Learning about the effects of environmental changes is important in order to become aware of the interdependencies of the global socio-politico-ecosystem we live in. It can make one realise how all of humanity could, in theory, exist in something like a world security community - even while global solidarity is not realistically likely to ever permeate all areas of our lives, organised into the sub-global-level political groups that we tend to hold more relevant for reference.
More importantly from a practical point of view, fail to take into account the impact of environmental changes and you are going to fail in truly comprehensively understanding political processes.
Three quick examples:
- South Asia's history cannot be understood without appreciating the impact of Cyclone Bhola in 1970, which killed hundreds of thousands in today's Bangladesh and contributed to the secession of what was then East Pakistan; it cannot be understood without appreciating the impact of 1970s drought and the great 1972 famine on the course of Afghanistan's history, either. (Or without the 2005 Kashmir earthquake and so on...)
- Cyclones may be a natural phenomenon, behind which few generally look for causation factors beyond acknowledging (dramatic sigh!) that nature can still overwhelm us, in spite of the technological progress we made. But of course not all natural disasters are free of political factors contributing to bringing them about or aggravating them. Usually they are not free of such factors, in fact. Famines' complex political and social context, their multifold, interlinked reasons, are now better known. The 1980s' famines in Ethiopia, for example, are widely considered as complex humanitarian emergencies which were aggravated (made complex) by the insurgencies raging in the Ethiopian countryside, in almost all corners of the country, at the time. But, in fact, the buck doesn't stop within the borders of Ethiopia. Far larger-scale changes were also responsible for the drought experienced there in those years: e.g. the phenomenon of global dimming, to which the industrialised world contributed significantly.
- This article in the Economist highlights how satellite-based forecasts can help in the prevention of epidemics as they can provide early warning of, say, the increased lifespan and the increasing geographical spread of disease-carrying mosquitoes. The narrative is interesting: the scientists are the good guys in the article; the Kenyan government is impotent at best, potentially even negligent. But no mention is made of the reasons of the changes in the weather patterns that contribute to altering mosquitoes' (and malaria's and the Rift Valley fever's) prospects. And among those reasons are the general causes of climate change. Pollution. Industry. The good life... (Those will be part of the reason why diseases like the Rift Valley fever will come to good old Europe one day, my friends - malaria will just return here as I'm sure you know).
As the latter example already showed, it is not only in order to understand the past that one has to familiarise oneself with environmental changes, but also to be able to gauge the prospects of potentially catastrophic future events. The threat of Ug99, of which I wrote here first in April 2007, is still around, and who knows what will happen if it adds to the effects of climate change in places like Sub-Saharan Africa.
Why this mini-overview here? Well, first of all, the apropos: here is a new report, out on the human impact of climate change, titled The Anatomy of a Silent Crisis. It came out on the occasion of the 2009 Global Humanitarian Forum in Geneva, and it is worth a read by you.
An excerpt (from page 15):
"Currently over 2.8 billion people live in areas of the world prone to more than one type of the physical manifestations of climate change: floods, storms, droughts, sea level rise. Physical vulnerability to climate change is used to mean that an individual is vulnerable if they face a medium to high risk of experiencing at least two of these events. The figure below shows the areas which are most physically vulnerable to climate change. (In Section 3 below, please note that, when secondary socio-economic factors are included, over 4 billion people could be considered as vulnerable to climate change and, of these, over half a billion as extremely vulnerable.)"
When it comes to South Asia, usually the primarily relevant region as far as this blog's interests are concerned, the report notes some paradoxically positive impacts even. Water scarcity will not necessarily become a problem as the Himalayan glaciers melt. But even this might not mean anything good if it only leads to more severe weather in the wet seasons. And overall South Asia is set to take the bulk of the complex economic damage resulting from climate change, according to the report's assessment.
This makes one sad. We are theorising over how to break the conflict cycle in places like Afghanistan, how to improve tactics in counterinsurgency, how to create the conditions for producing licit crops in the country, and so on. But, meanwhile, there are destructive forces at the work to which we are not paying so much attention as there is not all that much we can do about them, being the sideline observers of political developments in a small region of the world that we are.