Why developed countries should back loss and damage in Paris

schoolchildren typhoon haiyan
schoolchildren typhoon haiyan

School children in the Philippines contemplate the aftermath of Typhoon Haiyan (courtesy of Pio Arce/Genesis Photos).

A number of critical issues remain unresolved, including whether countries should set a maximum safe threshold for carbon emissions and what protocols will be put in place to ensure that parties are transparent and accountable for their emissions reduction commitments. One of the trickiest outstanding issues is the question of loss and damage. For years, developing countries have called for developed states to compensate them for the negative effects of climate change, such as more frequent flooding and more intense droughts.

While developed countries committed to provide financing for climate mitigation and adaptation through the development of the Green Climate Fund in 2009, it is widely acknowledged that there are impacts of climate change which we can neither prevent nor prepare for. These residual effects are at the centre of the loss and damage debate.

This issue particularly came to the fore at the 2013 Warsaw Conference, which took place in the immediate aftermath of Typhoon Haiyan, which devastated parts of the Philippines and killed more than 6,300 people.

Yeb Sano, the Philippines lead negotiator, delivered an impassioned speech in Warsaw pushing the issue. Sano, whose hometown had been flattened by the storm, fasted throughout the conference in solidarity with Haiyan survivors. He called for parties “to make clear the difference between humanitarian aid and climate change compensation in the context of historical responsibility.”

These efforts paid off, as negotiators created the Warsaw international mechanism for loss and damage, which created a standing committee to research the issue and advise the UNFCCC over the next two years.

At last year’s conference in Lima, negotiators reaffirmed their commitment to discuss the issue, outlined the membership of an Executive Committee, and approved a two-year work plan. But discussions remain in a preliminary phase, and many developing states remain concerned that the Paris talks may fail to address the question adequately. Small island states, in particular, view loss and damage as an existential question, as climate change may threaten their very survival.

To read the rest, head over to the original post at RTCC.

Karachi’s Heat Wave a Sign of Future Challenges to Pakistan’s Fragile Democracy

A man (R) cools off under a public tap, while others wait to fill their bottles, during intense hot weather in Karachi, Pakistan, June 23, 2015. A devastating heat wave has killed more than 400 people in Pakistan's southern city of Karachi over the past three days, health officials said on Tuesday, as paramilitaries set up emergency medical camps in the streets. REUTERS/Akhtar Soomro - RTX1HPUL

A man (R) cools off under a public tap, while others wait to fill their bottles, during intense hot weather in Karachi, Pakistan, June 23, 2015. A devastating heat wave has killed more than 400 people in Pakistan’s southern city of Karachi over the past three days, health officials said on Tuesday, as paramilitaries set up emergency medical camps in the streets (courtesy of Reuters).

Karachi, the world’s second largest city by population, is emerging from the grips of a deadly heatwave. A persistent low pressure system camped over the Arabian Sea stifled ocean breezes and brought temperatures in excess of 113°F (45°C) to the city of 23 million people in June. The searing heat disrupted electricity and water service, making life nearly unbearable. All told, officials estimate the heatwave killed at least 1,200 Pakistanis, more than twice as many as have died in terrorist attacks this year.

But meteorology alone cannot explain this turn of events. Rather, as with all disasters, Karachi’s heatwave is rooted in a complex web of natural and man-made factors. “The emergency is the product of a perfect storm of meteorological, political, and religious factors,” notes The New York Times.

Karachi’s rapid growth has heightened people’s exposure and vulnerability to heat. Since 2000, Karachi’s population has doubled, making it the fastest growing megacity in the world. This population explosion has overwhelmed the capacity of local government. At least half of all Karachiites live in informal settlements, with little access to infrastructure and vital services. Unplanned expansion has also led to widespread environmental degradation. Karachi’s annual concentration of fine particulate matter is 11.7 timesWorld Health Organization standards (and more than double that of Beijing), making it the fifth most air-polluted city in the world. Karachi also faces an acute water crisis. Some of its poorest residents survive on just 10 liters per day, one-fifth of daily drinking requirements, while some estimates suggest more than 30,000 people die from water-related diseases every year.

Wide swathes of trees and other vegetation have been cleared for roads and buildings, limiting shade and exacerbating the urban heat island effect (the process by which urbanized areas absorb and retain solar radiation, significantly increasing local temperatures). Add to this the city’s construction boom which creates a major demand for manual labor and the onset of the holy month of Ramadan – during which Muslims can neither eat nor drink before sundown – and you have a recipe for disaster.

