What Does Climate Change Look Like?

November 3, 2015

NOTE: Images in this archived article have been removed.

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Photo credit: "Refugees Budapest Keleti railway station 2015-09-04" by Rebecca Harms from Wendland, Germany – Ungarn September 2015. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 via Commons.

“Our goal is not to amass information or satisfy curiosity, but rather to become painfully aware, to dare turn what is happening to the world into our own personal suffering and thus to discover what each of us can do about it” – Pope Francis

Several weeks ago, I forced myself to spend some time looking at pictures of Syrian refugees.  These images have haunted me ever since.   The pictures showed refugees landing on the shores of the Greek Island of Lesbos or Kos, huddled in rubber dinghies, or falling on the beach in exhaustion and relief.   Others had drowned, their bodies washing up on the beaches of Turkey, Libya, and other Mediterranean nations.   In many places, no one was there to meet them.  The beaches were abandoned but for the stranded refugees.  After a time, volunteers began to show up and assist the disheveled travelers, but many reports suggest an inadequate response by local authorities, as well as complaints by tourists, put- off by the interruption to their holiday enjoyment. 

I have been haunted these images in part because of the basic compassion that most of us have for others in need, at least when we, ourselves, are safe and comfortable.  The picture of drowned Ayland Kurdi, stabs at the heart of the parent in me.  He was the same age as my boys; but even short of the unthinkable and unbearable, I can’t help but try to imagine the difficulty in caring for young lives amidst fear, chaos, and violence.  During our worst temper-tantrums and middle-of-the-night wake ups, for consolation and as a matter of counting my blessings, I try to imagine what it would be like to raise toddlers in a war-zone or in a refugee camp, and try to visualize the utter exhaustion, punctuated by fear, uncertainty, and perpetual discomfort.

But in some measure, I could not rid my mind of the images for another reason having to do with my political avocation: this, I believe, is what climate change looks like.   And we will see much more of it, and far closer to home, in hears to come.  Because I am a North American, I bear special responsibility for pain caused by global warming, because as a North American I am disproportionately responsible for atmospheric carbon emissions. Throngs of people fleeing war, heading for the promised land of Europe or North America, largely unaided in their voyage—this is a glimpse into a future that we have largely caused and are unlikely to avoid unless we take action.  At the same time we need to alter our interpretations of events so that we can see a fuller web of causation that includes our own decisions and behaviors.  How we interpret of events will be my topic here.

It is normal in our culture to view this sort of crisis, and the response of governments and people, in strictly moral and political terms–as a matter, simply (and simplistically) of decisions others make, or fail to make.  According to these terms, moreover, we are likely to divide the world into categories of friend and foe.  Assad is a bad guy and his people are rightly chafing against his rule; ISIS and Al Qaida are even worse, while the “moderates,” many assume, just want to live in peace and prosperity following a tried and true European and American model.  If we come to their aid with the right balance of aid and intervention, or so the story goes, we can free them from brutal autocracy and religious zealotry.  Meanwhile, we judge our own morality mainly in terms of how much money we send and, in some measure, on the thoughtfulness or integrity of our incursions in foreign lands, with little reflection about our deeper connection with the plight of others.  Their suffering is not ours, and “national interest” and “security” will attempt to insure that it stays that way.

Climate Wars

I hope the implications of my criticisms are clear: the standard moral and political view is, more than anything else, a vain attempt at emotional self-protection.  But, I should admit, this all seems to come pretty naturally.  For as humans, we are finely attuned to the generosity, hostility, and indifference displayed to us.  With barely a glimpse, we can identify them in each other’s faces or even the slope of another’s shoulders.  They loom large in our consciousness, so that the first bullet in a war might be fired only after an offensive remark, a moment of humiliation, or an unacknowledged resentment.

But these, along with the other dispositions we are so adept at identifying, are not alone in driving history and historical change.  The moral and political tempers that we easily recognize, and upon which we tend to focus, are in many cases mere symptoms of the winds and fires that sweep across the Earth.  We ignore these broader forces in a interconnected global society only at our own collective peril.  In the Syrian case, as in so many, the forces have a lot to do with oil—the climatic effects of its combustion and the economic and social effects of its depletion.  We will, I shall argue, be unable to understand, and address, international crises and human suffering unless we pay attention to the role of climate and resources.

Nor will be able to understand climate change and resource depletion unless we pay attention to military conflict, civic rebellions, and mass migration.  Even as the global warming has already come home to roost, our society has still developed only a relatively limited imagination when it comes to identifying the results of climate disruption, not to mention the even less-understood impact of resource depletion.  At best, we are encouraged to imagine rising sea-levels ruining our beaches and swamping our cities, severe weather events, and blistering heat-waves.  Taken to an extreme, this picture may transform itself into a vision of crop failures, devastating hurricanes and floods, animated with pictures and video clips from the latest and seemingly isolated natural disaster. 

