Climate Change, Migration, War: the chain of future conflict

The changing of local environmental conditions has affected groups around the world. For instance, in some cases, there are more floods; in other places, more drought. Climate change has become a major political issue but it is still difficult to know what problems it will cause in the longer term. My question is, how might climate change lead to conflict?

At the moment, environmental change is indeed causing and exacerbating conflict. The Sahel Belt of the Sahara Desert has been prone to intense violence, with little sign of improvement. Global warming may be a major cause. Reports (such as this one) are emerging that show that, even when economies improve and states democratise, the consequences of an increase in temperature, such as less water to go round, are having disastrous consequences. I believe things will get worse before they get better.

Future conflict is likely to take the following pattern.

  • Climate change and other environmental damage will put pressure on and destroy local environments in Africa, the Middle East and South Asia.
  • People will be forced to move to other countries to survive.
  • Barriers to immigration will rise.
  • Those who are kept out will fight with the elites over scarce resources.
  • Those who make it into other countries will be looked upon as wretched and unable to integrate.
  • The incidence of war among those whose environments are threatened, whether or not they migrate, will increase.
  • A new kind of refugee, the Environmental Refugee, will emerge.

Most of these things are already happening, which is why we must take drastic measures. The obvious one, the one which most people seem to espouse, is to end climate change. However, there are still many political barriers to taking the steps that need to be taken to make the cuts in greenhouse gases necessary and besides, it may be too late to halt and reverse climate change before it halts and reverses us.

My preferred solution is to remove barriers to migration. Though also politically unpalatable, it is the most realistic way to help people without abandoning them to their fate. If this latter idea appeals, it may help to ask oneself if creating a fortress to keep immigrants out has actually worked anywhere. Majorities in Europe and the United States are against lowering the barriers to immigration but they have no good ideas on preventing immigration. It is not a question of whether we want to keep them out, but whether we can. Either we could throw money down a bottomless pit to prevent immigration or we could work out better policies that fit the chain of future conflict.

Because immigration often causes conflict between locals and newcomers, we also need smart integration policies. Everyone should be educated together, learning each other’s ideas, learning to work together, learning to respect each other. I go into details on this subject in my book, Why Interculturalism Will Work.

By being aware of a possible dark future, we can make it brighter. Ending climate change is a worthy goal, and more realistic immigration and integration policies can help us break the chain of avoidable violence.

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Contrarian views on what you may be worried about

Are most people natural worriers? Or are they just worried because all the worriers around them tell them to be?

Boy, there are a lot of worried people out there nowadays. Almost everything you could worry about, people have exaggerated it to the stature of Godzilla, poised to bring down civilisation as we know it. Popular books and newspaper articles warn of the end of everything we hold dear.

Fortunately, there are some skeptical optimists out there to shed a little perspective on things, put a stop to all the irresponsible fearmongering and help you get back to living your life. I should note that I do not read just to maintain my optimism, I read to maintain a balanced viewpoint on things. When everyone seems to think something is bad, there is always someone else to tell you the good side of things. This post will give you the pessimists’ side of things, followed by a contrarian’s. Both are worth listening to before you decide to worry. (Please follow the links I provide to get my full side of each story.)

Pessimist: Climate change is the biggest threat to our civilisation and the biggest challenge to our generation. It threatens to destroy everything we hold dear.

Contrarian: That is unlikely. To be clear, I am not denying climate change, nor that it could be harmful. What I am not convinced about is that everything is going to blow up in our faces and our grandchildren will be left with nothing. Climate change is one of those issues on which we have too much certainty, too much worrying that the end is near, and not enough debate about the facts.

Furthermore, every generation worries about environmental collapse. When I was young, it was the ozone layer. Thirty years ago, it was global cooling. And so on for the past hundred years. None of these problems has destroyed us yet. I guess we are just more resilient than the doomsayers realised.

Pessimist: We are running out of natural resources. Oil has peaked, wood is disappearing, and wars are brewing over water. We are in big trouble.