To read the rest, head over to the original post at New Security Beat.

How focusing on climate could make us miss the forest for the trees

mosul dam
mosul dam

Iraq’s Mosul Dam (courtesy of the AP).

If you haven’t read my last post on why we need to integrate climate change into disaster risk reduction, read that first. I’ll wait. And, while you’re at it, read my other post on including DRR into the sustainable development goals. 

As you’ll recall from my last post, I outlined new research arguing that we need to integrate climate change into disaster risk reduction. In this post, I want to explore Syria within this context.

Last week, PNAS released a major study linking climate change (paywalled) to the historic drought that may have contributed to the ongoing violent conflict in Syria. Unsurprisingly, the study has generated a lot of attention, garnering significant coverage from The New York TimesNational Geographic, Slate, Mother Jones, and the Huffington Post, among other outlets.

The debate over the Syria study

Given the highly contentious nature of the climate change and conflict debate (see more from me on this here and here), there has been some blowback, most prominently from Keith Kloor at Discover. In his second post on this debate, Kloor finds some dissenting voices on the study, including Edward Carr from the director of the Humanitarian Response and Development Lab (HURDL) at the University of South Carolina. Carr objected to the general view within the media that this study represents proof of the connection between climate and Syria’s violence. As he noted,

I think the translation of this drought into conflict is pretty weak. Basically, they plumb the conflict literature to support really general statements like “The conflict literature supports the idea that rapid demographic change encourages instability.” No kidding – not sure a citation was needed there. But the causal change between climate change, drought, displacement, and conflict is long and crosses several bodies of data/evidence, all of which are uncertain. The compounding uncertainty in this causal chain is never addressed, so I can’t tell if it is offsetting (that is, some parts of the causal chain address weaknesses in other parts, thereby making the connection throughout the chain stronger) or compounding. I doubt the authors know, either. Basically, I don’t understand how you can get any real understanding of the likely contribution of climate change to this conflict via this mechanism.

Some members of the media who covered the study objected to the criticisms lobbied against them. And, to be fair, both sides make fair points. The media coverage of this study has been far more measured and accurate than in the past. At the same time, the critics are also correct that this study does not prove that climate change caused the Syrian civil war and that we need to be careful when saying it did.

Because I tweet entirely too much, I waded into this debate in the form of a lengthy exchange with Kloor, Neil Bhatiya from The Century Foundation, and Brian Kahn of Climate Central. In it, Kahn asked an important question: Does discussing the role of climate change really detract from focusing on the other drivers of the conflict?

It is in this context that I want to discuss the Kelman, Gaillard, and Mercer paper. In the paper, KGM argue that the extensive focus on climate change sometimes allows it to “dominate” other drivers of vulnerability and disaster risk. Climate change can drive both hazards and vulnerabilities, two of the components in the disaster risk triad, but the question of whether climate “is a more significant or a less significant contributor than other factors…depends on the specific context,” and we should not focus on it to the detriment of other contributors. We cannot miss the forest for the trees.

What KGM means for the Syria study

Here I want to turn to another issue – the policy implications of the PNAS study. For the most part, none of the media coverage of the paper discusses what policymakers are supposed to do with this information. How should it shape their interventions in Syria? What lessons can should they glean for the future? Carr’s colleague at HURDL, Daniel Abrahams, noted the problem therein, saying “I would guess policy makers see this paper as a distraction; something that fills their inbox with people tangentially paying attention to climate issues.”

I’ve been thinking a lot about this question over the past week, and I would argue that it is here that the KGM study’s emphasis on placing climate change in its proper context can be particularly valuable. Let’s assume for a minute that USAID wanted to operationalize the Syria study as the basis for an intervention in the region. If the agency focused on the role that climate change played in driving the conflict, it may conclude that it should invest in projects that can provide reliable clean energy and drinking water to Syria’s crowded urban centers and irrigation water to its hard-hit farmers. What project meets all of those criteria? Why a dam, of course.

USAID actually has a track record of funding the construction of a dams in drought-affected, fragile states within the region, including Iraq’s Mosul Dam and the Kajaki Dam in southern Afghanistan. Accordingly, funding this type of project would not be out of the realm of possibility, and it would likely make sense when viewed from a climate lens. So what could go wrong wrong?

