By Ben Goldson

With the impacts of climate change increasingly apparent, how will this manifest in society?

During the lead-up to the 2016 primary season for the Democratic Party, candidate Bernie Sanders cited climate change as the largest threat to America’s national security, directly linking it to the growth of terrorism around the world. Said in the aftermath of the November 15th Paris Attacks, the claims were picked up by the Vermont Senator’s critics, ostensibly to portray him as out of touch and unsuited for higher office. Defenders, in turn, pointed to existing scholarship on the impact of climate change on social unrest, most notably a study (“K2015”) in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences [of the United States of America] that found the outbreak of the Syrian Civil War and resulting mass displacement was due in part to a drought caused by various long-term climatic trends.

Like Sanders’ claim, the PNAS study itself was disputed in a 2017 submission (“S2017”) to another publication, Political Geography, which also ran a rejoinder by the original authors. Scholarship such as this was analysed by the University of Pennsylvania’s FactCheck.Org, which concluded that there was evidence of climate change contributing to the outbreak of the conflict but rejected a direct relationship between that and specific acts of terrorism in Europe. Despite the controversy around the exact case of Syria, there is a wealth of research that suggests that the pressures of climatic change have long contributed to the break-up of established society. These examples stretch back as far as Akkad, an ancient Mesopotamian empire which collapsed around 2000 BCE, allegedly due to the chaos wrought by a drought, although the status of a distinct global event that brought down similar imperial projects in Egypt and China remains contentious, as does the Syria debate. Thousands of years later, the Italian city-state of Rome appears to have experienced its period of rapid expansion during a time of favourable conditions, before stagnating and splintering around the same time that the weather turned against them. The resulting East and West Empires would operate independently, with their path over the following centuries again correlating with the local climate, as well as the influx of the various nomadic tribes. Among the most infamous of these would be the Huns, led by warlord Attila, who are themselves believed to have been migrating because of a changing climate.

The research into Akkad and Rome reflects a recent growth in interest in the social implications of human-made climate change, acknowledged as a fact by mainstream science only in the late 20th century. In the face of academic sanction, denialists created a network of “pro-business” groups, such as the Global Climate Coalition, founded in 1989 by the National Association of Manufacturers. The same year, Professor Martin L. Perry of the University of Birmingham analysed the potential impact of the long-term trends, dismissed by the Global Climate Coalition, on agriculture around the world. Although Perry’s recommendations, that humans adapt crops to the worrying new reality, largely remain at the planning stage, his warnings would come to be accepted by much of the public in spite of concerted efforts to convince them otherwise.

A recent poll by the Pew Research Center into attitudes towards global threats found 67% of respondents around the world expressing concern about climate change first, ahead of terror group ISIS and cyberattacks. By this point, the world has seen the development of a distinct area of study into the social impact of climate change. Like Professor Perry, there has been particular focus on agriculture in regions such as Sub-Saharan Africa, where existing issues relating to nutrition and disease are expected to be exacerbated by an increasingly hot climate. With around two thirds of the region’s farmers operating at a subsistence level, the rainfall that they rely on to water their crops is expected to become increasingly scarce, driving farmers to cities already under pressure from urbanisation.

Identified by the World Bank as the leading means by which climate change exacerbates poverty, disruptions to agriculture will likely have a ripple effect on the billions of consumers away from the site of production. These predictions of mounting food insecurity, particularly in the regions of Southern Africa and South Asia, could spell trouble if they come true. Throughout history, a key cause of social unrest has been a lack of access to food, with violent demonstrations occurring frequently prior to the French Revolution of 1789. During the late 1970s and early 1980s, similar demonstrations took place in reaction to rising prices of food staples, labelled the “IMF Riots” due to their apparent hostility to the economic policies demanded by lenders such as International Monetary Fund. Having subsided, it appears that they have re-emerged since the economic turbulence which began in 2007, likely to be further exacerbated if estimations about the harm wrought by climate change to agriculture are accurate.

Although the impact of human development on the climate is being felt most in places that have contributed little to the problem, nobody is truly free from the problems generated by increasingly hostile weather conditions. For one, there is the likelihood that people displaced by climate change will seek asylum in the more developed world as refugees. Currently, the exact wording of the United Nations’ Refugee Convention, written in 1951, does not mention the recent phenomenon of climate refugees, an omission for which scientists have called for amendments. When it comes to the people in a position to grant this asylum however, citizenship is less forthcoming, as in the case of Ioane Teitiota. A resident of the Pacific nation of Kiribati, Teitiota sought asylum in New Zealand from a rise in his homeland’s sea level which is predicted to make it uninhabitable for humans. Arguing that deportation constituted a threat to his life, Teitiota took his case to the UN’s Human Rights Commission after his appeals were rejected by the domestic courts. In its ruling, the UNHCR also turned down Teitiota’s case, claiming that the Kiribati government could potentially prevent the island being overrun by the sea. At the same time, they also extended a precedent to future asylum seekers that, if a claimant’s life is under immediate threat from climate change, then their chosen place of refuge cannot send them back.

Outside of this, however, there has been little movement to update the 1951 Convention, already faced with unilateral rollback by nationalist governments in countries such as Hungary and the United States of America. In both, Islamist terrorism is cited for the restrictions, which remains at the forefront of the debate around the rights of refugees. However, the prospect of already marginalised people driven to mass migration regardless of national borders may well change that. After all, if the PNAS study by K2015 is correct, then the millions who fled Syria, including the few who went on to commit acts of terrorism in Europe, are themselves climate refugees. It could be that further waves of displaced people are welcomed into more stable countries in the spirit of international solidarity, yet judging from the response to recent humanitarian crises around the world, the potential influx may well be greeted with militarised borders, particularly as those inside them are themselves be affected by the same global trends that drove the less fortunate to their door.

Outside of the refugee question, the developed world must also contend with the effects of climate change, such as extreme weather events which overwhelm existing infrastructure. In the city of Venice, its famous canals have gone from the largest flood in half a century to nearly dry. Areas below sea level, such as the Netherlands, are also threatened by the rising tide, while Australia has recently been ravaged by an unprecedented bushfire season that drew international attention. Even the United States is forecast to suffer a hit to its GDP that, while not likely to bring down the superpower anytime soon, will still be felt. As with climate refugees, the pressing question is how the various nation-states which make up the international community respond to this global problem. After all, while sober analysis of the social impacts of climate change is important to a healthy debate, the most pressing issue to resolve is surely the social impacts on climate change, with the goal being to avoid finding out the exact details of the former.

Ben Goldson is a news and current affairs broadcaster at 95bFM radio in Auckland. 

Disclaimer: The ideas expressed in this article reflect the author’s views and not necessarily the views of The Big Q. 

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