Contrarian: The first problem with these arguments is that they are trying to predict the future without firm grounding in the present. Sure, those things could be true, but we are always finding ourselves wrong about them. We thought gold, silver, copper, iron and so on would all run out completely twenty or thirty years ago, and they have not. Oil might have peaked but we do not know. Existence of debate about something (like peak oil) does not mean it has been proven. And water supplies are getting thinner in some places, where there is indeed water war, and greater in other places, as global warming frees up water supplies embedded in glaciers. Besides, how could we run out of water? It could become harder to find for some people, and harder to clean and desalinate, but surely we are not going to run out.

The second problem is that the future changes every day. Predictions by the wisest experts are notoriously unreliable, partly because every time there is a new, disrupting technology, everything changes. For instance, a big environmental problem at the end of the 19th century was horses. Everyone was getting around in horses, but horses were leaving messes all over the streets. Flies were being born in great numbers and spreading disease. What was to be done? Then, the automobile came along and saved the day. The point is, we do not know what new technology is coming or when. Every time a new technology comes along, yes, of course, it causes new problems, but it also solves old ones. The better technology gets, the better our understanding of science is, the more likely we can find our way out of the mess. I admit we could be in trouble, but people talk as if, if we turn on another light or start up another car, society will collapse. We are stronger than that.

Thirdly, I am not worried about the depletion of any of these things. Humankind has proven itself highly adaptive to change, and the depletion of one or another natural resource will be shaken off so we can go destroy something else.

Pessimist: China’s rise is a military and economic threat to everyone else, especially us westerners.

Contrarian: We are really scared of China, aren’t we? But why? First, China is not as “rising” as some might have you believe. As I wrote earlier, China is not about to overtake the United States in anything except instability of its environment.

Second, the rise of China is, for the most part, a good thing. It means a big new market for companies from the rest of the world, and new businesses, ideas, products and so on for the world outside China. The China of Mao’s era or before would not be helping to stop piracy in the Arabian Sea, or terrorism on its Central Asian borders. It means more wealth and, in my opinion, more security, not less.

Third, the rise of this or that country is always feared, and always has been. When Japan was ascendant in the 1980s, the bookstores were full of books saying how powerful it would become and take over the world. How many books do you see about that now? What are you afraid of? That China will take over the world? That Chinese business will be more competitive than your country’s? The only problem I see is that Chinese consumers and businesses will use more and more natural resources and create more and more pollution. But it would be hypocritical of me to tell them to stop trying to achieve a better life.

BUT, say the pessimists (and I was one of them a couple of years ago), China could be the source of the next world war. No doubt, China’s Taiwan policy could mean a war between China and Taiwan that the United States might step into. But what is the likelihood of that?

Contrarian: First, a war between China and the United States would be immensely costly. The Chinese government and some of its people would be behind a war to regain Taiwan, but they are not so arrogant as to think they could simply defeat the United States in a year or two. Americans, on the other side, are unlikely to want to engage one of the most powerful militaries in the world simply for the sake of Taiwan’s independence.


Second, there are many people from
China in the United States and many from the United States in China. These are people who will do anything to avoid war between the two countries. That means thousands of people saying, “if you want them, you’ve got to go through me.”

What are some other looming wars you may be building a bomb shelter for?

Pessimists: Iran is building a bomb and war is inevitable.

Contrarian: War with Iran is highly unlikely. Aside from a few opportunists, nobody wants it. Iran is not attacking anyone and Barack is not attacking them.

Pessimists: North Korea is shooting rockets and threatening everyone. Won’t they go to war too?

Contrarian: They cannot. Nuclear weapons are so powerful that no one can ever use them. North Korea is a complicated matter but nuclear weapons are among the least of our worries.

Besides, who would want to fight a war when this economic crisis will bring the world to its knees alone? The pessimists, including one of my favourite historians, Niall Ferguson, say that it could lead to depression and war, like the 1929 crash did. (To be fair, Ferguson said “there will be blood”, not “there will be world war”.) I, contrarian, think things are fundamentally different and are not as bad as in the 1930s.

