This September, it was reported that
a United Nations panel had predicted that
the world had 12 years to “check climate change or be prepared to face dire
consequences”. This included limiting the rise in the Earth’s temperature to
less than 1.5 degrees Celsius, with scientists from over 40 countries authoring
the report. While environmental harm is the most pressing and widely
acknowledged issue related to global warming, there is also the fact that it
will likely cause a global economic collapse.
A recent report predicted that $34.4 trillion,
would be the economic damage if global warming is not reversed. Not only does
this go against Donald Trump’s claim that the Paris Climate Accord would
“undermine our economy” but keeping the temperature down would also increase
the economies of 71 percent of the world’s countries. Not addressing the global
warming will have the opposite effect and increase economic inequality across
the globe. It was also noted that the report is an underestimate of the cost,
as it does not include “tipping points” of no return such as the ice caps
As with much of the news on the most dire environmental
impacts of global warning, it all seems in the distance. However, the economic effects
are already being felt. There have been increases in extreme weather that are
costing countries billions in damage.
The Balance informs that hot weather in the US
is causing corn and soya bean yields to plummet, increasing the prices of food.
Mass migration has also been a direct result of climate change with 22.5
million displaced since 2008, and a total of 700 million predicted by 2050.
Economic instability also exacerbates existing
social inequality. As huge industrial countries continue to churn out carbon
into the air, developing countries that do not have the same industry
capabilities will be the most effected. Developing countries, ill-equipped in
disaster mitigation, will find themselves at risk of lower water supply,
periodic droughts, food crisis, and other climate related events. But without
the developing countries supplying raw materials and cheap labour, developed
countries will also be affected, through knock-on effects to their economies.
These events, most of which an average citizen
wouldn’t probably immediately feel, will dramatically affect the global economy.
Food scarcity and higher mortality will translate into devastating losses in
global markets and even more volatility for the world’s currencies — which
according to FXCM’s guide on the Foreign Exchange, has a
daily trading volume of $5 trillion and is the largest and most liquid market
in the world. An economic collapse will spell disaster not just for the traders
who work within this market, but also on entire countries whose stores of value
In order to combat this looming economic disaster
experts are looking towards the rapid development of technology. Smart
technology is being put forward as the saviour. Even if the technology is fully
realised in time, the cost of converting the necessary urban and rural areas to
bring global warming down will be huge.
Financial expert Larry Elliot also argues that
governments are hypocritical over their promises, putting forward ideas for
green growth and renewable energy while building more airports
and roads. The policy of simulating growth to help develop greener directives
is supposed to create a “balanced approach” but is in fact extending the
transition away from fossil fuels. Elliot puts forward that a new global
institution needs to be created “with the power to levy a carbon tax globally”.
If a joint global movement is not found soon, then the $34.4 trillion cost to
the global economy will only be the beginning.
On the one hand, there are fossil fuels, the long-proven, relatively simple technologies of which provide abundant, affordable, reliable, instant-on-demand conventional energy. Indeed, they provide over 80 percent of all energy used in the world today.
On the other hand, there are “renewable energy sources.” Don’t think of the old reliable ones like hydro, wood, and dung, but of what Bjørn Lomborg, in his new book False Alarm, calls “new renewables,” mainly wind turbines and solar panels. Unlike fossil fuels, wind and solar are diffuse, providing less energy per area of land, and intermittent. Consequently, they are less abundant, more expensive, unreliable, and—when the wind doesn’t blow or the sun doesn’t shine—often completely unavailable.
Countries don’t face this decision by choice.
The United Nations’ (UN) collective decision, under the Framework Convention on Climate Change, to wage war on fossil fuels required a draconian energy policy. First it tried the Kyoto Protocol—under which almost no nation lived up to its commitments. Ironically, the United States, which never ratified it, had the world’s best record at reducing greenhouse gas emissions during the period Kyoto covered.
With the Kyoto Protocol’s expiration in 2012, the UN needed a replacement. It came up with the Paris Agreement in 2015. Over 190 nations had signed on by early 2016, and by 2019 nearly every nation had ratified and submitted its plans for greenhouse gas reductions.
But before then, the Paris Agreement lost its biggest cash cow. United States President Donald Trump announced in June 2017 that his nation would withdraw from the agreement. By the terms of the Agreement, the withdrawal becomes effective November 4, 2020—a day after America’s next Presidential election, but two-and-a-half months before the winner is inaugurated.
The key element of the Agreement is for member states to decrease their greenhouse gas emissions, which come mainly from fossil fuel use. Countries submitted individual deadlines to the Agreement and were expected to achieve those goals.
But almost all major European member states have failed to meet their emission reduction deadlines, and they remain unaccountable. Even economic powerhouses like Germany and France, both of which championed the treaty, continue to lag behind their emission reduction targets.
Moreover, advanced member states such as Japan and Australia have shown no restraints towards fossil fuels. The US has been on a fossil-fuel spree, emerging with a superior energy sector that is less dependent on oil from the Middle East.
Developing countries are in a difficult position economically. Some of their GDPs are much smaller than the European giants, all have GDP per capita below the developed countries, and poverty in them is widespread and often severe.
Developing countries understandably are reluctant to suppress their own growth by depending on expensive, intermittent, unreliable wind and solar when developed nations don’t. Some of the developing nations have expressed this through their domestic policy decisions.
The two largest developing nations, India and China, with a combined 2.8 billion people, together are the highest users of coal in the world. They have defied international pressure to reduce fossil fuel consumption. Economists say that this continued reliance on fossil fuels and the “economic growth from expanded use of fossil fuels will add thousands of dollars of annual income to the poor in India.” Ditto in China.
Quite simply, fossil fuels lifted the West out of poverty over the last 170 years. Developing countries understandably see no reason why they shouldn’t have the same benefit. Freeing up the billions of dollars these developing countries currently spend on renewable technology would speed their conquest of poverty.
Developed countries that provide them this fund are not immune from “energy poverty” themselves. Energy poverty (also called “fuel poverty” and defined in the United Kingdom as when a household must spend over 10 percent of its income solely on home heating—jeopardizing its ability to provide adequate food and other necessities) exists even in the UK and US, where the vulnerable population experience serious morbidity and mortality from their inability to pay energy bills.
