Darfur and Climate Change

DARFUR AND CLIMATE CHANGE….Over at Foreign Policy, Idean Salehyan is unhappy with people who try to blame resource wars on global warming:

Few serious individuals still contest that global climate change is among the most important challenges of our time….We are no longer arguing over the reality of climate change, but rather, its potential consequences. According to one emerging “conventional wisdom,” climate change will lead to international and civil wars, a rise in the number of failed states, terrorism, crime, and a stampede of migration toward developed countries.

….Dire scenarios like these may sound convincing, but they are misleading. Even worse, they are irresponsible, for they shift liability for wars and human rights abuses away from oppressive, corrupt governments….Arguing that climate change is a root cause of conflict lets tyrannical governments off the hook. If the environment drives conflict, then governments bear little responsibility for bad outcomes. That’s why Ban Ki-moon’s case about Darfur was music to Khartoum’s ears. The Sudanese government would love to blame the West for creating the climate change problem in the first place. True, desertification is a serious concern, but it’s preposterous to suggest that poor rainfall — rather than deliberate actions taken by the Sudanese government and the various combatant factions — ultimately caused the genocidal violence in Sudan. Yet by Moon’s perverse logic, consumers in Chicago and Paris are at least as culpable for Darfur as the regime in Khartoum.

Salehyan highlights a problem here, though perhaps not quite the one he thinks: namely, how do you talk about underlying causes without making the causes into excuses? As a matter of empirical fact, it’s arguable (though not proven, I think) that a rise in temperatures in the Indian Ocean has disrupted seasonal monsoons for the past couple of decades, leading to a decrease in rainfall in sub-Saharan Africa. And there’s not much question that drought and its associated changes in land use patterns — however caused — have been among the underlying drivers of the violence in Darfur.

As a research matter, this ought to be a legitimate topic. But what happens when a politician like Ban Ki-moon talks about it? His intentions might be good (warning about the ill effects of climate change), and God knows it would be nice for Westerners to understand that global warming is about more than just endangered polar bears. At the same time, as Salehyan points out, once this enters the realm of politics it can also be used as a convenient excuse for political action (or inaction) by genocidal regimes.

It also leads to oversimplification. After all, “plausible” is not “proven.” Alex de Waal, author of Famine That Kills, provides the missing details here.

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