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Climate factor involved in wars, crises

July 11, 2011


Christian Parenti is a contributing editor at the Nation and a visiting scholar at the Center for Place, Culture and Politics, at the Cuny university of New York’s Grand Center.

He has reported extensively on Afghanistan, Iraq, and various parts of Africa, Asia, and Latin America. His work has been published among others at the Fortune, the Washington Post, the New York Times, and Mother Jones. He holds a PHD in Sociology from the London School of Economics.

Press TV has interviewed Parenti on his latest book, Tropic of Chaos: Climate Change and the New Geography of Violence.

The following is a rough transcription of the interview.

Press TV: Christian Parenti, thank you so much for joining us on the Autograph. While we often address the issue of climate change solely as an environmental challenge, in your book we read that climate change intersects with the already existing crisis of poverty, and violence. You call this the catastrophic convergence, can you tell us more about that?

Parenti: The argument of the book is that climate change rarely just looks like bad weather, a flood, tornado, hail storms, etc. It more often appears as ethnic violence, religious violence, migration, [and] political and social pressures.

What I try to do in the book is unpack the connections between these preexisting problems across the Global South of inequality and poverty left by neoliberal economics restructuring and violence left by the legacy of the Cold War and its proxy fights.

These preexisting crises are now being exastrobated by the onset of anthropogenic climate change which is causing intensified drought, flooding, erratic weather patterns, which is stressing agriculture, and fishing, and in countries where people are living closer to the land they have less margin of error, so we are seeing the social fallout from early climate change.

Press TV: how has the weather changed in the areas that you talk about. I know you start your story, you start your book with a story of a man in Kenya, is drought the primary concern right now at this point?

Parenti: In many ways that’s what one experiences the most, it seems. But for example in Kenya, the actual pattern is that there are more precipitations. There has been an increase in precipitations over the last 20 years but it feels like there is drought because the rain is coming all at once in sudden floods.

You get these periods of drought punctuated by flooding, and then if there is rain, it comes frequently at the wrong time. Even if there is not just a simple shortage of water, there is a disruption of hydrological cycle that then leads to economical equivalent of drought. If you do not get the rain at the right time, crops don’t work. So it is a mix. You saw increased rain fall in the US last summer and this summer, flooding in the Midwest where corn is produced, drought in Russia and central Asia, but in also many of these places sudden crazy floods.

Press TV: Naturally, politics and social order go hand in hand with climate change, as you argue in your book.

For example in Afghanistan, the war in Afghanistan, right off the bat, is not considered a climate war but you look at this war from a different perspective.

Parenti: I do not argue that climate change caused the war in Afghanistan, but I argue that there is a climate logical element within the war and it is that Afghanistan has been suffering during this whole NATO occupation, the worst drought in living memory. The Afghan government and NATO troops attack poppy, the Taliban defends poppy, defends the right of farmers to grow poppy.

Why do they grow poppy? One reason is that poppy uses one fifth of the amount of water as wheat. When the government forces encourage the farmers to grow wheat, or apricot, traditional crops, there is a climological impediment for the farmers making these decisions. Because they are suffering the worst drought in living memory and there is one crop within those conditions which is economically viable and that is the illegal poppy crop. There is one force in the country defending the right to do that, and that is the Taliban.

Along with all the nationalist questions, young Pashtun farmers in the south along with all the nationalist ideology that might motivate them to support the Taliban along with all the religious ideology that might cause them to support the Taliban, there is another very simple materialist reason, which is that these guys will defend your right to grow this illegal crop, and that is one of the only ways people can survive.

So it is an important contributing factor to why there are young men willing to fight. Why the war drags on and on.

I look at Latin America where there is an earlier history of neoliberalism that begins in the 1980s. But I also look at India. Since we just talked about Afghanistan lets go to India. In India, there is a Guerrilla war, the Naxalite collection of Maoist party, [that] has been fighting a war against the Indian state since 1969 and over the last ten years or so while there has also been increased drought in India, in particular in Eastern India. They moved out of areas where they began, in the northeast of India, moving down the eastern area, the mountain range of eastern India and you can see where drought extends the Naxalites soon follow.

Part of the explanation for that is India began liberalizing its economy in 1991. This has been associated with increased growth rate, etc, and the new class of billionaires in India, but the benefit of this growth has not been equally distributed.

