How climate change puts the heat on governments

How climate change puts the heat on governments

Failure to adapt to global climate change led to unrest across the Arab World. Photo: <a href="">Saleem-Homsi (Flickr)</a>
Failure to adapt to global climate change led to unrest across the Arab World. Photo: Saleem-Homsi (Flickr)

Incompetent, unjust governance by some of the Middle East’s worst despots brewed a recipe for disaster before the Arab Spring, but it took climate change to turn up the heat.

Here's how local droughts, forced migrations and international trade disruptions, all quietly driven by global warming, finally helped topple the Arab world's tyrants.

Drought and Resiliency

The Middle East holds 12 of the world's 15 most water-scarce countries, Thomas Friedman wrote last week in "The Other Arab Spring." In Syria, for example, almost two-thirds of the country's land was affected by one of the worst droughts in its history over the last six years. Nearly 75 percent of the Syrians most dependent on agriculture suffered “total crop failure,” meaning 800,000 people lost their entire livelihood. Another 1.3 million were affected when herders in Northeast Syria lost around 85 percent of their livestock.

To be on the right side of history in regards to the Arab Spring, Friedman argues, one of the best things the United States can do is "to invest in climate-adaptive infrastructure and improvements in water management — to make these countries more resilient in an age of disruptive climate change."

Western governments and aid organizations, in collaboration with local governments, can boost resiliency by:

Crop Failure and Smart Urbanization Policies

When agriculture fails, mass exodus begins. In January, an estimated 200,000 rural Syrian families moved to urban areas when the Halaby pepper crop failed, putting even more strain on cities already struggling to provide for existing citizens.

In an article titled “An Agricultural Peace Dividend,” Root Capital CEO William Foote explains the necessity of agriculture in post-conflict areas: “Because the majority of people in many post-conflict countries are agriculturalists and because the industrial base takes longer and requires more capital and infrastructure to rebuild, agriculture is the only sector that can rapidly absorb large amounts of labor and rebuild household economies.”

To curb the effects of mass urbanization and strengthen rural farming economies, local governments should:

  • Invest in agricultural advancements to help farmers who remain on their land become more efficient.

  • Improve urban infrastructure--particularly in urban slums--to accommodate the inevitable influx of migrant farmers.

  • Develop incentives for companies to create jobs in rural areas--especially for women--to supplement income from agricultural yields or replace it in their absence.

Price Spikes and Protectionism

“Extreme weather throughout the globe” added to the Middle East's chaos, note Sarah Johnstone and Jeffrey Mazo in report titled “Global Warming and the Arab Spring. Canada, the second-largest wheat exporter, lost a quarter of its 2010 harvest due to irregular rainfall. Russia, China, Ukraine and Kazakhstan suffered 2010 droughts that greatly diminished their crops. Brush fires reduced Russia’s wheat harvest to 60 million tons, down from 97 million in 2009. Because of this, Russia banned wheat, barley, rye and maize exports.

For the powers that be (or, rather, were) this set the stage for disaster. In the last six months of 2010, Egypt--Russia’s largest wheat consumer--received only 1.6 tons of Russian wheat compared to 2.8 tons received over that same period in 2009. By February 2011, the Egyptian government was overthrown.

In order to smooth global price spikes and avoid disruptive protectionism, the public and private sector should:

  • Increase international pressure on rulers who ignore the mounting effects of climate change in the most afflicted countries.

  • Create international drought contingency plans.

  • Invest in agricultural technology that weans rural areas from reliance on volatile fossil fuels.

While the citizens of these countries endured decades of poor governance, six months of drought was the tipping point. If global climate change was one of myriad sources of the Arab world's turmoil, slowing it just might be a solution.

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