In 2018, 2.40 million households in England were classified as fuel poor. Hundreds die each year in the English winter due to their inability to pay heating bills.
Reports indicate that energy poverty is a very real problem in the US, too. In 2015, “17 million households received an energy disconnect/delivery stop notice and 25 million households had to forgo food and medicine to pay energy bills.”
Developed countries must not fall into an imaginary abyss where they aggravate this widespread energy poverty. They, like the developing countries, must stop their investments in renewables and instead focus on making affordable energy.
Developing countries can begin by following the US example, pulling out of the Paris Agreement, which not only mandates reduced greenhouse gas emissions, but also forces them to spent billions for renewable installations that cannot provide the abundant, affordable, reliable energy indispensable to overcoming poverty.
Climate change: ‘We’ve created a civilisation hell bent on destroying itself – I’m terrified’, writes Earth scientistJames Dyke, Senior Lecturer in Global Systems, University of Exeter
The coffee tasted bad. Acrid and with a sweet, sickly smell. The sort of coffee that results from overfilling the filter machine and then leaving the brew to stew on the hot plate for several hours. The sort of coffee I would drink continually during the day to keep whatever gears left in my head turning.
Odours are powerfully connected to memories. And so it’s the smell of that bad coffee which has become entwined with the memory of my sudden realisation that we are facing utter ruin.
It was the spring of 2011, and I had managed to corner a very senior member of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) during a coffee break at a workshop. The IPCC was established in 1988 as a response to increasing concern that the observed changes in the Earth’s climate are being largely caused by humans.
The IPCC reviews the vast amounts of science being generated around climate change and produces assessment reports every four years. Given the impact the IPPC’s findings can have on policy and industry, great care is made to carefully present and communicate its scientific findings. So I wasn’t expecting much when I straight out asked him how much warming he thought we were going to achieve before we manage to make the required cuts to greenhouse gas emissions.
“Oh, I think we’re heading towards 3°C at least,” he said.
“Ah, yes, but heading towards,” I countered: “We won’t get to 3°C, will we?” (Because whatever you think of the 2°C threshold that separates “safe” from “dangerous” climate change, 3°C is well beyond what much of the world could bear.)
“Not so,” he replied.
That wasn’t his hedge, but his best assessment of where, after all the political, economic, and social wrangling we will end up.
“But what about the many millions of people directly threatened,” I went on. “Those living in low-lying nations, the farmers affected by abrupt changes in weather, kids exposed to new diseases?”
He gave a sigh, paused for a few seconds, and a sad, resigned smile crept over his face. He then simply said: “They will die.”
This article is part of Conversation Insights
The Conversation’s Insights team generates long-form journalism derived from interdisciplinary research. The team is working with academics from different backgrounds who have been engaged in projects aimed at tackling societal and scientific challenges. In generating these narratives we hope to bring areas of interdisciplinary research to a wider audience.
That episode marked a clear boundary between two stages of my academic career. At the time, I was a new lecturer in the area of complex systems and Earth system science. Previously, I had worked as a research scientist on an international astrobiology project based in Germany.
In many ways, that had been my dream job. As a young boy, I had lain on the grass on clear summer evenings and looked up at one of the dots in the night sky and wondered if around that star a planet orbited with beings that could look up from the surface of their world and similarly wonder about the chances of life being found within the unremarkable solar system we call home in the universe. Years later, my research involves thinking about how surface life can affect the atmosphere, oceans and even rocks of the planet it lives on.
That’s certainly the case with life on Earth. At a global scale, the air we all breathe contains oxygen largely as a result of photosynthetic life, while an important part of the UK’s national identity for some – the white cliffs of Dover – are comprised of countless numbers of tiny marine organisms that lived more than 70m years ago.
So it wasn’t a very large step from thinking about how life has radically altered the Earth over billions of years to my new research that considers how a particular species has wrought major changes within the most recent few centuries. Whatever other attributes Homo sapiens may have – and much is made of our opposable thumbs, upright walking and big brains – our capacity to impact the environment far and wide is perhaps unprecedented in all of life’s history. If nothing else, we humans can make an almighty mess.
Change within a lifetime
I was born in the early 1970s. This means in my lifetime the number of people on Earth has doubled, while the size of wild animal populations has been reduced by 60%. Humanity has swung a wrecking ball through the biosphere. We have chopped down over half of the world’s rainforests and by the middle of this century there may not be much more than a quarter left. This has been accompanied by a massive loss in biodiversity, such that the biosphere may be entering one of the great mass extinction events in the history of life on Earth.
What makes this even more disturbing, is that these impacts are as yet largely unaffected by climate change. Climate change is the ghosts of impacts future. It has the potential to ratchet up whatever humans have done to even higher levels. Credible assessments conclude that one in six species are threatened with extinction if climate change continues.
The scientific community has been sounding the alarm over climate change for decades. The political and economic response has been at best sluggish. We know that in order to avoid the worst impacts of climate change, we need to rapidly reduce emissions now.
The sudden increase in media coverage of climate change as a result of the actions of Extinction Rebellion and school strike for climate pioneer Greta Thunburg, demonstrates that wider society is waking up to the need for urgent action. Why has it taken the occupation of Parliament Square in London or children across the world walking out of school to get this message heard?
There is another way of looking at how we have been responding to climate change and other environmental challenges. It’s both exhilarating and terrifying. Exhilarating because it offers a new perspective that could cut through inaction. Terrifying as it could, if we are not careful, lead to resignation and paralysis.
Because one explanation for our collective failure on climate change is that such collective action is perhaps impossible. It’s not that we don’t want to change, but that we can’t. We are locked into a planetary-scale system that while built by humans, is largely beyond our control. This system is called the technosphere.
Coined by US geoscientist Peter Haff in 2014, the technosphere is the system that consists of individual humans, human societies – and stuff. In terms of stuff, humans have produced an extraordinary 30 trillion metric tons of things. From skyscrapers to CDs, fountains to fondue sets. A good deal of this is infrastructure, such as roads and railways, which links humanity together.
