“The Arab Spring and Climate Change” is a product of cooperative efforts between the Center for American Progress (CAP), the Stimson Center, and the Center for Climate and Security. The report “doesn’t claim that climate change caused the recent wave of Arab revolutions,” Friedman writes. “But, taken together, the essays make a strong case that the interplay between climate change, food prices (particularly wheat) and politics is a hidden stressor that helped to fuel the revolutions and will continue to make consolidating them into stable democracies much more difficult.”
Anne-Marie Slaughter, one of the report’s lead authors, used the preface of the report to lay out the idea of a “stressor” as a useful framework for thinking about these issues. Borrowed from criminal science concepts, a stressor is a “sudden change in circumstances or environment” that interacts with a complicated web of other factors (often a psychological profile, in criminal science’s case) to create sudden, unforeseen, and volatile change. In this instance, climate shifts such as drought our heat waves act as stressors on everything from crop production to food security, water security, the migration of peoples, the stability of governmental and non-governmental networks, and the informal associations and interactions of both local and more widespread communities.
As Friedman points out, these forces can layer on top of one another in ways that make the world more insecure — instigating, shifting, or intensifying geopolitical events such as the recent uprisings in the Arab world:
[T]this collection of essays opens with the Oxford University geographer Troy Sternberg, who demonstrates how in 2010-11, in tandem with the Arab awakenings, “a once-in-a-century winter drought in China” — combined, at the same time, with record-breaking heat waves or floods in other key wheat-growing countries (Ukraine, Russia, Canada and Australia) — “contributed to global wheat shortages and skyrocketing bread prices” in wheat-importing states, most of which are in the Arab world.
Only a small fraction — 6 percent to 18 percent — of annual global wheat production is traded across borders, explained Sternberg, “so any decrease in world supply contributes to a sharp rise in wheat prices and has a serious economic impact in countries such as Egypt, the largest wheat importer in the world.”
The numbers tell the story: “Bread provides one-third of the caloric intake in Egypt, a country where 38 percent of income is spent on food,” notes Sternberg. “The doubling of global wheat prices — from $157/metric ton in June 2010 to $326/metric ton in February 2011 — thus significantly impacted the country’s food supply and availability.” Global food prices peaked at an all-time high in March 2011, shortly after President Hosni Mubarak was toppled in Egypt.
As Friedman notes, the top nine global wheat importers are Middle Eastern countries, leaving them especially vulnerable to price or supply shocks brought on by climate change. And that vulnerability lines up with the potential for destabilization: in 2011, seven of those nine countries suffered political protests that killed civillians. Moreover, households in those countries spend over 35 percent of their incomes on food on average, versus less than 10 percent in developed countries. “Everything is linked,” Friedman says. “Chinese drought and Russian bushfires produced wheat shortages leading to higher bread prices fueling protests in Tahrir Square. Sternberg calls it the globalization of ‘hazard'”:
In 2009, [the study’s co-editors] noted, the U.N. and other international agencies reported that more than 800,000 Syrians lost their entire livelihoods as a result of the great drought, which led to “a massive exodus of farmers, herders, and agriculturally dependent rural families from the Syrian countryside to the cities,” fueling unrest. The future does not look much brighter. “On a scale of wetness conditions,” Femia and Werrell note, “‘where a reading of -4 or below is considered extreme drought,’ a 2010 report by the National Center for Atmospheric Research shows that Syria and its neighbors face projected readings of -8 to -15 as a result of climatic changes in the next 25 years.” Similar trends, they note, are true for Libya, whose “primary source of water is a finite cache of fossilized groundwater, which already has been severely stressed while coastal aquifers have been progressively invaded by seawater.”
Friedman implored the audience to think of the Middle East not by the current national borders, but instead envisioning as overlaid maps of culture and climate to understand the region. Slaughter took the concept a step further, adding in maps of political networks — government, corporate, NGOs, and others — and seeing where the larger “nodes” in those networks exist. Tracing where those nodes intersect, Slaughter said, shows where policy can be made.
But Slaughter and Friedman also emphasized that the world’s increasing compelxity and decentralization offer possible solutions as well as challenges: Slaughter pointed out air quality reports by the U.S. Embassy in Beijing was then picked up by Chinese nationals, for example. And Friedman brought up how a new ID law, the advance of IT infrastructure, and new energy technology is all combining to make it easier for villagers in India to avoid moving into larger cities, and thus keeping carbon emissions lower:
Speaking to ThinkProgress after the event, Slaughter advised those seeking to help prevent further climate change, and the insecurity it brings, to “consider where they are in the network they’re trying to influence.” Global cities and states topped the list of those networks whose combined influence would be able to affect change on the global stage. “Then think, ‘Where am I placed?’ and my point is, you want to be in or be able to influence the central node,” Slaughter continued. That might mean cooperation between individual actors or linking between networks, through reaching out to corporations or local governments.
Friedman concluded his New York Times column with a warning that while “we need to manage what is unavoidable and avoid what is unmanageable,” the Arab world is unfortunately moving in the opposite direction. Collectively, Arab states remain the biggest lobbyists for oil and fossil fuel subsidies, pouring $200 billion a year and as much as one-fifth of their own budgets into the effort, according to the International Monetary Fund. That spending crowds out investments they could be making in their own health and education systems, for example, while the young democratic institutions in many Arab states remain vulnerable to sectarian and tribal tensions.
The difficulties the Arab world faces in moving off of fossil fuels is yet one more reason why countries fortunate enough to be blessed with prosperity, advanced economies, and established democratic institutions — such as the United States — should be taking the lead in clean and renewable energy. They’re the countries best able to bear the up front costs and investments, the most likely to succeed, and the best positioned to export the technology once its developed.