It may seem a bit of a stretch to suggest a link between climate change and the rise of various forms of extremist activities in the developing world. However, a little bit of reflection will show that such a link does exist and that should worry policymakers in those parts of the world that are seeing both the rapid deterioration of environment and persistence of terrorism. In the world’s hot and dry countries, and that include most of Africa, all of the Middle East and large parts of South Asia, there is growing unhappiness with governments that are not working hard to protect citizenry from heat and water shortages. Michael Krugman of the Woodrow Wilson Center recently observed “that in Pakistan, more people have died from the heatwave than from terrorism this year. We would emphasise that there shouldn’t be a competition between ‘terrorism’ and ‘climate stress’ and that the resources spent on the former vastly outstrip the latter.”
It was not only the heat that killed so many in Pakistan. Floods also took their toll on lives and property. Both heat and floods were predicted for South Asia by the World Bank study of climate change, published a few months ago. These are extreme events that will increase in frequency as the concentration of carbon dioxide in the upper layers of the earth’s atmosphere continues to increase. Large emitters of this gas are developing their plans to reduce the amount they let out into the atmosphere. China and the United States have tabled their programmes; India has yet to do so. These are required as part of the preparatory work for the climate summit which will be held in Paris at the end of the year.
South Asians are remarkably resilient people, able to tolerate a great deal of mismanagement by those who rule — largely because the political system in the area provides an outlet. In the last couple of years, South Asians — first in Pakistan in 2013, and then in India in 2014 — threw out the incumbents and brought in those who seemed to be credible when they promised relief. But patience has its limit; this is especially the case when those who have used elections to force change don’t have permanent political footing. A large number of them are footloose; they will move to other political spaces if they don’t see the needed action.
An uncomfortable citizenry is also a severely alienated one. It is alienation that leads people to find other ways to express themselves when political and economic systems are not working from them. This is not a new finding; it was pointed out decades ago by the Harvard University economist Albert Hershman in his book, Exit, Voice and Loyalty. Many in the countries deeply affected by climate change are choosing the ‘exit’ option. Some are just leaving and heading towards the places that offer better economic opportunities and better governance. This is what is driving tens of thousands of people to leave their homes in Africa and the Middle East and head towards Europe even when the chance of making it to their selected destinations is not all that great. Some others are choosing different types of ‘exits’. They are linking themselves with extremist groups that are promising change and hence improvement in their situation.
It is interesting that Iraq’s Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi removed all three vice presidents in his government and the office of the deputy prime minister was abolished since the set-up over which he presided could supply electricity for only few hours a day. His action followed a wave of protests. According to one newspaper account, people walked through the centre of Baghdad “chanting and carrying signs about the lack of electricity and blaming corruption for it. The protest was unusual in that it did not appear to have been called for by any major political party.” This reaction by the people should not surprise Pakistan’s citizens. They have now suffered for years from the absence of regular supply of electricity to their homes and places of work.
The columnist Thomas Friedman writing about the world’s hot spots had an interesting take on how climate change will most likely affect political future. “Here’s my bet about the future of Sunni, Shiite, Arab, Turkish, Kurdish and Israeli relations,” he wrote in a column published recently. He could have added Indians and Pakistanis to the list of those who have unsettled differences. “If they don’t end their long-running conflicts, Mother Nature is going to destroy them all, long before they destroy one another… Mother Nature is not sitting idle. She doesn’t do politics — only physics, biology and chemistry. And if they add up the wrong way, she will take them all down.”
What should governments do to address the problem posed by climate change? To begin with, they should work together to save ‘the commons’. This article is supposed to be published a day after the scheduled New Delhi meeting of the security advisers from India and Pakistan, whose fate, at the time of writing, looks to be in jeopardy. I am almost certain that even if the meeting did go ahead, the agendas by both sides did not include climate change and its consequences for the region. That is unfortunate since this is the area where the governments should be working together to protect their countries and their people from the uncertainties associated with climate change.
Published in The Express Tribune, August 24th, 2015.
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