The city of Paris stands today at the intersection of two fundamental challenges to our collective future.
Over the next month, leaders from around the world will assemble to attempt to find a way forward on the perilous problem of human-induced climate change. They meet in a city that has just suffered a brutal loss of innocent life at the hands of violent Jihadism whose origins were accelerated by the rising arc of climate change. Global warming and ISIS are subtly connected.
The accelerating pace of human energy consumption – with origins running deep into the past – has begun to warm the global heat envelope that makes life on earth possible. Global warming is real, and is driven by the exponential growth of human populations and economies.
Over the last several hundred years — and especially the last half century — forest clearance, soil disturbance, and fossil fuel combustion has fed carbon dioxide, methane and other gases into the atmosphere’s greenhouse layer. Atmospheric CO2 has reached 400 parts per million for the first time since millions of years before the beginning of the Pleistocene ice ages; global temperatures have been rising dramatically since the 1970s.
The effects of this warming on the global climate system are becoming profound. Arctic sea ice and Greenland ice sheets are melting at rapid rates, threatening to launch both sharply rising sea levels and run-away greenhouse emissions from long-frozen permafrost. The tropical oceans are heating, and exaggerating the natural patterns of climatic circulation. In the Pacific the El Nino-La Nina pattern is deepening, putting the highly populated coasts of the Pacific and the Indian Ocean under cyclical risk of intensified storm surges or devastating drought.
“Drought and food scarcity underlies patterns of regional civil war, and the rising tide of refugee migration, in the entire arc running from North Africa and the Sahel all the way to Pakistan and Central Asia.”
In Western Eurasia, the warming system has pushed winter precipitation north from the Middle East toward northern Europe. The result has been an unprecedented series of years of drought in across Southwest Asia, from Turkey and Syria to Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Since the late 1990s these droughts have devastated the belt of Sunni agricultural regions in Syria running east from Damascus; hundreds of thousands of Sunni farm households have been driven off the land into urban slums, many into the hands of the so-called Islamic State in Syria, ISIS.
This is only the most severe of several warming-induced droughts contributing to destabilization in parts of the world, among them the drought in the Darfur of Sudan that shaped devastating civil war starting in 2003, and drought in China (and excessive rain in Canada and Australia) that drove up the price of bread in Cairo in 2010, on the eve of the Arab Spring.
Drought and food scarcity underlies patterns of regional civil war, and the rising tide of refugee migration, in the entire arc running from North Africa and the Sahel all the way to Pakistan and Central Asia. These conditions are only expected to intensify, as the northward shift of winter precipitation and rising populations combine to put this region under increasing water stress over the coming decades.
Such are some of the stakes at the Paris climate meetings this month. Agreeing to address global climate change cannot solve the security problem of ISIS, nor stem the wave of refugees on their way to Europe. These are challenges that require immediate and specific attention. There may be grounds for optimism in recent rapid investment – and falling prices – in the deployment of renewal energy systems like solar and wind power. It may be that the Paris conference will lay the groundwork for a broad acceptance of a carbon tax.
These measures will take decades to have a measurable effect on the earth system. In the short term, the world community will have to deal with the challenges intensified by rising temperatures and shifting precipitation. But if we do not find a coherent global path forward to slow the pace of global warming and climate change, the conditions that have shaped both the emergence of the Islamic State and the great migrant flows from south to north will only intensify.
My recent Cambridge book, Climate Change and the Course of Global History: A Rough Journey offers detailed overview of the role of climatic change in human history. In the following excerpt I sketch the ideological positions in the contemporary struggle over global warming, among optimists, pessimists, and pragmatists. It is to be hoped that the pragmatists will prevail in the Paris talks, and in national politics around the world. These talks will not quickly and easily solve the issues of our collective future. But they can and should set the structure and agenda for an ongoing global dialogue.
Read an excerpt from Climate Change and the Course of Global History here.