Calling them “climate change refugees,” Monday’s New York Times detailed efforts to relocate an entire community.
Only this wasn’t in the Sahel or South Asia, but in southeast Louisiana, where more than 90 percent of Isle de Jean Charles has washed away since 1955.
About 60 people populate the island hamlet. But globally, millions more are vulnerable to the effects of climate-driven dynamics.
That’s why climate geopolitics — this month’s Global Minnesota Great Decisions dialogue — may greatly increase in global importance in upcoming years.
“Water scarcity, exacerbated by climate change, could cost some regions up to 6 percent of their GDP, spur migration and spark conflict,” the World Bank said in a report issued on Tuesday.
Indeed, “the impact of climate change can push on the drivers that are sometimes important for generating conflict,” said Shiloh Fetzek, senior fellow for international affairs at the Center for Climate and Security.
Fetzek, who will be at the University of Minnesota’s McNamara Alumni Center on May 10 for a Norway House/Minnesota Peace Initiative panel analyzing the intersection of climate and conflict, described a “fragility linkage” as a factor, if not necessarily always a driver, in conflict.
For instance, some experts consider contributing factors in Syria’s disintegration to be “very poor resource management and poverty,” Fetzek said. Canada, conversely, has ample social resilience to bounce back from the forest fires in Alberta this week.
“Climate can be an aggravating aspect of conflict,” concurred Prof. Jessica Hellmann, director of the U’s Institute on the Environment. Hellmann, who will be one of Fetzek’s fellow panelists, added: “Whatever signal we think we see now in climate and conflict, we have reasons to be worried about the future.”
And that’s even if the goals of the Paris climate change agreement are met. If not, there could be “massive migration,” Hellmann said. Elaborating ecologically and geopolitically, she said, “If you cannot make a living where you are because of resource shortage, all living things pack up and move someplace else.” And if so, that could make “the numbers moving to Greece look like a tiny trickle.”
The current Mediterranean migration crisis already has caused political conflict across the continent, as right-wing responses to immigration have shaken governments in Berlin and beyond.
This comes at a time when Europe will be asked to help build what Hellmann called “adaptive capacity” within and between states that could supplant conflict with cooperation if societies recognize and react to climate change.
“A shared dilemma can actually be a motivation for collaboration if there are the social institutions, the goodwill and the economic opportunity to problem-solve,” Hellmann said.
“The research community is acting as town criers,” said Fetzek. “We have the capacity to build resilience and promote diplomatic arrangements between countries that can manage stressors. But we really need to orient away from always reacting to crises and toward anticipating them and warding them off.”
Much of the U.S. defense and diplomatic establishment already recognizes the asymmetric threat posed by the intersection of climate and conflict.
“The issues of global climate change are very important and very prominent on the State Department’s agenda,” said Shannon Smith, deputy assistant secretary of state in the Bureau of African Affairs.
“African policymakers bring up the issue of climate change and drought with me on almost every trip,” said Smith, who will also join the panel. “It’s certainly an issue on their minds, because of conflict and because of the broader-scale impact on economic and human development, the degree of suffering associated with it.” These leaders are facing the future “with trepidation,” Smith said, fearing exacerbating drought and ever-more-erratic weather patterns. “The consequences of that are quite profound.”
Overall, Smith said, it’s an issue of “global consequence” that’s “fundamentally about what climate change may mean in some of the most fragile countries in the world politically, economically, in terms of conflict; that there are these countries that have contributed the least to the problems of climate change and may experience the most dire effects.”
While those nations may be epicenters, the impact will be worldwide. So it’s crucial that America continue to be at the forefront in finding solutions.
However, it shouldn’t be alone.
“U.S. leadership is critical, but by no means sufficient,” Smith said. “It’s a challenge for all of us.”
John Rash is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist. The Rash Report can be heard at 8:20 a.m. Fridays on WCCO Radio, 830-AM. On Twitter: @rashreport.
The Star Tribune Editorial Board and Global Minnesota are partners in “Great Decisions,” a monthly dialogue discussing foreign-policy topics. Want to join the conversation? Go to globalminnesota.org.