When scientists correctly speak about the prospect of the end of human civilization from  an overheated planet, the most common image, it seems to me, is one in which these same weather events and rising temperatures kill more and more people and wash away key infrastructure and predominant food supplies, until human society is finally overwhelmed.   The images focus on the forces of nature, which are pitted against humans, often struggling heroically in the face of nature’s unholy wrath.  This, however, is not the way civilization is likely to end—not in a battle between nature and humans.  Rather, environmental stresses will pit people against each other.

Extreme weather events will, of course, become more common as the planet warms.   But the disruption and suffering of climate change will be largely hidden in the form of events like the war in Syria, the rise of extremists, even civil unrest like that of the “Arab Spring” which we, in the West, view favorably.  The horseman, whose arrival will actually herald apocalyptic global warming and peak oil, will appear to us as if they are independent human actors with inexplicable malign intent.  We will see only the beheadings, Cruise Missiles and F-16 Fighter Jets, ineffectual tyrants, and mass-demonstrations turned violent and bloody.  They will look like the Syrian civil war and its refugees.  They look, even now, like drowned children and anguished people, like a frightened child clinging to a mother, an aunt, or a grandfather.  They look like fear, and like the fear that so often turns to hate.

I’d like to offer two thoughts to back up this claim—the claim, namely, that climate change and resource depletion will look like “ordinary” human strife, and, at the same time, that current political and economic events are already being driven by our current (less-than-one-degree) global warming and a world oil production that is levelling off.  One of these thoughts is empirical, the other one is more speculative or theoretical. 

I’ll start with the empirical.  The civil war in Syria is a climate-change war, exacerbated by fossil fuel depletion.  Tune into the news or pick up a copy of The Washington Post or L.A. Times, or watch a 60 Minutes segment, and you’ll see coverage of the conflict that can be translated into the good guys vs. bad guys view of things with which humans are perhaps wired to view the world.  Meanwhile, there is little attention paid to the fact that the conflict was almost entirely sparked by Syria’s worst drought in memory; nor, of course, is there any mention that are we in Europe and North America are disproportionately responsible for carbon emissions and fuel use when it comes time to start pointing fingers and apportioning blame.  (Because few among us would rate our luxuries and conveniences above the lives of three year olds or displaced grief-stricken families, it is far better to keep our consumption separated in our minds from our sense of ourselves as people of good will who care and want to help.)

Starting in 2006, nevertheless, in Syria the rains stopped, dipping below 50% of normal, a change NOAA attributes to global warming.   

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NOAA concluded in 2011 that “human-caused climate change [is now] a major factor in more frequent Mediterranean droughts.” Reds and oranges highlight lands around the Mediterranean that experienced significantly drier winters during 1971-2010 than the comparison period of 1902-2010.[i]

Francesco Fermia, of the Center for Climate and Security, described it like this:

From 2006 to 2011, 60 percent of Syria’s land experienced, in the words of one expert, the worst long-term drought and most severe set of crop failures since agricultural civilizations began in the Fertile Crescent many millennia ago. That, on top of natural resource mismanagement by the Assad regime — subsidizing water-intensive wheat and cotton farming and unsustainable irrigation techniques — led to a large amount of devastation.

There are some quite frightening numbers. Herders and farmers in the north and south had to pick up and move. Nearly 75 percent of farmers in the northeast suffered total crop failure. Herders in the northeast lost around 85 percent of their livestock, which affected about 1.3 million people. That was happening before the civil war in Syria broke out.[ii]

Desperate farmers fled to the cities, only to be met with food shortages and ethnic rivalries, along with decreasing government revenue from oil exports.  As a UN Food and Agriculture Organization senior representative termed it, this is “a perfect storm.”  The Syrian Minister of Agriculture “stated publicly that [the] economic and social fallout from the drought was ‘beyond our capacity as a country to deal with.’”[iii]  The civil war, itself, began after the Assad government cracked down on protesters complaining of the government’s lack of help and aid, sparking riots across the nation, and a sudden influx of foreign fighters and outside intervention that continues today and that does nothing to relieve the hunger of millions of uprooted people.

Syria had appeared as one of the more stable, though repressive, nations in the region.  Viewed without an understanding of the disruptive force of climate change and faltering oil economies, no one predicted that Syria was next in line for protests, riots, and civic breakdown.  But it did, and now the world’s powers are converging on Syria, while its fleeing people may by the EU’s undoing.

I think we can safely make take some generalizations from the Syrian conflict, so here’s my speculative evidence about the role of climate change in political strife.  Long before the world is swept away by the sort of cataclysmic flood portrayed in “The Day After Tomorrow,” and far in advance of the sort of starvation in which people lie down where they are like shriveled beasts in a scorched pasture, humans will flee to more stable nations, even as these other lands may be increasingly  beset with their own struggles; they will turn upon their leaders, and each other—and on us in American and Europe, the greatest users of fossil fuels–whether in the form of civil unrest, terrorism, or warfare. 

