Climate and Conflict

Writing in Foreign Policy, Idean Salehyan takes umbrage with this weeks-old op-ed by Ban Ki-moon in which the Secretary General cites climate change as a contributory factor to the violence in Darfur. The author doesn’t doubt the science behind climate change, rather Salehyan quips that pointing out the relationship between conflict and climate change is bad politics. Talking about this link, says, Saleyhan is tantamount to excusing belligerents for starting armed conflict:

[A]rguing 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 [sic] perverse logic, consumers in Chicago and Paris are at least as culpable for Darfur as the regime in Khartoum.

First, Ban never said that climate change, alone, is to blame for the conflict in Darfur. This is what he wrote (emphasis mine.) “Amid the diverse social and political causes, the Darfur conflict began as an ecological crisis, arising at least in part from climate change.” These are important qualifiers.

But more importantly, Salehyan questions the political utility of highlighting the ecological roots of conflicts like Darfur. I think the answer is a resounding yes, for doing so adds another layer of urgency to international efforts to redress climate change. It is entirely appropriate, for example, for delegates at the coming UN summit on climate change to note that progress they make has real-world consequences for global security.

Simply stating the truth of the matter–that desertification of the sahel has sparked new competition of over resources in Darfur–does not excuse Khartoum and rebel groups for causing a humanitarian crisis. It does, however, help bring to light that our actions on climate change can help mitigate future crises.