Syria’s complicated hydropolitics

Well, in a word, lots. The climate lens fails to account for the geographic and political environment in which Syria sits. Syria is the midstream party for the Euphrates River, sitting between its upstream neighbor (Turkey) and its downstream neighbor (Iraq). Additionally, the Tigris River forms the border between Syria and Turkey as it heads southeast into Iraq. Disputes over water allocations from the rivers have undermined relations among the three parties for decades.

The complicated hydropolitics within the region are often centered around the Kurds. Turkey has embarked on a massive river basin development scheme, the Southeast Anatolia Project (GAP), which will see it complete 22 dams and 19 power plants. Turkey’s Kurdish minority sees GAP as just another attempt to drown their cultural identity and weaken the Kurdish People’s Party (PKK). Turkey’s dam building has long been a point of contention for Syria and Iraq. Syria has supported the PKK as a proxy battle over water allocations, while Turkey invaded northern Iraq in 1997 to attack Kurdish rebels stationed there. Syria and Iraq have also fought among themselves over water issues, with both countries dispatching troops to the border in 1975.

Clearly, the construction of one or more dams could further exacerbating the region’s hydropolitics. Furthermore, the dam itself may become entangled in the conflict. The Taliban has launched a number of attacks on the Kajaki Dam against American and British forces. ISIS, for its part, has made Iraq’s dams major targets. Its capture of the Mosul Dam, which observers have dubbed “the moment IS ascended from a dangerous insurgent group to an existential threat to Iraq,” was among the major factors that drew the US into the conflict. Any militants who remained in Syria would likely see our hypothetical dam in this same light.

Lastly, new dam projects in the region would likely create widespread, deleterious consequences for Syrians and Iraqis living downstream. Large dams have displaced 40-80 million people worldwide and created a whole host of social and environmental problems. One need look no further than Iraq to see how dams can destroy livelihoods. Following the First Gulf War, Saddam Hussein used dams to drain the Mesopotamian Marshes in order to punish the Ma’dan people. The UN Environment Programme has called this episode “a major environmental catastrophe that will be remembered as one of humanity’s worst engineered disasters.”

While it’s true that climate change will alter conflict dynamics and act as a threat multiplier going forward, we cannot allow this risk to blind us to other the critical considerations at play.

The NRC is wrong – we’re nowhere near ready to research geoengineering

mr burns solar shade
mr burns solar shade

Geoengineering: The Simpsons already did it.

Last week, the National Research Council released a lengthy, two-volume report on geoengineering. The central crux of the report and the surrounding debate seems to be that, sure, geoengineering is a crazy idea, but, we need to at least research it, because we’ve gotten ourselves into this mess, and we need every tool available at our disposal. Even the IPCC has dipped a toe in the water, noting in its Fifth Assessment Report that we will most likely end up surpassing the 2ºC warming threshold if we exceed 450ppm of CO2. The only way to get back under that threshold is through the “widespread deployment of bioenergy with carbon dioxide capture and storage (BECCS) and afforestation in the second half of the century.” Given these realities, it seems logical to at least start researching geoengineering, right? It’s better to have that arrow in the quiver and never need it than need it and not have it.

The risks & rewards of geoengineering

The problem with geoengineering is that even researching it carries clear risks. In July 2013, the Woodrow Wilson Center’s Environmental Change and Security Program published a report titled “Backdraft: The Conflict Potential of Climate Change Adaptation and Mitigation.” The report includes a chapter on geoengineering (“climate engineering” in their parlance) by Achim Maas and Irina Comardicea of aldephi, a German think tank.

In their piece, Maas and Comardicea lay out the potential benefits and drawbacks of climate engineering. On the one hand, climate engineering would not need to upend our existing fossil fuel-based global energy system and may be a more appealing option for certain actors. This approach would also allow developing states space to continue to exploiting their fossil fuel reserves as a way to lift their citizens out of extreme poverty, helping to level the potential trade-offs between tackling climate change and global poverty.

On the other hand, tinkering with our climate system could generate some severe unintended consequences. First, it fails to tackle the root cause of climate change, so it is far from an actual solution. Second, it does nothing to curb the impacts of climate change outside of global warming, most notably ocean acidification. Third, the potential side effects of climate engineering could be widespread, and we cannot predict them for sure. We may end up altering the color of the sky or the chemistry the oceans. Fourth, once we start playing God with our atmosphere, we can never stop. According to a study in the Journal of Geophysical Research, if we engaged in solar radiation management (SRM) for 50 years, then stopped, we could end up getting all of the delayed warming from that period in just 5 to 10 years. That type of warming would be unprecedented, and we could have no way to adapt.