Of course civil war and terrorism will not, in most cases, address any of the underlying causes of the suffering, even heroic wars of self-liberation that do not find for themselves a truly sustainable path.  But these responses are no more a misreading of the situation than are the ones we display.  Here, in the station house of the global policemen, even the most well-informed remain only informed by a paradigm that holds human actions and motives at the center of history, and ignores the role played by weather, climate, and resources.  Hate becomes us, I would hazard, in inverse proportion to the ways we understand why things are happening and how we are both responsible in part for what is happening now and, perhaps, how we could be the next victims.

Although the Syrian drought was severe—worse, so far, than the one that has been withering California cropland–one needn’t scan the other side of the Earth from our own relative tranquility to see the tremulous effects of relatively minor disruptions.  In the U.S., for instance, a bad enough day on Wall Street can send bankers hurling into the streets far below, while recessions can overturn a presidency or put Congress into gridlock.  If chronic wage stagnation in the world’s wealthiest nation brings us Donald Trump as a viable candidate, imagine how we would respond, here, to the real trials we should expect when the California food crop begins to fail, or when Midwestern grain suffers from widespread flooding, or when both happen at the same time.  

Even if this picture seems hyperbolic (though it doesn’t for those of us following the weather trends and staying up to date on the latest science), there can be little argument over the way a minor contraction in the economy—of the sort we experienced during the Arab Oil Embargos in the 70s, or at the hands of multiple banking implosions ever since—will lead to widespread unemployment, foreclosures, and, perhaps, eventual monetary collapse.  That American democracy and our economic system has managed to stay intact–never mind the growing polarization, cynicism, and imbecility–may be credited to our relatively large economic and civil buffers, as well as our enduring (for now) faith that good times are just around the corner. 

Put the same sort of stresses on places living with slightly less space at the margins—like Southern Europe, for instance—and you will discover nations with massive long-term unemployment, unmanageable debt, insolvency, forced austerity, and the coming collapse of a once robust-looking European union that promised pan-European peace and prosperity by way of neo-liberal myths of efficiency.  Even if you hold that Europe’s problems are caused by the phlegmatic work ethic of Southern Europeans, exacerbated by unrealistic social entitlements and an inefficient political structure (a misreading, I think), the crisis we should expect if we add climate disruption or spiraling fuel costs to the mix remains.

For the point is this:  it does not take much drought, rising food prices, repeated floods or forest-fires to increase societal maintenance costs, burden local economies, and increase unemployment.  And it doesn’t take much in the way of higher costs and lower wages, along with creeping uncertainty, to start a cycle whereby anger, fear, and resentment are met with severity and demands for austerity.  And once this cycle starts, it can quickly spin out of control, tipping stable nations into instability and unstable nations into complete chaos. 

Because people are not likely to sit by and passively watch the life they expected to have be washed away or scorched beyond recognition, human-caused strife might be set off by relatively minor climate disruptions—minor, that is, when compared to what could be coming our way in the next half-century;  and because the shriek of a fighter jet or the sight of a neighbor being dragged off in the middle of night will always be more vivid than the rain that didn’t fall that year; it will be easy to see, and foreground, the more immediate human acts than even major shifts in the weather, or in the price of commodities, or the aggregate maintenance costs of a society under increasing stress from without that may be driving the violence.  View climate disruption as something happening right now or something yet to come down the road, it scarcely matters: climate change and resource depletion will present themselves to us mainly in the terms set by human systems, and the shattered beliefs and expectations that they try to maintain, even as they are skidding off the road or crumbling beneath the weight of repeated failure.

Surplus Disaster

Unfortunately, climate change and the stresses it is causing on our systems—ones increasingly revealing their fragility—is not the only one converging on us at this point in history.  Resource depletion and the rising costs of maintaining a world economy that is dependent on its stability for unsustainable growth are siphoning off the surplus to which we have been accustomed, and upon which we rely to manage natural disasters.  This, too, is visible in the Syrian refugee crisis.  I will reflect upon this side of the equation in a follow up installment.

[ii] Ibid


Erik Lindberg

Erik Lindberg received his Ph.D. in English and Comparative Literature in 1998, with a focus on cultural theory. After completing his degree, Lindberg began his career as a carpenter, and now owns a small, award-winning company that specializes in historical restoration. In 2008 he started Milwaukee’s first rooftop farm, and was a co-founder of the Victory Garden Initiative, as well as a member of Transition Milwaukee’s inaugural steering committee. He lives in Milwaukee with his wife and young twin boys.

Tags: climate change, environmental effects of climate change, resource depletion, Syrian conflict