Along with the physical transport of humans and the goods they consume is the transfer of information between humans and their machines. First through the spoken word, then parchment and paper-based documents, then radio waves converted to sound and pictures, and subsequently digital information sent via the internet. These networks facilitate human communities. From roving bands of hunter-gatherers and small farming tribes, right up to the inhabitants of a megacity that teams with over 10m inhabitants, Homo sapiens is a fundamentally social species.
Just as important, but much less tangible, is society and culture. The realm of ideas and beliefs, of habits and norms. Humans do a great many different things because in important ways they see the world in different ways. These differences are often held to be the root cause of our inability to take effective global action. There is no global government, for a start.
But as different as we all are, the vast majority of humanity is now behaving in fundamentally similar ways. Yes, there are still some nomads who roam tropical rainforests, still some roving sea gypsies. But more than half of the global population now lives in urban environments and nearly all are in some way connected to industrialised activities. Most of humanity is tightly enmeshed into a globalised, industrialised complex system – that of the technosphere.
Importantly, the size, scale and power of the technosphere has dramatically grown since World War II. This tremendous increase in the number of humans, their energy and material consumption, food production and environmental impact has been dubbed the Great Acceleration.
The tyranny of growth
It seems sensible to assume that the reason products and services are made is so that they can be bought and sold and so the makers can turn a profit. So the drive for innovation – for faster, smaller phones, for example – is driven by being able to make more money by selling more phones. In line with this, the environmental writer George Monbiot argued that the root cause of climate change and other environmental calamities is capitalism and consequently any attempt to reduce greenhouse gas emissions will ultimately fail if we allow capitalism to continue.
But zooming out from the toil of individual manufacturers, and even humanity, allows us to take a fundamentally different perspective, one that transcends critiques of capitalism and other forms of government.
Humans consume. In the first instance, we must eat and drink in order to maintain our metabolism, to stay alive. Beyond that, we need shelter and protection from physical elements.
There are also the things we need to perform our different jobs and activities and to travel to and from our jobs and activities. And beyond that is more discretional consumption: TVs, games consoles, jewellery, fashion.
The purpose of humans in this context is to consume products and services. The more we consume, the more materials will be extracted from the Earth, and the more energy resources consumed, the more factories and infrastructure built. And ultimately, the more the technosphere will grow.
The emergence and development of capitalism obviously lead to the growth of the technosphere: the application of markets and legal systems allows increased consumption and so growth. But other political systems may serve the same purpose, with varying degrees of success. Recall the industrial output and environmental pollution of the former Soviet Union. In the modern world, all that matters is growth.
The idea that growth is ultimately behind our unsustainable civilisation is not a new concept. Thomas Malthus famously argued there were limits to human population growth, while the Club of Rome’s 1972 book, Limits to Growth, presented simulation results that pointed to a collapse in global civilisation.
Today, alternative narratives to the growth agenda are, perhaps, getting political traction with an All Party Parliamentary Group convening meetings and activities that seriously consider de-growth policies. And curbing growth within environmental limits is central to the idea of a Green New Deal, which is now being discussed seriously in the US, UK, and other nations.
If growth is the problem, then we just have to work at that, right? This won’t be easy, as growth is baked into every aspect of politics and economics. But we can at least imagine what a de-growth economy would look like.
My fear, however, is that we will not be able to slow down the growth of the technosphere even if we tried – because we are not actually in control.
Limits to freedom
It may seem nonsense that humans are unable to make important changes to the system they have built. But just how free are we? Rather than being masters of our own destiny, we may be very constrained in how we can act.
Like individual blood cells coursing through capillaries, humans are part of a global-scale system that provides for all their needs and so has led them to rely on it entirely.
If you jump in your car to get to a particular destination, you can’t travel in a straight line “as the crow flies”. You will use roads that in some instances are older than your car, you, or even your nation. A significant fraction of human effort and endeavour is devoted to maintaining this fabric of the technosphere: fixing roads, railways, and buildings, for example.
In that respect, any change must be incremental because it must use what current and previous generations have built. The channelling of people via road networks seems a trivial way to demonstrate that what happened far in the past can constrain the present, but humanity’s path to decarbonisation isn’t going to be direct. It has to start from here and at least in the beginning use existing routes of development.
This isn’t meant to excuse policymakers for their failure of ambition, or lack of bravery. But it indicates that there may be deeper reasons why carbon emissions are not decreasing even when there appears to be increasingly good news about alternatives to fossil fuels.
Think about it: at the global scale, we have witnessed a phenomenal rate of deployment of solar, wind, and other sources of renewable energy generation. But global greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise. This is because renewables promote growth – they simply represent another method of extracting energy, rather than replacing an existing one.
The relationship between the size of the global economy and carbon emissions is so robust that US physicist Tim Garret has proposed a very simple formula that links the two with startling accuracy. Using this method, an atmospheric scientist can predict the size of the global economy for the past 60 years with tremendous precision.
But correlation does not necessarily mean causation. That there has been a tight link between economic growth and carbon emissions does not mean that has to continue indefinitely. The tantalisingly simple explanation for this link is that the technosphere can be viewed like an engine: one that works to make cars, roads, clothes, and stuff – even people – using available energy.
The technosphere still has access to abundant supplies of high energy density fossil fuels. And so the absolute decoupling of global carbon emissions from economic growth will not happen until they either run out or the technosphere eventually transitions to alternative energy generation. That may be well beyond the danger zone for humans.
A repugnant conclusion
We have just come to appreciate that our impacts on the Earth system are so large that we have possibly ushered in a new geological epoch: the Anthropocene. The Earth’s rocks will bear witness to humans’ impacts long after we disappear. The technosphere can be seen as the engine of the Anthropocene. But that does not mean we are driving it. We may have created this system, but it is not built for our communal benefit. This runs completely counter to how we view our relationship with the Earth system.
Take the planetary boundaries concept, which has generated much interest scientifically, economically, and politically. This idea frames human development as impacting on nine planetary boundaries, including climate change, biodiversity loss, and ocean acidification. If we push past these boundaries, then the Earth system will change in ways that will make human civilisation very difficult, if not impossible, to maintain. The value of, say, the biosphere here is that it provides goods and services to us. This represents what we can literally get from the system.