In the countryside, liberalization has meant stripping away all the old semi-socialist supports that the farmers had, so they can’t rely on the government to build, and drill wells for them to maintain their irrigation, help them with crop support so they are, more often than not, borrowing money on the private market, but they face this drought so they go into debt and then they lose their land and are humiliated, thousands of them have been committing suicide. Others support the Naxalites and commit political homicide.

That is an example of how you see liberalization feeding into this warfare. The history of neoliberalism more broadly begins out of the crisis of the 1970s, which is in a nutshell the world economy goes into a long boom after the World War II, and that basically is a process of rebuilding all the destructions from the war. That allows for high rate of growth, high rate of profit, rise in wages, rise in taxes. By the late 60s world economy is flooded, and growth rates and profit rates begin to stagnate. Then, there are oil shocks of 73 and 79. For a lot of countries like Brazil [and] like Mexico have been borrowing to fund their industrialization that had been working during the long boom.

In the 70s, that began to stall out because the world economy as a whole was not growing so it was harder for them to sell things. They borrow more and more, and in the case of Brazil — which is one of the countries I look at, which is now a major oil producer, but then it was an oil importer, a major oil importer — they had to borrow lots of money, so by the early 80s they were heavily indebted and the world economy still was quite stagnant.

In order to service their debts, they had to go to the IMF and the World Bank. The IMF and the World Bank told them that they had to privatize state business, open their markets, and deregulate various sectors of the economy. Again you see this pattern where in Brazil the farmers are increasingly left to their own devices, increasingly forced to borrow on the private market, lose their land and have to migrate off the land into the cities. Because the state is not there to support and contain the process and help them along with whatever calamities might befall them.

So that is an economic process that has shaped the environment for a lot of people around the world right now, and as climate change kicks in, it makes it much harder to cope.

Press TV: You also talk about the West or the Global North as you put it. They prefer to invest in projects of counter insurgency that are open-ended, according to your argument, instead of addressing the dyer needs of these countries that are affected. Why is that?

Parenti: what I say is not quite the West as a whole, what I say is that the Pentagon and the US and other militaries in OECD countries — rich countries — are thinking about climate change and are planning.

These militaries generally don’t make policy; the US military does not make policy, it has to implement policy. The armed services are looking forward and they see things that can cause all kinds of problems, increase migration, stress on weak states that can maybe cause those weak states to become failed states, which is going to cause civil war of an ethnic sort, religious sort, that kind of stuff. So they run these scenarios and see a feature in which they are going to be called upon to maintain and contain this process of social breakdown in the Global South.

To their credit, they almost always say in these reports — unless something is seriously done about energy policy — this is what we are going to be dealing with. So they don’t predict large conventional warfare between states. What they predict is internal warfare, banditry, guerrilla warfare, and that puts counterinsurgency front and center. So I examined what is the history of counterinsurgency. I argue… not that I would expect the Pentagon to do anything different because that’s their job to plan for, to look at what the threats for the future are and plan for it.

I don’t think counterinsurgency ultimately is going to work. I don’t think that the wealthy parts of the world can wall themselves off and contain planetary decline as climate change kicks in through violence. That is really what has to happen, there has to be a transformation of the energy economy in this country, in the US and elsewhere, to really cut emissions so that climate change, that the worst of climate change, can be averted.

We are locked in for some disruptive climate change no matter what.

Press TV: you do tell us about various ways of addressing this phenomena, mitigation, and adaptation, which the latter comes in different forms. Can you tell us about that?

Parenti: In the climate discourse, mitigation means cutting emissions essentially. Mitigating the problem and switching the technology from which we get energy from, away from fossil fuels towards renewables.

Adaptation means adapting to the effects of climate change. Adaptation can have a physical aspect to it, like building sea walls to cope with rising sea levels or coming up with new farming methods. It also has to have a social aspect to it and that’s where the question of social justice comes in.

For societies to have the resilience and the capacity to deal with the kinds of disruptions that are going to come with climate change there not only has to be a physical adaptation, but there has to be social adaptation in which I think wealth and power are redistributed in a more fair fashion, to help cut down and reduce social tensions, because inequality defiantly is associated with rising social tensions and that in extreme situations can lead to violence. In the worst cases it can lead actual states to collapse and there is no adaptation or mitigation possible at all.

