipedia says is mostly a man-made phenomenon: "...desertification results chiefly from man-made activities and influenced by climatic variations. It is principally caused by overgrazing, overdrafting of groundwater and diversion of water from rivers for human consumption and industrial use, all of these processes fundamentally driven by overpopulation." These factors, in turn, usually stem from a lack of property rights. That which belongs to nobody is overused by everybody.
  • According to a 2001 study published in the Journal of Geophysical Research, human activity is responsible for about half of Lake Chad's decrease in water levels, with overgrazing cited in particular. Again, this is due to a lack of clearly defined property rights.
  • As for the emergence of malaria in Kenya, at least one study from the World Health Organization concluded that it is actually a re-emergence, with outbreaks occurring several times in the first half of the last century. Furthermore, malaria can be controlled with the use of the chemical DDT.
  • The number of people which take a skeptical view of the climate change argument, or who raise any of the points I have made in the article is zero.
It almost seems that advancing the idea climate change is real and will result in catastrophic consequences is more important than the truth, or even taking a skeptical eye.

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