This very human-centric approach should lead to more sustainable development. It should constrain growth. But the technological world system we have built is clever at getting around such constraints. It uses the ingenuity of humans to build new technologies – such as geoengineering – to reduce surface temperatures. That would not halt ocean acidification and so would lead to the potential collapse of ocean ecosystems. No matter. The climate constraint would have been avoided and the technosphere could then get to work overcoming any side effects of biodiversity loss. Fish stocks collapse? Shift to farmed fish or intensively grown algae.
As defined so far, there appears nothing to stop the technosphere liquidating most of the Earth’s biosphere to satisfy its growth. Just as long as goods and services are consumed, the technosphere can continue to grow.
After all, a much smaller and much richer population of the order of hundreds of millions could consume more than the current population of 7.6 billion or the projected population of nine billion by the middle of this century. While there would be widespread disruption, the technosphere may be able to weather climate change beyond 3°C. It does not care, cannot care, that billions of people would have died.
And at some point in the future, the technosphere could even function without humans. We worry about robots taking over human’s jobs. Perhaps we should be more concerned with them taking over our role as apex consumers.
The situation, then, may all seem rather hopeless. Whether or not my argument is an accurate representation of our civilisation, there is the risk it produces a self-fulfilling prophecy. Because if we believe we can’t slow down the growth of the technosphere, then why bother?
This goes beyond the question of “what difference could I make?” to “what difference can anyone make?” While flying less, cutting down on eating meat and dairy and cycling to work are all commendable steps to take, they do not constitute living outside the technosphere.
It’s not just that we give tacit consent to the technosphere by using its roads, computers, or intensively farmed food. It’s that by being a productive member of society, by earning and spending, above all by consuming, we further the technosphere’s growth.
Perhaps the way out from fatalism and disaster is an acceptance that humans may not actually be in control of our planet. This would be the vital first step that could lead to a broader outlook that encompasses more than humans.
For example, the mainstream economic attitude about trees, frogs, mountains, and lakes is that these things only have value if they provide something to us. This mindset sets them up as nothing more than resources to exploit and sinks for waste.
What if we thought of them as components or even our companions in the complex Earth system? Questions about sustainable development then become questions about how growth in the technosphere can be accommodated with their concerns, interests, and welfare as well as ours.
This may produce questions that seem absurd. What are the concerns or interests of a mountain? Of a flea? But if we continue to frame the situation in terms of “us against them”, of human well-being trumping everything else in the Earth system, then we may be effectively hacking away the best form of protection against a dangerously rampant technosphere.
And so the most effective guard against climate breakdown may not be technological solutions, but a more fundamental reimagining of what constitutes a good life on this particular planet. We may be critically constrained in our abilities to change and rework the technosphere, but we should be free to envisage alternative futures. So far our response to the challenge of climate change exposes a fundamental failure of our collective imagination.
To understand you are in a prison, you must first be able to see the bars. That this prison was created by humans over many generations doesn’t change the conclusion that we are currently tightly bound up within a system that could, if we do not act, lead to the impoverishment, and even death of billions of people.
Eight years ago, I woke up to the real possibility that humanity is facing disaster. I can still smell that bad coffee, I can still recall the memory of scrabbling to make sense of the words I was hearing. Embracing the reality of the technosphere doesn’t mean giving up, of meekly returning to our cells. It means grabbing a vital new piece of the map and planning our escape.
Olivia Lazard is a visiting scholar at Carnegie Europe. Her research focuses on the geopolitics of climate, the transition ushered by climate change and the risks of conflict and fragility associated with climate change and environmental collapse. Lazard has over twelve years of experience in the peacemaking sector at field and policy levels. With an original specialization in the political economy of conflicts, she has worked for various non-governmental organizations, the United Nations, the European Union, and donor states in the Middle East, Latin America, Sub-Saharan and North Africa, and parts of Asia. In her fieldwork, her focus was on understanding how globalization and the international political economy shaped patterns of violence and vulnerability. Diwan interviewed her in mid-November to examine how environmental issues are impacting the Middle East.
Michael Young: Climate change has been largely ignored by regimes and even societies in the Middle East, yet it is affecting them in fundamental ways. Can you outline some of the major effects of climate change and tell us why we in the region should pay attention.
Olivia Lazard: Climate change has been ignored the world over because we fail to understand that our governance and economic systems are exhausting nature’s capacity to function, and therefore to sustain us and other species. The challenge ahead is difficult to apprehend. It is not just a matter of energy transition; it is a matter of profound political and socioeconomic transformation. It is about disrupting the status quo. So it is easy to understand why this is not welcomed by autocratic regimes who may stand to lose grip on power, or by democratic societies where coordinated action can be even more complex. Even as certain parts of the world, such as Europe, move closer to a climate transition, we are still at the very early stages of a long journey toward the profound transformations that we are going to need in order to genuinely address the drivers of climate change and, more broadly, ecological disintegration that threaten our ability to survive as a species on this planet.
So, I agree with you that regimes in the Middle East ignore climate change, because they rarely like to talk about transformative change. But I wouldn’t say that the societies ignore climate change per se. In fact, I think it is fair to say that the Arab Spring was a climate-disrupted appetizer that upended the world’s understanding of the region, but also of the links between societal and environmental shocks. Arab societies were actually precursors in ringing the alarm bells on a combination of events that lead to disruption and protracted sociopolitical conflicts: drought, monoculture failings, speculation over staple goods leading to market failures, and worsening social disenfranchisement with no safety net in sight. Increasing temperatures, erratic weather patterns, the unreliability of rainfall, protracted drought, and increasing reliance on chemical inputs to grow crops were all the long-term backstory to these issues back in 2011, which few analysts picked up on. The biophysical factors that characterize climate change were already at play.
MY: How were the Arab uprisings climate-disrupted appetizers, as you’ve said?
OL: This is a side of the story that still doesn’t get told very often when we examine the Arab Spring and its aftermath, so let me dwell a bit on it by looking at Tunisia. In Tunisia, landscapes across the country are ecological deserts—export-oriented monocultures as far as the eye can see. It makes them very vulnerable to climate and economic shocks. Two years ago, I was traveling across the country and I could see that, between the touristy coast where inequalities could not be starker and the extractives regions of the south, decades-long agricultural and economic policies had turned a country which used to be fertile into a bare piece of rock and dust.
