I get the point Idean Salehyan is trying to make in "The New Myth About Climate Change,” but — the headline should tip you off — the whole piece has been unnecessarily tarted up to generate controversy. It administers a stern beating to a series of strawmen.
The "myth" in question is that global warming increases the probability of conflict, or as Salehyan puts it, "international and civil wars, a rise in the number of failed states, terrorism, crime, and a stampede of migration toward developed countries." What the piece demonstrates, however, is that the claim is a myth only to the extent you grievously misunderstand it in the first place.
Salehyan has three objections:
1. First, "there is little systematic empirical evidence that resource scarcity and changing environmental conditions lead to conflict." The global number of armed conflicts is falling (a number have recently ended), and anyway, there are plenty of places with with resource problems that don’t descend into conflict.
This isn’t my area of expertise (then, what is?), so I’ll leave the empirical connection between resources and conflict to the authorities. Perhaps Geoff Dabelko will drop by and shed some light. My understanding is that the connection is fairly well established, but I’m open to being convinced otherwise.
Just three things to note on this point:
- It’s possible that there are other, countervailing trends that work to reduce conflict worldwide. That’s perfectly compatible with the "myth" that global warming increases the chances of conflict. If global warming increases the chances by 5%, and Trend X reduces the chances by 10%, well then you’ve got a net 5% reduction, but that doesn’t mean global warming’s not a problem.
- The primary claim about global warming and conflict, as I understand it, is that climate change will have its most deleterious effects in the future — 30, 50 years out. Its effect at present may well be rendered moot by other, more salient factors. But again, this is perfectly compatible with the alleged "myth."
- No one’s claiming that resource stresses are sufficient to lead to conflict. Of course there will be places with resource problems where there’s no fighting. Again, this is perfectly compatible with the "myth."
2. "Second, arguing that climate change is a root cause of conflict lets tyrannical governments off the hook."
That’s just absurd, and frankly, it echoes the most reactionary right-wing claims about domestic policy. If I say poverty will increase the crime rate, that does not let poor criminals off the hook. If I say a lack of social services makes spousal and child abuse more likely, that does not let abusers off the hook. Reasons are not excuses. The general public has trouble understanding this — witness the prevalence of right-wing demagogues in debates over criminal justice — but surely a scholar like Salehyan does.
3. "Third, dire predictions about the coming environmental wars imply that climate change requires military solutions …"
Um … WTF? Who on earth would see this implication, as opposed to, say, the reverse? The entire field of study devoted to the link between resources and conflict is devoted to the reduction of military conflict. Scholars at, e.g., the Environmental Change and Security Program spend their time looking for ways that working together to resolve resource problems can serve as a peacemaking bridge between hostile powers.
Seems to me that dire predictions about climate change imply that we need to look for ways to a) reduce climate change and b) adapt to the coming changes in ways designed to reduce possible conflict.
If Salehyan’s point is merely that we shouldn’t let talk about climate change distract us from the more proximate causes of conflict, then fine. We need to find a way of discussing background variables like global warming — paying them some heed, doing something about them — while still keeping a focus on foreground issues over which we have more direct control.
But dismissing background variables as "myths," while it might increase web traffic, doesn’t shed much light.