The trouble with research

But none of the above specifically explains why researching climate engineering is, in and out itself, fraught with risks. Maas and Comardicea delve into this issue at length. Because of the scope and the scale of climate engineering, we cannot accurately replicate it in a lab, and there is no way the international community would sign off on a global chemistry experiment without knowing the real world implications. And that necessitates experimenting outside of the lab.

Say we decided to inject sulfates into the atmosphere on a “small scale” in order to see if we could reduce the amount of solar radiation reaching the Earth’s surface. The risks of even a theoretically controlled experiment could be significant. Thanks to a study that also came out last week, we know that the increase in aerosol emissions in Europe and North America during the Industrial Revolution altered precipitation patterns in the northern tropics, contributing to a “substantial drying trend” after 1850.

The impacts of climate change and, by extension, climate engineering, are so distant in time and space that we would have no way of knowing exacting where, when, and how the potential consequences of this kind of experiment would play out. What if a prolonged drought occurred in the Caribbean or the monsoon shifted dramatically in South Asia? We would be unable to pinpoint the cause of such a change – whether natural or manmade – for several months or years.

And, during this period, all sorts of social and political consequences could occur. We already know, for instance, that aerosol pollution from India has intensified tropical cyclones in the Arabian Sea, including a category 4 cyclone that hit Pakistan in June 2010. Pakistan is already acutely aware of the impacts of drifting air pollution from India. What if the country experienced another disaster on the scale of the 2010 Indus River floods and decided that Indian interference in the atmosphere was to blame?

As Maas and Comardicea argue,

Even if there may be no direct connection between a state’s regional climate engineering scheme and the crop failure of another state, it may provide a convenient scapegoat and lead to increased tensions…The possibility of unilaterally implemented climate engineering, either via world powers or smaller coalitions of states, may thus lead to a “climate control race.” In the same way that states raced to develop arsenals of nuclear weapons during the Cold War, states may compete to develop and control climate engineering technology.

There is already a track record to suggest that states can use weather as a tool of war. The US employed cloud seeding techniques from 1967-1972 as part of “Operation Popeye” to try and interrupt movement along the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Such actions directly led to the 1978 Environmental Modification Convention (ENMOD), which barred the using environmental modification to cause harm. But even ENMOD has not halted efforts to control the weather. China, for instance, has widely employed cloud seeding, most famously to clear the skies over Beijing in the run up to the 2008 Olympics.

Governance before research

With all of these potential consequences in mind, what do Maas and Comardicea recommend to stave off the worst effects of climate engineering? In a word, governance:

To reduce the conflict potential of climate engineering, a transparent international dialogue on the research and applications of climate engineering technologies is crucial prior to any field research (emphasis added). Ongoing talks and deliberations should involve a wide variety of stakeholders, and critically evaluate the potential technological benefits and pitfalls, as well as the regulatory development of the range of climate engineering techniques…

In conclusion, the NRC is wrong here. We need governance, first and foremost, before undertaking research and absolutely before trying out any of these crazy ass schemes in the real world. The risks are too great to play it by the seat of our pants. I’m not here to say that we should never employ geoengineering at any point, for any reason. I think it’s a terrible idea with a dramatic downside, but there may come a time when we have no choice. Then, and only then – as a very last resort – should we be ready to employ it. But we are a long way from that point, and we are still a long way from reaching the day at which we can even begin to researching to prepare for this day. Let’s get through Paris first without saddling this conference with yet another intractable problem.

How Afghanistan is quickly becoming a resource conflict

mineral resource map afghanistan
mineral resource map afghanistan

Map of estimated mineral reserves in Afghanistan, produced by the US Geological Survey in 2007. This map, along with another one focused on ferrous materials, have been used to project that the country has $1-3 trillion in available mineral reserves (courtesy of New Security Beat).

Why don’t people who don’t know I exist (and wouldn’t care if they did) follow advice that they had no way of knowing I’d even written?

Back in the winter/spring of 2012, I took a course on post-war peacebuilding with Dr. Charles Call, an expert who has worked with both the United Nations and US governments and penned Why Peace Fails: The Causes and Prevention of Civil War Recurrence.

