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How climate change is breeding violence and unrest around the globe

Christian Parenti makes the connections in Brattleboro talk


Poverty and inequality often breed violence and war.

Add climate change to the mix, and the result is chaos on a global scale.

In Christian Parenti’s new book, Tropic of Chaos: Climate Change and the New Geography of Violence, he describes what he calls a “catastrophic convergence” of the legacy of Cold War-era militarism, neoliberal economic restructuring, and the onset of climate change. According to Parenti, these events combine and express themselves as warfare, crime, repression, and state failure.

Parenti, who spoke at Everyone’s Books on Aug. 10, said that his book is the product of six years of traveling and reporting - in war zones and failed states - from east Africa to central Asia.

While he was working on what was to be a book on the past decade of war in Afghanistan, he got the first hint of how climate change was affecting the NATO-led counterinsurgency campaign against the Taliban.

Currently, 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 by urging them to 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, are 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 one another’s cattle, to the battles over access to water on the India-Pakistan border, to displaced Mexican farmers who are caught between warring drug cartels as they flee toward 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 weren't a factor, plenty of other factors contribute 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 added 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 the impact of climate change. 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 that 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 rose 20 percent, on top of prices that were already too high for a country in which most of its citizens can’t afford to buy food.

Are we as a planet doomed to an endless loop of violence fueled by climate change?

Parenti said that the science points to a scenario in which it is already too late to reduce the amount of greenhouse gases entering the atmosphere, causing the planet to get steadily warmer and the extremes in weather to get worse.

All that can be done is to minimize the damage done by climate change, he said.

“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,” he continued. “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 to create 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 he said 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.”

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Originally published in The Commons issue #115 (Wednesday, August 24, 2011).

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