Think the world is becoming a lot more unsafe? You’re right.
When something endangers your support network it endangers you, and when your support network is under threat, there are two ways you and those around you can respond. You can coordinate your efforts, working together to present a united face to the danger, or you can turn on one another, magnifying the threat. Usually your odds are hell of a lot better if you work as a team. As a species, we’ve made incredible leaps by working together, dominating our world completely enough to entirely rewrite it and even reach beyond it. The accomplishments of civilization are all about manifesting synergies, coordinated team efforts light years beyond the capacity of any individual. Lamentably, as we face the greatest environmental crisis in all of human history, we are a species at war or on the brink of war in unprecedented ways.
War is the norm of human history. Times of peace made up only 8% of the last 3400 years. While scientists warn us of the unprecedented dangers of climate change, military intelligence experts are more specific about the way that those include unprecedented military threats. The US pentagon has clearly identified climate change as a global threat multiplier for years, telling us it not only magnifies various existing national security threats, but also excels at creating new ones. This positions the destabilization of our climate as the worst collective threat we currently face on a military level as well as an environmental level.
The US is far from alone in this assessment. 70% of the world’s national defence apparatuses have likewise publicly acknowledged the same. We can assume the remainder are merely accustomed to playing their cards close to their chest rather than making public statements, because the reality is painfully obvious. Like other problematic climate impacts, this is not a tomorrow problem, but a right now problem. It is already happening. Isis capitalized on economic turmoil in Iraq caused by drought and flooding. Conflict in Yemen is worsened by roughly half of the population confronting water scarcity. Drought worsening food and water scarcity has also pitted groups against one another in Libya and South Sudan.
Perhaps the starkest recent example, however, is in Syria. Between 2006 and 2011, Syria experienced its worst drought since the dawn of agriculture in the region, with utterly devastating effects. Fully 75% of Syria’s farms failed, and 85% of their livestock died. This caused the greatest mass migration in the region’s history as a million and a half Syrians from rural areas fled to urban centres looking for help. I wouldn’t for a moment suggest that Syria’s leader Bashar Al-Assad isn’t apparently something of a monster, but the impossible situation he found himself within certainly couldn’t help. Facing immense pressure from citizens desperate to fill their bellies, he couldn’t easily provide them with something that the country didn’t have. It’s awfully hard to ask the international community for help feeding your people when those same nations are already bombing you. So when you cannot possibly appease protesting citizens, turning the troops against them may feel like the only tool left in your toolbox.
Understanding that international conflicts are commonly driven by competition over resources tells us tomorrow’s conflicts will make yesterday’s seem gentle by comparison. War over oil is so commonplace that it’s virtually a cliche, but there are at least some alternatives to oil. There are no alternatives to food or water, and climate change is endangering the collective availability of both. Buckle up.
One of the things that is truly astonishing about this very visibly worsening threat is the way that the political right is still firmly entrenched in functional climate denial, so that the “support the troops” crowd utterly refuses to support their military’s efforts to address the biggest threat we face. With the most bloated military expenditures by far, the US doesn’t seem to have ever seen a military appropriations bill that it doesn’t embrace, but that’s only how it looks until the troops warn about the risks of climate change. At that point, US lawmakers finally slam the public purse shut, insisting that no, preparing for this particular threat doesn’t merit an additional dime. I suppose no one should be surprised. The right’s support for the troops is just a simple jingoistic slogan, after all, and hardly prevents them from slagging the troops at a moment’s notice.
For anyone reading the above and wishing that the right would finally acknowledge climate reality, a note of caution is in order. Parts of the right are already undergoing that transition in horrifying ways, because a toxic ideology can always manage to propose repellent solutions to every problem. What we are seeing is that when the extreme right shifts from pretending that climate change is all a hoax to considering it a real threat, they use it as a justification for genocidal impulses. If climate change means increasing scarcity of crucial resources, their thinking goes, then clearly we need to obliterate as many hungry mouths as possible that might compete with us for them. The Christchurch New Zealand mass shooter’s manifesto not only listed Donald Trump as one of his inspirations, but also cited the need to eliminate “surplus population” because of climate driven resource scarcity. Most people making statements like that have very firm ideas on which populations they personally consider “surplus.”
Perennially awful right wing mouthpiece Ben Shapiro has already tweeted that his preferred solution to climate change is to call for bombing campaigns against energy infrastructure in foreign nations. So the unmitigated horror of a right that still largely pretends the problem isn’t real may well pale before the horror of a right that finally acknowledges climate reality and uses it to rationalize even more fascist violence. This effort to use “lifeboat ethics” to justify genocidal policies isn’t really new, simply resurgent, but like everything else in a hothouse world, it’s about to get dialled up to eleven.
War is hell, and the impact it has on innocent civilians is always deeply atrocious, so standing at the brink of a world of magnifying warfare is a chilling prospect, but there’s one final garnish of brutality atop this stomach turning recipe for violence. It is not just more wars between nations that we have to worry about. It is more interpersonal violence as well. The modern age of incivility, where political opponents are increasingly seen as enemies to be slaughtered more than people with slightly different ideas about how best to govern your society to be debated with, occurs in a biological context that also demands greater awareness. In a hotter environment, individual tempers are shorter. When the first scientific study that made a connection between a hotter climate and more interpersonal violence came out, it was largely dismissed. Further research affirmed the conclusion, and the combined results of 56 different studies that all found the same thing are a lot harder to disregard. Research very consistently connects rising heat to an increase in antagonism and violence.
One study concludes that “Between 2010 and 2099, climate change will cause an additional 22,000 murders, 180,000 cases of rape, 1.2 million aggravated assaults, 2.3 million simple assaults, 260,000 robberies, 1.3 million burglaries, 2.2 million cases of larceny, and 580,000 cases of vehicle theft in the United States.”
So if you’re worried that the public violence of January 6th was just the beginning rather than a one-off aberration, it’s because you are almost certainly right. And if you believe that the increasing intolerance and social violence that has produced a rapid increase in hate crimes isn’t going away any time soon, it’s because you’re probably right about that, too. Climate change isn’t just a weather issue, or a political issue, or an economic issue. It’s a safety issue across the board, magnifying risks from the global level to the household level. It’s high time the world starts acting like it. Because our odds really are better if we work together.