In the course, Dr. Call broke the class into groups, each of which studied and analyzed a recent civil war and the subsequent international peacebuilding effort. Naturally, I ended up focusing on Afghanistan, because duh. For our final project, each group had to assess the risks of civil war recurrence for its respective country and identify the potential triggers that could foment such unrest. Being the only environmental policy student in a class full of peace and conflict resolution researchers, I was particularly concerned with the way that environmental issues may undermine Afghanistan’s extremely fragile peace (if one is willing to say that the country is actually “post-conflict”).

In the paper, I focused, in particular, on two main issues:

  1. The Afghan government’s emphasis upon harnessing the country’s water resources to expand irrigated agriculture and develop hydroelectric power could exacerbate localized conflicts over shared water resources and undermine the potential for regional cooperation, without which there remains little chance for true peace and stability within the country.
  2. That the focus on Afghanistan’s much ballyhooed mineral reserves could undermine peacebuilding initiatives, help finance rebel groups, and drive additional grievances against an already desperately weak government. To this point, I wrote:

While minerals represent a major potential source of revenue, [the Afghan government] needs to remain mindful of the risks. High-value minerals have contributed to civil conflicts around the world. The case of Papua New Guinea is of particular concern. The Australian colonial government and the national government of PNG touted the Panguna mine in Bougainville as a vital source of employment and revenue. However, the mine quickly became a major fault line due to land seizures, environmental degradation, and uneven distribution of profits. Locals used these grievances to launch a ten-year civil conflict that killed 20,000 people. As a country with limited experience with large-scale mining and serious problems with governance and corruption, encouraging major investments by multinational firms is risky. [Kabul] must tread lightly in this area. Weak land tenure and administration systems create further risks for localized conflicts within the country. Efforts to override customary land tenure systems and seize property for mining may spark violence or generate additional support for the insurgency…

While Afghan mineral reserves are potentially worth more than $1.3 trillion, this number considerably overstates their true value. Due to the lack of physical and institutional infrastructure required to facilitate extraction, the net present value is unlikely to exceed $120 billion. Relying on extractive industries also carries serious potential risks, as noted earlier. The amount of money changing hands will likely foster additional corruption. In exchange for granting the Aynak copper mine to Chinese company MCC, the former Minister of Mines took $30 million in bribes. MoM also left MCC responsible for acquiring land. Without paying close attention to these issues, Afghanistan’s mineral reserves could become another focal point for conflict.

Fast forward to the present. In 2013, persistent attacks from insurgents led to MCC significantly scaling back its investment at Aynak. According to the South China Morning Post,

With copper prices falling and the Chinese economy slowing, and security in Afghanistan deteriorating, the company has yet to begin production on the site and, according to mining industry and other sources, no longer wants to abide by the terms of the contract it signed in 2007.

The company wanted to renege on building a railway, power plant and processing factory, as stipulated in its deal to mine at Mes Aynak, site of one of the world’s biggest copper deposits, the sources said.

MCC also wanted to renege on paying the remainder of a bonus worth US$808 million to the Kabul government, having already paid US$133 million, one source close to Kabul’s ministry of mines said. It also wanted to cut the royalty payments, currently set at 19.5 per cent, about double the worldwide average.

And, as Al Jazeera America reported in June, the central government’s overwhelming desire to mine, baby, mine endangers a treasure trove of thousand-year old Buddhist artifacts. This episode represents just the latest episode in a decades-long assault on the country’s social and cultural history.

One of the legendary Buddhas of Bamiyan, prior to their destruction by the Taliban in March 2000 courtesy of

One of the legendary Buddhas of Bamiyan, prior to their destruction by the Taliban in March 2000 (courtesy of Helena Wangefelt Ström).

Moreover, just last week Foreign Policy published a piece titled “Does Afghanistan’s New Mining Law Benefit Its Mafias?” The piece drew attention to these concerns that the poor management of the country’s mineral resources and the rush to extract minerals – both by the Karzai government and its Western allies – may be endangering the long-term security and development of the country:

This battle for control [over resources] “may consign the country to a prolonged war,” Javed Noorani, formerly of IWA and an expert on the resources sector, told me recently.

With the withdrawal of U.S. combat troops scheduled for December 31, and a drastic drawdown in external development aid, Noorani believes Afghanistan is transitioning not from war to peace, but “from military conflict to resources conflict.” “The Taliban are not spectators to the sector but finance their war from revenues from the sector,” he said. He believes illegal mining will allow non-state groups like the Taliban to consolidate and emerge to threaten the governments of Afghanistan and its neighbors, telling me that: “Their footprints are already here.”

