Thursday, May 15, 2014

Climate change does not cause kidnappings

Today I came across a story on the popular website Climate Progress that is a good example of something that genuinely troubles me: a desire in the popular media and in the climate change activist community to link too many of the world’s ills to climate change. The story in question looks at how climate relates to the current, appalling situation where a terrorist group* called Boko Haram has kidnapped over 200 schoolgirls in northern Nigeria. The group’s specific aims were not immediately clear, although they have recently demanded the release of colleagues who are in prison in exchange for the girls. Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ve know doubt heard about event.

Climate change is a fact and not a theory, human activities are the primary drivers of it today (that’s why we speak of ‘anthropogenic climate change’), and it has very worrisome implications for human livelihoods and well-being. In some parts of the world, like the Canadian Arctic, its impacts are already being experienced and have been well documented, by local residents and outside scientists alike. Only someone who is wilfully blind (that’s the polite, scientific term for a moron) would fail to recognize it impacts there. In other parts of the world, the connection between anthropogenic climate change and observed environmental changes on the ground is not quite as clear cut as it is in the Arctic, but the evidence is very compelling. One such part of the world is the Sudano-Sahelian region of Africa, a broad belt of semi-arid land that stretches east-west across most of the continent, south of the Sahara Desert. Northern Nigeria falls within this region.

Precipitation in Sudano-Sahelian is inherently variable. Within each year there are distinctively dry and rainy periods, and the amount of precipitation received annually varies considerably from one year to the next. When rainfall is plentiful, the lands can be quite productive for crops and animal fodder, but in dryer years harvests and pasture can be very meager indeed. People who live in this region have over the centuries developed a range of strategies for coping with the inherent uncertainty of its climate, like seasonal labour migration, nomadic (or semi-nomadic) pastoralism, and planting drought-tolerant crops. Yet, while such strategies have successfully provided subsistence livelihoods for generations of people, they do not translate well into the modern, capitalist economy that has emerged in Nigeria. In monetary terms, people who live in northern Nigeria are often exceedingly poor. For many rural households, cash is scarce. Far from major markets, they sell what surplus crops and livestock they can, and after the harvest young people migrate to the south, hoping for paying work so they can remit money back home.

In that sort of subsistence economy, droughts can crush a household. Access to cash literally dries up as their crops and animals struggle, making residents even poorer relative to their cash-economy neighbours than they had been. While dryness has always been a fact of life in Sudano-Sahelian Africa, a disconcerting trend has occurred over the last half century – precipitation is steadily becoming scarcer (see chart at the bottom of this post). If you look at 20th century precipitation records for the region, you will see that the second half has been generally much dryer than the first half, and some of the recent dry periods have been especially dry. Did anthropogenic climate change cause this downward trend in precipitation? Understanding the causal dynamics of large scale precipitation patterns is a science that’s still developing, so most atmospheric scientists would be hesitant to state categorically that it has. Most will, however, feel comfortable stating that it’s consistent with what we would expect to happen, given what we know about the linkages between greenhouse gas accumulations, sea surface temperatures, and African rainfall patterns.

In northern Nigeria it has always been a challenge for rural families to feed their kids and provide a decent life for their loved ones; the unusual dryness of the past twenty years has made it near impossible for many. At the same time, increasing dryness isn’t the only thing northern Nigerians have had to deal with in recent decades. The region has also been undergoing rapid social, economic, political, and cultural transformation as well. As is happening in many parts of the world, the separation between haves and have-nots is growingly visible. Traditional cultural norms, gender roles, and inter-general relations are being challenged by new ideas from the outside, and hastened by growing migrant networks to the south. Traditional local institutions that prevented and resolved conflicts have been eroded as state authorities try to insert themselves into communities, imposing new rules and reflecting outside interests. In this dynamic, differences, disagreements and conflicts between social and cultural groups that had always been present became more pronounced. The dryness of recent decades did not cause the rise in instability and conflict, but it certainly didn’t help matters. Drought acted as what is known in security circles as a ‘threat multiplier’; that is, it exacerbated an already difficult situation, and likely made it worse. Jon Barnett of Melbourne University has published many excellent studies of the relationship between environmental conditions, political instability, and conflict, including some that consider how dry conditions likely contributed to the rise of groups like Boko Haram in northern Nigeria. His work is worth reading.

That, however, is where we need to stop talking about climate change in the context of recent events in Nigeria. Climate change has nothing to do with the types of cruelty and violence humans are capable of inflicting upon one another. Droughts happen all the time in Sudano-Sahelian Africa. They always have and they always will; indeed probably more so because of climate change. But people across Sudano-Sahelian Africa do not routinely go out and kidnap schoolchildren or commit wanton acts of violence against others simply because there’s been a drought. Climate does not predispose anyone to violence. And because it doesn’t, you can’t prevent violence by simply focusing on climate. A few years ago, UNEP officials said the Darfur genocide was the typeof conflict we can expect because of climate change, suggesting that severe drought helped cause Janjaweed militias to viciously attack non-Arab neighbours, some of whom supported anti-government rebels. Linking it to climate change was absolute nonsense, but needless to say the Sudanese government, which had been actively assisting the militias, embraced the suggestion. Colleagues and I wasted no time stating how ill-advised we thought the UNEP’s statements were.

Which brings me back to my original point. Taking an event like the Boko Haram kidnappings and treating it as an opportunity to talk about climate change is not smart on two levels. First, the connection between the two phenomena is too tenuous to warrant serious consideration, and creates an unnecessary distraction from the immediate gravity of the event at hand. Second, you know exactly what the climate change skeptics are going to be crowing on their blogs, websites, and online comments: things along the lines of, “Oh look, now the greenies are blaming the kidnapping of those schoolgirls on climate change! What next? The Ukraine crisis? The Kennedy assassination?” And you know what? They would be right. It was clearly not the intent of the author of this piece to blame climate change for the kidnappings, but that’s the practical effect. This does not help the cause of those who are trying to make rational, scientifically grounded arguments to policymakers and the wider public why climate change needs to be taken seriously. There are many reasons why climate change requires immediate action; Boko Haram is not one of them. Right now the global community needs to be angry – furious – over the kidnapping of those girls, and help the Nigerian authorities to do whatever it takes to get those kids home safely, punish those who did it, and make sure it never happens again. Leave climate change out of the discussion on this one.

*I’ve seen some media commentaries state that Boko Haram should not be considered a ‘terrorist’ group. If kidnapping hundreds of schoolchildren doesn’t make you a terrorist, I’m not sure what does.

Precipitation trends in Sahelian Africa; chart from Columbia Earth Institute.

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