Today, a decade after the start of the Arab Spring, you have a country where unemployment is still soaring, where youths find no meaning or economic opportunities outside of the informal economy, where urban centers of the hinterland are boiling with anger and frustration, and where the free movement of people is extremely constricted from one governorate to another. Look around in a place such as Sidi Bouzid, and you either see depressing concrete in town or depressing desert as far as the eye can see. There is no life, there are no prospects. Both the land and the economy have come to a standstill. So people feel stuck. Local cultures have lost their vibrancy and intergenerational divides are growing wider. In this bare and inert environment, drug consumption, domestic violence, and radicalization are rising.
The land is actually the canvas of terrible policies that have favored extraction and predatory politics over resilient social fabrics, culture, and vibrant economies. And the problem is that climate change exacerbates problems that are already present. In Sidi Bouzid in 2010, the spark was Mohammed Bouazizi’s self-immolation. But his story was yet another reminder of problems running deeper and taking root in environmental exploitation, abuse of hard security at the expense of social and human security, enduring economic inequalities, poor governance, and rising violence. It is striking to see how national and international responses to these problems are missing out on the environmental story as a backdrop to social and economic violence. They just do not focus on it.
The picture that I am trying to paint here is one of interconnectedness between the environment and human security, which has always existed but that we really have only started noticing more as a result of climate disruption. Climate change will have two consequences—to exacerbate and disrupt. The Middle East knows this well. The history of landscapes in the region is one of abundance that cradled human civilization. But mismanagement of resources led to natural exhaustion and cycles of violence for centuries. Today, the region is in an advanced stage of desertification, with fewer and fewer resources to support human populations. The environmental degradation is coupled with an atmospheric accelerating force resulting in extreme natural shocks—floods, devastating droughts, and resulting fires. Unsurprisingly, the Middle East concentrates yet again all the ingredients that mark the history of our times.
Where human security is weakened by predatory and hard security-oriented regimes, economies tend to be more extractive toward nature. But nature can no longer sustain extraction. Resources are not just running lower—such as water or land fertility—they are also more erratic. The Middle East is now replete with foretellers of climate catastrophes—massive floods in the Arabian Peninsula, fires in the Levant, and drought everywhere.
These disasters are mostly showing one thing, namely that people have no safety nets to rely upon from their governance systems. There is no preparedness, no relief capacity. This means, once again, that Middle Eastern populations are left to struggle for their own dignity, or karama, the key word during the Arab Spring. It may well become a refrain of disruptions to come related to climate shocks.
Still, some regimes in the Middle East are talking about climate change. I am thinking particularly of the United Arab Emirates, but they do so in a “business as usual” way. They aim to demonstrate that economic power and technological innovation are a way to face the crisis. This is not going to work. Governance and socioeconomic systems need to be rethought in terms of their relationship with nature. We also have to look a lot more in the direction of nature-based solutions in order to navigate the unfolding disaster.
MY: There has been an argument that the Syrian uprising was caused by the drought between 2007 and 2010. Your thoughts?
OL: Without a doubt the drought played a role in the multidimensional uprising in Syria. But the drought itself has a story. It began in 2007 and became protracted over the years. Rainfall patterns were becoming more erratic. This was the result of two things: global warming resulting from excess carbon dioxide accumulation in the atmosphere and changes in landscapes at the local level. Apart from the coastline, over time Syrian land was denuded of natural vegetation, which is responsible for stocking water underground and pumping it into the atmosphere.
In addition to breaking the ecological integrity of the land (which regulates local climates), there were other things that created additional stress for the agricultural capacity in the area of Dar‘a and elsewhere. The Assad regime relied on two main crops for export—wheat and cotton—both of which are highly water intensive. So, atmospheric conditions were not providing rain, and on top of it there were agricultural incentives, such as subsidies, pushing unsustainable ground water consumption. In parallel, the liberalization of the economy led to hikes in diesel prices which farmers could not afford. The crops eventually failed, collapsing an already fragile economy and pushing people into acute food insecurity and economic vulnerability, which they were left to navigate mostly by themselves.
What followed was a mass movement from rural to urban zones, as well as a boom in the informal economy, which is often accompanied by abuse and insecurity for all members of a family household. This is an extremely violent process of the disintegration of livelihoods and security that spirals out of control. In those cities to which people moved, the population influx led to unsustainable water consumption, which created tensions between “old” and “new” communities. The land was impossibly stretched, and the state only concentrated on containing a bubbling situation by unleashing the security forces. Populations were squeezed between scarcity and violence. No wonder communities revolted. So, again, this is a story of exacerbation and disruption.
I was in Syria in 2009, and I remember then that all the communities with which I spoke accepted President Bashar al-Assad as the “devil they knew.” They knew that the equilibrium between the central state, the clans, and the various communities was precarious, but it was an equilibrium to which they could adhere for lack of a better alternative. When mass displacement, impoverishment, and violence started increasing, this equilibrium was upset. The state reacted in a such a way that it broke irremediably the multiple contracts that Assad had with various constituencies.
When you look through the lens of the environment, you can actually retrace the story of peoples, economic policies, and governance structures. Ask any elder in the Middle East what the land was like 60–70 years ago, and they will spend hours telling you stories about fruits and vegetables tasting better, people being more resilient, and communities being more intertwined. The state of the land is usually a reflection of socioeconomic situations—either of resilience or destitution. With increasing liberalization over the last decades, especially through structural adjustments, there have been inequalities and social dislocation. In the Middle East, governance structures are highly centralized and informally organized according to ancestral cultural and identity groups. The mix between the two has led to politics of group benefits and zero-sum games. In modern economies, that means that land and other natural resources are mostly integrated in an economic trickle-up model in which resources accrue to a few at the expense of social and natural public goods.
Climate change is a systems-disruptive force. It will upset old equilibriums to which authoritarian states and inefficient bureaucracies are ill-adapted to respond. So, yes, climate change is tied in with politics in the region, and it will have exponential effects over the coming years.
MY: One consequence of drier climates is that it will exacerbate water scarcity. Can you outline potential scenarios if the question of water is not adequately addressed by Arab states? What might be some ways of resolving the issue?