We have lower trade barriers and fewer suffocating regulations than in the days of the Depression. The stock market crash in 1929 was inevitable: stock markets sometimes go up and down slowly, but when they reach such dizzying heights as in 1929, they crash painfully. The crash was pretty big in 1987, too, but then things recovered. The Great Depression was brought on, however, by excessive protectionism and regulation that I do not think we will resort to. Though today there is, of course, a risk of war, none of the major powers are about to become socialist, fascist or communist, and none of them have tariffs even approaching those of the 1930s. You might lose your job, but this economic crisis will not mean the end of the world.

The reason we are told to worry about all these things is that people want to draw attention to their cause, and they know that it is not enough to say “the climate is getting slightly warmer” or “there is a remote possibility of war”. Instead, one person exaggerates, then the next person doubles it, and so on around the circle until everyone is screaming and throwing their hands in the air.

To answer my original question, my guess is that worriers on one end tell everyone else to worry, so they do. Please do not let yourself get caught up in the hysteria.

Conflict and rainfall in the Sahel

I love reading books by economists that try to solve the world’s problems. They always have an interesting perspective on poverty and conflict. Economic Gangsters: Corruption, Violence and the Poverty of Nations is one such book.

In one chapter, it discusses the conflicts in Chad, Niger and Darfur, all part of the Sahel Belt, perhaps the most violence-prone area on Earth, and finds an interesting statistic. Where it might be common to see ethnic, religious or cultural divisions as the causes of these conflicts, the authors of Economic Gangsters find that the most significant cause is the weather.

The authors find no statistical correlation between war and political and social factors. African countries that are democracies (as difficult as it is to call an electoral democracy a democracy) are just as prone to war as dictatorships, and ethnically homogeneous states are as likely to go to war as heterogeneous ones. But the capriciousness of weather patterns in the age of climate change could mean the collapse into violence of the poorest parts of the world.

First, in any given year, armed conflict is six times more likely in the world’s poorest countries than in the world’s richest countries. So far, nothing new. But they also found that, when GNP declines by 1 percent, the likelihood of conflict increases by 2 percentage points. If it drops by 5 percent, the risk of conflict in the following year is 30 percent higher. Well, what does the economy depend on in poor desert countries? The rain.

In the Sahel, rain can mean life or death. If there were steady, predictable rainfall every year, the people could grow the same crops every year and build houses and farms and live comfortably. But, in large part due to global warming, many of the poorest parts of the world suffer from floods or droughts. If there is no water, your crops cannot grow. (If there is too much water, the problem in other parts of Africa, your crops are destroyed.) And it is difficult to raise animals if there are no plants. People become desperate. Many of them tried to move to neighbouring states but were repatriated soon after, right in time for another drought. People are in dire need of food, but there is no water to grow it. They try to move and are ejected. If you add in the fact that members of the government rarely starve, you see rationale for an armed rebellion.

Solutions? Allowing more immigration would help. People need to be able to move away from poor areas to places where they can survive. Better irrigation and water sanitation systems could keep crop growth consistent, provided rebels do not steal farmer’s food first. Halting global warming could also help tame harsh weather in the Sahel, but that is an even more distant prospect than throwing the doors open to migrants. For now, the authors conclude, the people of Chad, Niger and Darfur can only pray for rain.

No more debate on climate change? Let’s hope we don’t die of ignorance instead

Why do we hear people tell us that climate change is proven, there is a consensus in the scientific community on it and there is no more debate on the subject? These assumptions scare me more than climate change itself.

Of all the books that exist on the environment, the Menso Guide to Life’s recommendation is the Skeptical Environmentalist by Bjorn Lomborg. His thesis is that the environmental alarmists are wrong. Through careful analysis of data that is available to all of us, we can see that many environmental “problems” such as air and water pollution, depletion of natural resources such as minerals, forests and arable land are not problems at all. Instead, postulates Lomborg, we should put our precious human resources to work tackling the real problems, such as sustainable management of fresh water where it is scarce, and reducing air pollution in big cities in the developing world. We have the data; our next step should be to prioritise. If climate change is a priority, it deserves rigorous debate.

