“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God” (Matt. 5:9).
Encountering this familiar verse from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, how often are we guilty of unconsciously changing it to “Blessed are the peace lovers…?” Ah, if only loving peace and making peace were one and the same. Loving peace requires essentially no effort, no deep commitment, little reflection, hardly any discernment; anyone can do it—and most do. It is passive and uncontroversial. Making peace, on the other hand, is an entirely different story. It demands active engagement, sustained dedication, careful analysis, patient relationship-building, and wise, prayerful discernment.
As we prayerfully consider how to work at promoting peace worldwide, advocating for a stable climate might not be the first thing that comes to mind. However, human-caused climate change is already contributing to violent conflict and will continue to do so more and more, if left unaddressed. While it would be too simplistic to say that climate change causes violent conflict, its effects are widely understood to contribute to instability. Rising sea levels, shrinking glaciers, diminished snowpack, and increased frequency and severity of droughts, storms, floods, and wildfires are making vital resources scarcer on many fronts.
Where resources are scarce, conflict over them becomes more likely, particularly when governmental controls are already weak, wealth inequality is high, or infrastructure for distributing resources is inadequate. When persons seek resources by leaving home and migrating to other regions, the pump is further primed for conflict. In short, as described in the US Department of Defense’s Quadrennial Defense Review 2014, the wide-ranging effects of climate change are “threat multipliers that will aggravate stressors abroad such as poverty, environmental degradation, political instability, and social tensions—conditions that can enable terrorist activity and other forms of violence.”
While these general assertions are widely accepted, the extent to which human-caused climate change is playing a part in any particular conflict is hard to pin down. To get a sense of why this is so, consider the role of performance-enhancing drugs in major-league baseball: The number of home runs being hit skyrocketed during the 1990s and early 2000s, and widespread steroid use is commonly acknowledged as the reason. That having been said, home run hitting didn’t begin with the steroid era, and certainly some home runs would have been hit during that period, independent of steroid use. Who’s to judge whether any particular home run happened specifically because of steroid use? Likewise, while it’s well documented that climate change is already increasing the frequency and severity of droughts and other extreme weather events, it’s hard to determine how much climate change contributed to any particular natural disaster. Furthermore, it’s challenging to figure out how much a particular natural disaster served as a trigger for a particular conflict.
Despite these difficulties, scientists have recently demonstrated a clear link between climate change and Syria’s civil war. Using statistical analysis and computer simulations, they have shown that human-caused climate change is making severe multi-year droughts two to three times more likely to occur in the region than they would naturally. Syria weathered such a record drought from 2007 to at least 2010 and the resulting massive crop failures spurred 1.5 million people to migrate from the rural north to the cities. Government corruption, inequality, population growth, and poor water management worked in concert with the drought to set the stage for civil war.
The Arab Spring uprisings can also be linked to humaninduced climate change, through a much less direct pathway. Research suggests that, because of rapid warming of the Arctic, the jet stream has become more susceptible to getting “blocked”— that is, stuck in a particular, unusual flow pattern for weeks at a time, setting the stage for extreme weather events.
In the summer of 2010, the jet stream over Asia became blocked and split in two. Cold air from Siberia was carried far to the south, where it collided over northern Pakistan with warm, moist air from the Bay of Bengal, “super-charging” the monsoon, submerging one-fifth of the nation’s land area, and directly affecting about 20 million people.
Meanwhile, over Russia, a hot, dry air mass stalled. The record-breaking heatwave and drought that ensued decimated agriculture and turned the landscape into a tinderbox; at least 7,000 wildfires raged across more than a million acres (a combined area larger than the state of Rhode Island). With a third of its nation’s wheat crop lost to these calamities, the Russian government felt compelled to ban wheat exports.
Further drought-related losses in Ukraine, Kazakhstan, and China, combined with extreme rainfall-related losses in Canada and Australia, doubled the price of wheat on the world market between June 2010 and February 2011. Especially hard hit by this dramatic price spike were impoverished nations relying heavily on wheat imports—nine out of 10 of which are in the Middle East. As bread—a staple food in the region—became too expensive for many to afford, angry citizens took to the streets protesting government inaction and long-standing corruption and unemployment. While the role of climate change is harder to quantify here than for Syria, this example vividly illustrates how complex climate change’s effects can become in a globally interconnected world.
In addition to promoting civil wars, climate change also appears to be contributing to the rise of terrorist and extremist groups, as detailed in a 2014 report by the CNA Corporation Military Advisory Board entitled National Security and the Accelerating Risks of Climate Change. The document from this government-funded research organization composed of retired senior military commanders specifically describes the rise of Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) in Mali, linking it to the southward spread of the Sahara desert. It goes on to highlight a pattern of similar growth of terrorist groups in Africa’s Sahel region, including Darfur, South Sudan, Niger, and Nigeria—all nations with fragile governments that have suffered recently from intense drought and desertification made worse by climate change. The US military is concerned enough about these risks that it is already preparing for the impacts of climate change and advocating for reliable and renewable sources of energy. The Military Advisory Board report states bluntly, “The national security risks of projected climate change are as serious as any challenges we have faced.”
How, then, can we live out our call to be peacemakers amid all these intertwining challenges? It is hard to imagine how we could play a direct role in shoring up the political structures of fragile states or negotiating settlements among warring ethnic factions. By working to re-stabilize the global climate, however, we can wage peace indirectly—by helping to prevent further resource shortages and mass migrations that stress fragile states and cause ethnic tensions to flare and terrorism to flourish.
To help re-stabilize the climate, we can reduce our personal use of fossil fuels, and—perhaps more crucially—we can advocate for the United States to become a leader in greenhouse gas emission reductions. Reducing these emissions will require both improving energy efficiency (so that we waste less energy) and getting our energy in ways that don’t produce greenhouse gases. If we embrace these challenges wholeheartedly, we can be on the forefront of developing new technologies that will surely strengthen our economy. What’s more, we can help ensure that these new technologies are developed and implemented in ways that do not themselves promote conflict.
Making the transition away from fossil fuels to renewable energy sources like solar and wind will pay other peacemaking dividends beyond those associated with re-stabilizing the climate. Wars over oil would be a thing of the past, and our nation’s foreign policy could reflect our deepest moral convictions instead of our basest needs for petroleum. Unlike fossil fuels, solar and wind energy are incredibly abundant and widely distributed around the globe. They can be harnessed at small, local scales at relatively low cost. Access to them cannot easily be cut off so they cannot readily be controlled by force and monopolized. Their widespread use can actually help promote equality and open the door for sustainable development, further creating a climate for peace.
Sharon Yohn is assistant professor of chemistry at Juniata College in Huntingdon, Pennsylvania. Laura (Ranck) White is a small business owner and serves as the financial manager of the Huntingdon Farmers’ Market. She is especially involved in expanding access to the market for low-income community members. See all Climate Change articles in this series.