OL: Let’s fix a slight misconception first. Water scarcity leads to climate disruption leads to water scarcity. In other words, climates become drier because of inadequate water and land management. When you do this globally, all the while burning fossil fuels, you end up with a global climate regime deregulation. Agricultural, energy, and extractive policies are the primary drivers of water scarcity. Climate change exacerbates an already existing state of water scarcity.
Now, on scenarios. It is very hard to lay these out, because they depend on water levels, water sources and flows, water infrastructure, and socioeconomic relationships to water. What I can tell you is that water scarcity is a process of man-made depletion. It is not an overnight shortage. So, necessarily, the disruptions and sociopolitical breakdowns that result from it also take place in a process of exacerbation until it reaches points of disruption.
We can look at two different countries to understand how water scarcity impacts stability. Jordan is currently experiencing its worst drought in 900 years. The consecutive refugee flows coming from Palestine, then Iraq, then Syria over the last decades have led to repeated sudden bursts of population concentration in various parts of the country. In recent years, Mafraq and Irbid Governorates have been under acute water stress every summer, leading to severe tensions between refugee and host communities, higher criminality, xenophobia, and the reinforcement of tough security measures on the part of the Jordanian state. As a result of water running low, people have dug random boreholes into local water tables, which tends to worsen water stress for everyone, but also can lead to water pollution.
At a more structural level, in and near those governorates you have intensive forms of agriculture that drain water tables further. In Amman, where the government is under more direct political pressure, the city has been moving toward more efficient water infrastructure, and it is looking at desalination plants to increase the availability of water. But it is not the same story across the country. Water vulnerability is increasing and is having a series of knock-on effects. These effects are so far contained, so the two questions we need to ask are “until when?” and “and then what?” Here, we need to look at policy responses and ecological interdependencies underpinning Jordan’s water resources. It gives us an idea of the type of violence that may emerge and how far it can go geographically.
From an ecological standpoint, technology can only get you so far. As long as Jordan can make up for water shortages that sustain its economies, it will maintain a level of stability and water conflicts may remain confined to social tensions or to geographically confined zones. But that will have a growing cost over time, which will destabilize the country’s economy and sociopolitical fabric. If Jordan also reacts with force rather than rethinks its investment in the social and environmental fabric, it will likely pay a heavy price in the coming decade.
Iraq, on the other hand, is moving into active water conflict, especially around the ancestral ecosystem of the southern marshes. The water branches feeding into this ecosystem are impacted by hydroelectric infrastructures reducing the flow of water, general pollution, growing salination, and the collapse of local biodiversity. Because of the environmental degradation, people are moving into cities, which are themselves facing water stress. This has led to greater demand for water imports, forcing all households, including vulnerable ones, to spend their income on making up for the lack of available water. This leads again to growing social tensions, but also growing frustration with a central state that remains crippled by its inability to provide basic services, and therefore needs to constantly find ways of legitimizing itself.
Iraq is dependent for its water supply on Turkey and Iran. The more the Iraqi government fails to deliver at home, the more it is likely to escalate tensions with its neighbors. Over time, if this doesn’t lead to open warfare—which it probably won’t given Iraq’s weak defense capacity—it will reduce the chances for water-based cooperation to stop water depletion. This will impact all countries’ stability negatively, and will make them more vulnerable to climate change. The more individual states prioritize their national needs first, rather than cooperating on the basis of ecological integrity and environmental regeneration, the more they will undermine their own stability and cause environmental degradation. In other words within decades this region of the world may simply become uninhabitable.
In terms of solutions, there are a few. But I’ll focus on broad strokes. First, states and regions would need to transition away from activities that deplete water tables. This is no small feat as it is multisectoral. You need a shift toward regenerative agriculture, energy-efficient systems, and infrastructure development that do not encroach on ecosystems. The process does not just require an economic transition at the country level, it also requires a change in economic infrastructures and frameworks at the international level. Agricultural produce for example should be isolated from international speculation, and production should primarily serve for internal consumption and to reinforce resilience. Countries should encourage a diversity of cultures, including a return to indigenous seeds and crops, rather than systematized crops that are simply not suited to the ecological make-up of areas undergoing desertification.
Secondly, Middle East states need to adopt regenerative landscaping practices that literally help them to plant rain into the soil again. Globally, we need to harness the hydrological cycle in order to recover livable climates at local and global levels again, and preemptively manage floods. The interesting thing is that this is a sector that requires new competencies and which is also labor intensive. It is about redesigning landscapes so that they retain water, leading them to again become productive. This is a message that particularly resonates in the Middle East because rebooting functional ecosystems is also about rebooting local soil-related cultures. The Middle East was the cradle of civilization and culture as a result of its agricultural might for an enormous part of its history. There is the potential to recover for the future.
MY: Do you envisage a time when governments in the region will be able to wean themselves off the extractive policies that have damaged their environments? Or are they not thinking in these terms?
OL: They are not. Nor is it just governments in the region. Extractive policies are a function of growth-oriented economies that require energy. As long as we don’t change what extractive policies are used for, extraction will not cease. A tree will be worth more dead than alive. Underground resources will be more valuable unearthed and used than buried. Aggressive underground resource extraction made the Middle East what it is today. It came with economic growth as well as economic predation, inequalities, disenfranchisement, corruption, violence, and war. It also came with authoritarianism.
Unfortunately, we are likely to see the same type of story develop over the new scramble for resources related to renewable energy. For a long time, the Middle East played a central part in the global economic march that led us to where we are. But the Middle East won’t hold the same importance in tomorrow’s energy competition because it is not endowed with the needed resources such as rare earths and related materials. Admittedly, Middle Eastern countries are endowed in natural sunlight that can help their power transition, but the materials and technology used to harness this renewable energy is where the resource competition will play out, and give rise to new drivers of instability globally. These materials and technology are not located in the Middle East, which means that the center of gravity in energy politics will incrementally shift. This transition will be unsettling, but it may also represent an opportunity to try out different economic models on the basis of ecosystems regeneration. The European Union has already indicated its readiness to work with Middle Eastern partners on multiple transitions. It is however necessary to have a hard look at which type of governance systems are needed to usher in truly resilient transitions in a way that revive local and national economies from the ground up—literally.