Bjorn Lomborg and I are not cynical people. Cynics are people who automatically do not believe what they hear. Skeptics, on the other hand, are those who question the knowledge of themselves and others, and educate themselves on the many different sides to the issues that concern them. Cynical versus skeptical is the difference between an open and a closed mind. Be skeptical whenever someone attempts to close a debate. Be suspicious even when someone tries to narrow the discourse by, say, dismissing evidence of beneficial effects of climate change or confining blame for it to humans. Discourse that closes minds rather than opening them is not discourse at all. “Consensus” is a pretty suspicious word in itself: it rhymes a little too well with “groupthink”.

Losing argument on any subject implies that you are no longer thinking critically about it. I see argument as an excellent way to gain (and spread) new perspectives. When we have decided there is no more debate, we’d better be damn sure we are not discarding our critical inquiry into the subject along with it. Debate keeps our brains sharp and reminds us that we can be certain about very little. And in case you need an impractical reason to argue, do it as a middle finger to any self righteous environmentalists who refuse to admit they might be wrong.

One problem with any debate is that everyone exaggerates to make their point. If we all take that into account, it is fine; but exaggerating to extremes or lying is wrong. Fearmongering is not the right way to get people on your side because they will turn against you when they see you are wrong. Alarmists want to make the situation more dire than it is because even in the best of times, hardly anyone stands up to act for a cause. If they say that there is no problem (or just a small problem), no one will do anything to combat it at all, and sooner or later it will be a problem. But if they say we’ll all die if we don’t act now, then best case, a few people start conserving energy, etc, and the small or nonexistent problem does not become big. But after fifty years of hearing about the impending crises caused by humankind’s mistreatment of the planet, and fifty years of being afraid of something that has not happened yet has led to three things: a militant environmental movement, a populace that makes misguided choices and a lot of cynicism about preserving the environment.

Many environmental theorists set limits that we have not reached and may never reach. A classic example is the best selling book Limits to Growth from 1972, which predicted we would run out of minerals like gold, silver and zinc by the 1990s, and most significantly, oil would be gone by 1992. In fact, if I had a penny for every chart I have seen with the year we will run out of oil on it, I would live in Beverly Hills. Not only do I think we have another century of oil left, I will go as far as to say we will never run out of oil. If you disagree, I encourage you to read this article and see where I’m coming from. But the limits imposed on us by the alarmists are unnecessary. For many reasons these people do not take into account (partly because no one predicted all the variables and partly because the future is never what we imagine), we have not run out of any of these “scarce” resources. Moreover, these alarmists seem to forget how adaptive humans are.

Part of the alarm comes from a belief that these limits are significant because our economies, our institutions, our society will collapse if we exceed them. Climate change will wreak havoc on the world because we are unprepared and foolish. I don’t believe it for a second. First of all, barring the possibility of a “Day After Tomorrow” type disaster, nothing happens suddenly. As things get worse, we will accord them a higher priority for our time and money, our human resources. Second, we have an unprecedented understanding of science today that, combined with our unprecedented wealth, will enable us to overcome environmental crises if and when they come. Third, humans are smart. We have always found ways of recovering after a crisis or turning crises into opportunities. We find solutions to all of our problems. If the sea levels rise, we will relocate people, and perhaps we will make new land or construct floating structures to live on. If oil runs out, we will create alternatives (for that matter, we already have them). If fish stocks go too low, we will regulate them even more, or we will learn to farm them sustainably. If the air becomes too polluted, we will stop driving and start planting more trees. Before you know it, we will have clean air again.

So stop worrying and get back to arguing like you should be. Here are some things we could be debating.

1. The effects of our behaviour on the environment. That means what are the most likely outcomes 50, 100 and 200 years from now. It includes the good that can come from climate change as well as the bad.

2. How we should allocate resources. If we are going to find solutions, we should know what are the most pressing problems. If we spent all our money on recycling or took every last car off the road we might feel good about ourselves for a while but we would not have solved anything. If climate change is the most pressing environmental issue, we must decide how to allocate resources to take it on.

3. What the individual’s role should be. I have two suggestions. You could live among the trees and the forest creatures, give up your wordly possessions and be at harmony with all nature. If you don’t want to do that, my second suggestion is continue to educate yourself on environmental issues and engage in debate about it with those around you. When we cease learning and debating, we have lost something even more precious than a stable climate.