Who could have foreseen such a potential calamity? Oh, right.

It’s not as though this outcome is particularly surprising; scholars and NGOs have been warning about the potential for resources to drive ongoing conflict in Afghanistan for years. Back in 2004, Jonathan Goodhand discussed the role that minerals had played in financing both the mujahideen groups during the Afghan civil war in the book War Economies in a Regional Context: Challenges of Transformation.

While most Western actors have focused on opium, the fact remains that both the Taliban and the Northern Alliance relied on illicitly exploited resources, particularly emeralds and granite, to finance their war efforts. Resource conflict is hardly new to Afghanistan; taking such an ahistorical approach to peacebuilding was destined to fail from the start. I guess the one irony in this whole debacle is the fact that western military and political leaders have used the presence of Afghanistan’s mineral wealth to justify both an ongoing counterinsurgency operation and the rapid withdrawal of forces.

If there’s one thing that I learned from my time working on the Environmental Law Institute/UN Environment Programme environmental peacebuilding initiative, it is that natural resources can be a blessing, but they often end up as a curse for post-conflict developing states. In such settings, transparency and accountability of resource extraction is paramount. Just because the US and NATO allies are withdrawing military forces (rightfully) from Afghanistan does not mean these countries do not have an obligation to push Kabul to adhere to international principles on proper natural resource management. As a party to the Extractives Industry Transparency Initiative, the country has already recognized its obligations.

It’s time for officials in Kabul, Washington, and other Western capitals to step up on this front; the consequences of inaction are too significant to ignore.

Here’s how climate change will screw up Memorial Day

children kiribati vickers gun
children kiribati vickers gun

Children sit astride a Vickers gun on Tarawa Island, a remnant from the Japanese defenses on the island during World War II (courtesy of The Global Mail).

Memorial Day was yesterday, a solemn holiday to recognize those men and women who gave the ultimate sacrifice in service to their country and did not return home from the field of war.

While President Lyndon B. Johnson officially recognized Waterloo, New York as the birthplace of the holiday, the first Memorial Day took place on May 1, 1865 in Charleston, South Carolina. Here, a group of least 10,000 freed slaves staged a parade to commemorate the Union soldiers who had fought and died on their behalf. The parade took place on the site of Washington Race Course and Jockey Club, a race track that Confederate soldiers had converted into an outdoor prison for Union troops. Before the parade, 28 former slaves gathered on the site to provide a proper burial to the 257 soldiers who died in the camp’s deplorable prison and were unceremoniously laid to rest in a shallow, mass grave.

Memorial Day and climate change

Like all holidays, it is unsurprising to see Memorial Day sometimes used to promote political agendas. Joe Romm capitalized on Thomas Friedman’s column from Saturday to discuss the links between climate change and violent conflict. According to the Los Angeles Times, President Obama is expected to highlight that connection in his major foreign policy address at West Point tomorrow.

There has been much ink spilled over the climate-conflict nexus, including a chapter in the latest IPCC Working Group II report (PDF) and the recent update to the landmark 2007 report from the CNA. Accordingly, given these clear and potentially acute links, it is unsurprising to see commentators make the connection.

I want to focus on a different connection between Memorial Day and climate change. Last week, the Union of Concerned Scientists released a report documenting how climate change threatens vital national landmarks, including the historical Jamestown settlement and Cape Canaveral. We’ve already seen firsthand how rising seas and more severe storm surges can damage important sites, as evinced by the inundation of Ground Zero during Superstorm Sandy.

The Battle of Tarawa

But not all of these threatened landmarks are located in the US. Halfway around the world lies the small island nation of Kiribati (prounounced KIRR-i-bas), an archipelago of 33 coral atolls and islands that sits astride the Equator in the Pacific Ocean about 3,100 miles east of Australia. The country’s capital and largest city, South Tarawa, sits on the narrow coral atoll of the same name. More than 50,000 Kiribati – almost half of the country’s population – are squeezed onto this small islet just six square miles in area.

While this nation exists as little more than a blip in international politics or the global economy, it played an outsized role in the fight for supremacy in the Pacific Ocean during World War II. As The New York Times discussed on the 70th anniversary of the Battle of Tarawa,

By themselves, the islands held little value to the Japanese or the American government. They were situated about halfway between Pearl Harbor and the Philippines and were barely large enough to hold an airfield. But they served as an essential steppingstone across the Pacific: If American bombers wanted to reach Japan, they would need an air base in the Mariana Islands; to capture the Marianas, they would first need the Marshall Islands; and for the Marshalls, they needed Tarawa. To fortify the atoll, the Japanese sent in 3,800 imperial troops, along with 1,200 enslaved Korean laborers to be thrust onto the front lines. They spent a year building concrete bunkers and planting massive cannons along the beaches. The leader of the Japanese garrison, Rear Adm. Keiji Shibazaki, predicted that it would take “one million men, 100 years” to seize the islands.