Press TV: The forms of adaptation that you also talk about, the politics of armed life boat, which leads to climate fascism. How is that?

Parenti: What I am arguing is that… this book is about the possibility of more progressive adaptation. But there are also bad forms of adaptation, of people turning to the gun, to adjust to a more difficult situation.

In the opening of the book, with this guy who has been killed and the cattle raid, that’s an example of basically bad adaptation. These people that the state has abandoned, the Turkana, pastoralist in Northwest Kenya, there is no support for them to turn to and there is a bad drought. A ten year drought [has been] going on which is making it harder and harder for pastoralist to survive. So what do they do to survive? They turn to their own resources, which is AK 47s to try and steal their neighbors’ cattle to survive.

This is a type of adaptation that leads to warfare. What you had in this region is this crisis of violence, on one level it is crime, cattle raiding, on the other level, it’s gotten so intense and so organized that it is almost like a inter-communal warfare. Another form of bad violent adaptation would be what we were talking about before, counterinsurgency.

Seeing the feature as inevitably one of open-ended warfare, wealthy economies have to maintain their borders and send in troops to fight low-intensity combat conflicts. I see that dependency on counterinsurgency in the feature as form of bad adaptation, militarized adaptation.

Press TV: We travel the world with you in this book, and come back here to the United States, what do we see here? We see border issues with Mexico, always related to the drug war and immigration, and issues like that, but once again, it has to do with what’s going on in the climate.

Parenti: Border militarization in the US is a project that has been on the way since the early 1990s. We have about 30,000 people imprisoned, immigrants who are undocumented, at any one time for immigration violation. Not because they committed a crime and are wanted for theft or murder, but simply because they don’t have their documents. We have a whole jail system just for immigrants. We got this technology of warfare all along the border, surveillance, drones, motion sensors; the US military has deployed men down there to train. So this is not caused by climate change.

[An] Increase in immigration and migration is being pushed by climate change. And I have some examples of that. So I try to tease out what you can imagine the future holding. By looking at the discourse around border militarization — and there is some kind of a really racist discourse around border militarization coming out of particularly Arizona and the West — some of those people are actually, giving it an environmental spin, starting to talk about climate change.

Instead of saying the planet is in crisis we all have to pull together and solve these problems, it’s much more a discourse of an armed life boat.

Press TV: Finally, what needs to be done? And how do you see the future of our planet?

Parenti: I don’t necessarily have a prediction of how I see the future. But I see the present; I see possibilities in the present. It is very easy for people to become disheartened and hopeless when thinking about climate change. Also in this country, the political process has become so contaminated by money from coal and oil industry, they really blocked any new legislation around climate change.

There is a lot that can be done without new legislation, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has the authority to regulate greenhouse gas emission. The Obama administration has been waiting and holding back on allowing or mandating the EPA to really set its targets for regulating greenhouse gas emissions from smoke stacks. They need to do that, now the EPA needs to set really robust targets, that do not require any new legislation. That is something that can be done now and is not happening yet.

There is a lot that the US government can do without appropriating new money. The [budget] US government, federal government plus state government, is about the third of the GDP of this country. If the government spending on vehicles and energy and building maintenance and construction took place according to really robust agendas, and you sourced only from wind power not from coal power, and if the government brought only electrical vehicles for the post offices and its general services agency, as suppose to diesel and gas vehicles, that would be good within itself, because it would reduce emissions directly but it would also indirectly help solve the problem by creating economies of scale.

All these companies who are trying to sell wind power into the grid or are trying to sell battery technology into the auto makers would suddenly have lots and lots of orders. And they would then be able to make their products more efficiently and more cheaply, and when clean technology such as wind power and electric cars is cost-competitive against old technology like coal, fire, electricity or gas cars, only when it is as cheap or cheaper would people switch in mass. That’s a very important role that the government can play.

The federal government has the largest fleet of buildings in the country, the largest energy consumer in the country, the largest vehicle fleet in the country. It is going to spend money on energy. It is going to spend money on vehicles. It could spend that in a really progressive positive way, by just choosing green technology, and help nurture those markets and companies that produce those products, but again that has been something that was not embraced by Obama administration. They made gestures in that direction. There was an executive order pass that this should happen but there has been delays. It has not been front and center. Fundamentally, climate change has not been taken seriously by the Obama administration, because they are afraid of the push back from the right on this issue.

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