MY: What for you are the top three most pressing environmental problems that countries in the region will need to prioritize in the coming decade?
OL: Water scarcity and land degradation will lead to crop failures. Floods will create more humanitarian and economic disasters, and will damage infrastructures that are already fragile. Urbanization is likely to increase, depleting water tables even more. Global energy shifts will lead to changes in oil price structures that may actually lead to more revenues in the short term and, possibly, more investments in security forces. The most pressing environmental problem is that we are entering an era of vicious cycles rather than isolated shocks. But this is not inevitable and what’s at stake is to break those cycles.
The overall challenge across the Middle East, like elsewhere in the world, is to rebuild ecological integrity. That means recreating landscapes that can hold carbon and water, and therefore sustain human activity again. It is about restoring equilibriums that help both to chart another socioeconomic path forward as well as to adapt to climate change and reverse it over time.
So that requires two tempos of change: adaptation and transformation. With respect to adaptation, climate-related disasters are already locked into the planet’s system due to past emissions and environmental degradation. The most pressing thing is to anticipate where and how disasters will hit and prepare accordingly. It requires ensuring continuous and shock absorption relief capacity in the future, which will demand internationally and regionally pooled resources. In addition, it will require redesigning landscapes in such a way that they can buffer the impact of disasters and store as much flood water as possible. This sounds abstract when you are not familiar with ecological design, but if you have a look at projects such as Greening the Desert in Jordan or regenerative projects in Saudi Arabia, you can get a sense of how to work with landscapes to adapt to new challenges.
On transformation, achieving this is hard work. Climate change calls for a profound redesign of political and socioeconomic systems. It is about transforming the way in which agriculture, energy, infrastructure, and other economic systems are set up and relate to the environment. And it is about investigating which governance systems best deliver on a safe operating space for human populations in a viable environment.
OrientXXIENVIRONMENT in Torrential rains and persistent drought making it that Climate Change Devastates the Sahel by RÉMI CARAYOL, Journalist could well be another stone in the path towards full awareness of our common destiny all the world over. The trend might as well impact the bordering MENA region to the north amongst the first. There is no definite borderline but only a vast desert space that split Africa’s peoples for millennia and that would not prevent the devastating effects of what is reported here to reach the Mediterranean.
The Sahel is a region made increasingly arid by the encroaching desert and yet it must deal periodically with devastating floods. A double bind with many causes.
A man wading across an expanse of water carrying a mattress on his head. A woman piling onto a makeshift rowboat the pots and pans she has been able to rescue. Youths hastily trying to mount a sand dike in front of half-destroyed mud huts… For the past few years, these and similar pictures have become commonplace in the Sahel. Recently, on the social networks, we even saw an SUV dragged miraculously out of the water at the end of a cable while a crowd cheered.
At odds with what has been for years the region’s customary image—an increasingly parched savannah as the desert pursues its advance and where there is a penury of everything, especially water—the Sahel is now regularly devastated by severe flooding. Rainfall, vitally important for millions of farmers and livestock breeders, is not always impatiently awaited. Quite the contrary. In the bigger towns especially, everyone knows it will be coming sometime around the end of August or the beginning of September and will bring about huge rises in river levels and tragic flooding that will cause enormous damage and plunge thousands of families into mourning. “Every year it’s the same thing, there’s water everywhere. But what can we do?” Ali laments. He lives in Lamordé, a neighbourhood in Niamey, flooded again by the waters of the Niger at the beginning of September and who had to send his family to stay with friends while he cleaned his house.
FROM NIGER TO SUDAN
The capital of Niger was especially hard hit this year. Several neighbourhoods were flooded, including those on the right bank where the university is located, when a dam burst under the pressure of the river water. By 7 September, the authorities had counted no less than 65 deaths (14 by drowning), 32,000 collapsed houses, some 330,000 homeless and thousands of acres of crops destroyed all over the country.
Another country that has greatly suffered this year is Sudan, where some hundreds have died, according to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA). Nearly 71,000 houses were destroyed and over 720,000 people are homeless, victims of heavy rainfall (in the West) and the rise of the level of the Nile (in the East). In that country, where a state of national emergency has been declared for a period of three months, it is thought that these floods are the worst since 1946. The government has announced that the level of the Nile has reached 17.43 metres, the highest ever recorded in the last century.
Torrential rains have also fallen on Burkina Faso, where a state of national disaster was decreed on 9 September, when there had already been 13 dead; on Nigeria, where over 30 people died; on Chad, on Mauritania as well as on Senegal, where the capital, Dakar, was especially hard hit. In a single day, 5 September, more water fell on the city than during the three months of what is described as a “normal” rainy season. According to the OCHA, nearly 760,000 people have been affected by the flooding which has hit West Africa and a part of Central Africa over the past few weeks.
What shocked everyone ten years ago is no longer surprising today. “We finally got used to it,” observes our Ali, the Nigerien quoted earlier. “Today we’ve learned to live with it.” In 2019, torrential rains affected over a million people in eleven sub-Saharan countries. In most of the Sahelian countries, flooding has grown by leaps and bounds over the last few years, especially in the big cities: Niamey in 2010, 20121, 2013, 2016, 2017; Ouagadougou in 2009, 2012 and 2015…
On 1 September 2009, an unprecedented 263 millimetres of rain fell on the Burkinese capital in a matter of 12 hours. Eleven years later, the people of the city still remember that. The reservoirs overflowed. Forty-five districts were flooded and at least 125,000 people lost their homes. “My wife and I had only just time to scoop up our boy and run. It happened so quickly. The water rose by a metre and a half, the house collapsed,” a survivor named Antoine recounted a few years ago. He had been provided with downtown lodgings by the public authorities. On that same day, 1 September 2009, a very violent rainstorm hit northern Niger, in the middle of the desert, causing a big rise in the level of the wadi Teloua which flooded the city of Agadez causing enormous damage (3 dead, 80,000 homeless, devastated crops).