Beginning November 20, 1943, some 35,000 Marines stormed the island in an attempt to wrest it from Japanese control. By the time the fighting ended three days later, roughly 6,400 Japanese, Koreans, and Americans died. This number included around 1,100 Marines who, though they fell, did not die in vain. Their sacrifice allowed their comrades to seize the island and establish an essential foothold for Admiral Chester Nimitz’ island hopping strategy. Adm. Nimitz reportedly said that “The capture of Tarawa knocked down the front door to the Japanese defenses in the Central Pacific.”

Unfortunately, the tropical heat eliminated any hope for a proper, dignified burial of the dead. The surviving Marines quickly buried their fallen comrades in shallow graves (due, in part, to the island’s low water table), then moved on. Military engineers soon moved in to pave over much of the island and construct an airfield. When crews returned to Tarawa in 1946 to exhume the remains of the Marines, the haste of the burials and poor record keeping made their task nearly impossible.

Forensic investigators located just half of the buried Marines. Supplemental crews, both official and volunteers, have helped to locate the unidentified remains of just over 100 others. But perhaps 520 Marines remain buried somewhere in the sands of South Tarawa.

north and south tarawa

North and South Tarawa islands in Kiribati (courtesy of The Guardian).

Climate change in Kiribati

Today, as in 1943, Kiribati sits on the front lines of the world’s greatest crisis. This crisis is not a world war, but the battle against global climate change. Most of Tarawa lies less than three meters above sea level, while the country’s entire land area sits, on average, just 1.3 meters above the Pacific. Under a high emissions scenario, the IPCC projects that global sea levels will rise by 52-98 centimeters by 2100. That number is likely low, however, as the report excludes recent research that shows more ominous trends, such as the news this month that the West Antarctic Ice Sheet has entered an irreversible (if gradual) collapse.

Additionally, Kiribati’s location makes it even more vulnerable to sea level rise (SLR). It is located in the Western Pacific Ocean, where seas have been rising three times faster than the rest of the globe. According to the World Bank, by 2050 – within my lifetime – some 54-80% of South Tarawa could be fully inundated (PDF).

sea level rise rate western pacific

Rates of sea level rise in the Pacific Ocean (courtesy of NOAA).

Clearly, Kiribati is at tremendous risk. Anote Tong, the country’s president, has been pushing a policy of “migration with dignity,” whereby he works with neighboring states to take Kiribati migrants. Stating that his country has perhaps three decades before it becomes uninhabitable, President Tong recently purchased more than 6,000 hectares of land in Fiji. This represents just one of his contingency plans for his endangered (and rapidly growing) population of more than 100,000.

Ultimately, it won’t be too much water but, rather, too little water that dooms Kiribati and other small island states. That’s because, as sea levels rise, saltwater pushes into underground freshwater reserves. This process, known as saltwater intrusion, contaminates the freshwater resources upon which the islands’ residents depend. The IPCC has projected that South Tarawa’s supply of underground freshwater will shrink by two-thirds through 2050. This, along with the repeated impacts of more intense storm surges on infrastructure and crops will likely push those left on the islands to flee long before the seas reach their doorsteps.

Climate change will seriously challenge our existing international law system. Will we redefine refugee to include climate-induced migration? Can our definition of national sovereignty stay the same in a greenhouse world? Is it really possible for a nation-state to exist when its people have all left and its territory lies under the sea?

President Tong has proposed one possible solution to the latter issue. He has suggested that, in a worst case scenario, the Kiribati government could establish an outpost on Banaba atoll, which, at 81 meters above sea level, is the highest point in the country. This would allow the Kiribati state to maintain at least a ceremonial presence in its territory, even if most of it lies empty.

But the 520 US Marines who lie buried under the beaches of South Tarawa will not be so fortunate. They will not get the same dignified burial as those 257 Union soldiers in Charleston, nor will they get a tangible memorial like the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington Cemetery. Unless we act immediately, both to search for their remains and to curb the carbon pollution that is driving climate change, these brave men who fought and died for their country will end up interred, anonymously, under the sea forever.