GLOBAL WARMING AND POPULATION BOOM
How can we explain that water is causing so much damage in a region known to be beset by drought and threatened by the encroaching desert? Global warming immediately comes to mind. “Global warming is affecting West Africa more than other regions with a rise of 1.2° Celsius as against an average of 0.7° elsewhere. And the result seems to be an intensification of heavy rainfall episodes”, the French National Research Institute (IRD) observed in 2016. “These episodes are not more frequent than in the past but they are heavier”, says Luc Descroix, director of hydrological research at the IRD, a specialist on the Sahel. “Since 2005, we have established that rainfall in the Sahel is more intense than previously and we believe this is due to global warming. As elsewhere, the phenomenon is producing what are celled ‘extreme events’”.
“This intensification of the hydrological cycle is in keeping with the Claudius-Clapeyron theory, a warmer atmosphere containing more water vapour and thus becoming more explosive”, a group of French scientists wrote two years ago. “It has been observed in other parts of the world, but the Sahel seems to be the area of the African continent where it is most evident”. Thus, the populations of this region are subjected to something akin to double jeopardy. “This climate change has especially serious consequences […] the periods of drought are more severe making crops more uncertain […] and flooding more frequent.”
DEGRADED SOIL THAT CAN NO LONGER ABSORB WATER
However, the multiplication of heavy rainfall episodes is not the only explanation for the flooding in recent years of rivers like the Niger or the Nile. Luc Descroix suggests a further factor: the drought episode that impacted the region so heavily in the seventies and eighties: “For 25 to 30 years, sometimes longer, an area of 4 to 5 million km2 had a rainfall deficit of from 15 to 35%. Today we may consider that this drought episode is over because since 1995 [1999 West of the Sahel], the annual rainfall has returned to the levels and year-to-year irregularity of the first half of the 20th century, the fifties and sixties being considered wet decades.” In his Processus et enjeux d’eau en Afrique de l’Ouest soudano-sahélienne (IRD Éditions, 2018), Luc Descroix wrote that “during that period soils became degraded, one speaks of ’soil-crusting”. Thus climate-induced drought was followed by edaphic or soil-induced drought. When the rains came again, after 1994, reaching their 1940 levels, the soils no longer had the capacity to absorb all that water. This brought about an overland flow which caused the flooding of the waterways.”
According to Luc Descroix, the increased overland flow is also tied in with the way farmers have stripped the soil. In his view, the rapid population growth in Niger since the fifties (from 3.2 million in 1960 to 15.4 million in 2015) has had a serious impact on the use of the soils. The spread of crop cultivation, the curtailing of fallow periods has produced much soil-crusting. “The fallow periods, allowing the earth to recover its original properties and especially those involving the infiltration of rainwater, are no longer respected when the population to feed is over 20 to 30 individuals per km2. Today, in some places, the figure is over 100 and the population is still growing at a brisk pace”, the IRD observed in 2016.
What with climate change and galloping demography, local decision makers would appear to have little leeway. And yet some scientists single out their responsibility … or rather their irresponsibility. Take the case of Niamey. True, the Nigerien capital, on account of its topographical location and the silting up of the Niger River observed over the past few years (and due mostly to desertification and deforestation) is especially vulnerable to flooding. But the risk has been aggravated by uncontrolled urbanisation and the lack of efficient drainage structures.
“In Niamey, the water disposal systems are inadequate and sometimes non-existent, precisely in neighbourhoods known to be most exposed to flooding,” says Hamadou Issaka, research fellow at the Niamey Institut de recherches en sciences humaines (IRSH). “Besides which, people settle in flood-prone areas and the authorities don’t lift a finger, all the while knowing the risks involved”. These bad habits were acquired during the long drought, when it was thought the river would never return to its former level.
Yet our Nigerien researcher rejects the notion of “uncontrolled urbanisation.” In his view, “the flood-prone zones are well known and have been mapped”, but the public authorities and traditional elders do nothing to prevent people settling there. In a study published in 2009, Hamadou Issaka pointed out that “in areas liable to flooding, it was easy for poor people to buy land which was not sought after by the wealthy”. He quoted a neighbourhood chief in the capital who explained the situation in these terms2: “Every seven years the neighbourhood is flooded. Houses often collapse after these floods. The reason for all that is that these people are fed up with renting houses in town. If someone comes along and even if they are forewarned that this is a flood-prone area, they will say ‘no problem’, what matters for them is finding land where they can build a shelter.”
“WHEN PEOPLE ARE CLEARED OUT…”
At regular intervals, people living in flood-prone areas are moved away by the public authorities. But as a former Nigerien Minister of Interior Affairs, who wishes to remain anonymous, pointed out: “when you clear people out, it makes for a lot of tension, because they don’t want to be resettled anywhere else”. “Some people are relocated but they come back despite the risk of losing everything,” Luc Descroix observes.
Various governments have, moreover, undertaken projects to deal with the problem—especially in Niger, Senegal, Burkina—often with the financial and technical backing of donors that have made it one of their priorities. “Increased efforts to prepare for emergencies and anticipate them have been made” noted recently Julie Bélanger, head of OCHA for Central and West Africa. But she also admitted that there is a lack of resources, and “possibly” a lack of real willingness on the part of governments to make the problem an absolute priority.
In Senegal, a controversy arose in the wake of the latest floods. Several homeless people called on the government to honour its promises: what about the drainage systems announced in his last electoral campaign by President Macky Sall and which are still practically non-existent? What about the rehabilitation of the flood zones? What about the 766 billion CFA francs (over 1.06 billion pounds or 1.16 billion dollars) allocated in 2012 to the Ten-Year Program of flood control?
In Niger, authorities have announced the creation of a 372 billion CFA Francs fund (over 519 billion pounds or 671 billion dollars) to relocate the homeless, provide food for them but also to build sanitation facilities and dams in Niamey and other cities across the country. “It’s a good thing, but a bit late,” says Ali ruefully, our homeless contact person from the district of Lamordé. As a teacher, he remembers the day when he and his neighbours were struggling to keep back the river water while the president was hosting in grand style the umpteenth summit of the Economic Community of West-African States (ECOWAS), with sirens screaming across the capital and red carpets rolled out in front of the posh hotels that have sprung up in recent years, and which Issoufou’s backers are so proud of. “With the money used to build those hotels or the new airport, how many culverts could have been laid, or simply used to finance cleaning up the city, how many really solid dams could have been erected?” he wonders. His question is relevant all across the Sahel.
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