 

Will climate change disasters really lead to more conflict? Maybe.

naval station pensacola
naval station pensacola

Damage to Naval Air Station Pensacola following Hurricane Ivan in 2004 (courtesy of Wikimedia Commons).

The US military has devoted a considerable amount of attention to climate change, which makes sense given the various risks it poses to military operations. These risks include potential increased demand for humanitarian responses to climatic disasters and the threat of climatic changes, such as stronger tropical storms and sea level rise, to existing military installations. For instance, Hurricane Ivan knocked one of the Navy’s key bases, Naval Air Station Pensacola, out of commission for a year.

Climate change’s most severe potential military threat – increasing the risk of violent conflicts – is also its least likely, by far. Yet, unsurprisingly, this has gotten the lion’s share of attention from the media.

Last week, Eric Holthaus at Slate published an interview with retired Navy Rear Admiral David Titley. The piece is worth a read. I would say the Rear Admiral’s comments accurately reflect the views of many military officials who are concerned about climate change.

Let me just preface this by noting that Rear Admiral Titley has forgotten a hell of a lot more about military strategy, history, and operations than I will ever learn. But I do take exception with the way that he framed the issue:

Let me give you a few examples of how that might play out. You could imagine a scenario in which both Russia and China have prolonged droughts. China decides to exert rights on foreign contracts and gets assertive in Africa. If you start getting instability in large powers with nuclear weapons, that’s not a good day.

Here’s another one: We basically do nothing on emissions. Sea level keeps rising, three to six feet by the end of the century. Then, you get a series of super-typhoons into Shanghai and millions of people die. Does the population there lose faith in Chinese government? Does China start to fissure? I’d prefer to deal with a rising, dominant China any day.

If you take Rear Admiral Titley’s comments at face value, you’d be forgiven if you came away believing that climate-related disasters may inevitably spawn violent conflict. This is an all-too-common perception, one to which I used to subscribe.

What can we say about disasters and conflict?

But the fact remains that nothing about disasters inherently leads to conflict. Quite the opposite, really. There have been a few studies that find such a connection, including a one in 2008 from Philip Nel and Marjolein Righarts (PDF), who examined the connections between various forms of disasters and the risk of civil conflict onset. They found that disasters increase the likelihood that civil conflict will occur. Such disasters may create incentives for rebel groups to attack state institutions, or they can generate new grievances from heightened resource scarcity.

But an array of studies dispute these findings. Back in the 1960s, sociologist Charles Fritz suggested that disasters often alter social relations and help to mitigate pre-existing cleavages within communities. If securitization requires the existence of an “other” against which people can organize, the disaster itself may take that role, leading to the development of a  “common community of sufferers,” that promotes social cohesion and cooperation.

Ilan Kelman has further suggested that this ameliorative effect can take place at both intra and interstate levels, leading to “disaster diplomacy.” He has cataloged dozens of examples of disaster diplomacy, ranging from earthquakes in Greece and Turkey (PDF) to the aftermath of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami (paywall) in Aceh. Overall, the preponderance of evidence suggests that disasters do not inherently precipitate violence.

So can disasters lead to conflict?

Disasters, on their own, are highly unlikely to cause conflict. But the politics of the disaster response, or the lack thereof, is a different story. Think of Hurricane Katrina; it wasn’t the storm itself that caused so much outrage and discord, but the massive failure of the Bush administration to respond adequately to the needs of survivors.

Weak governments that are poorly equipped and lack sufficient international support are unlikely to respond effectively to disasters. This outcome could potentially anger survivors and provide them with incentives to take up arms, perhaps in an attempt to seize additional resources. But the real problem emerges when governments intentionally divert relief aid for their own gain or to serve their own political ends.

On December 23, 1972, a devastating earthquake rattled Managua, the capital of Nicaragua. The quake destroyed three-quarters of the city’s housing stock and killed at least 11,000 Nicaraguans as they slept. Strongman Anastasio Somoza immediately began to abuse his power to take advantage of the catastrophe. According to a 2010 Miami Herald article,

Somoza began directing reconstruction efforts from a family estate on the outskirts of Managua. Cabinet ministers, businessmen, foreign officials and international relief bosses — many of them addressing Somoza as “Mr. President” — trooped in and out all day long. It was Somoza with whom foreign diplomats negotiated aid packages; it was Somoza who decided Managua would be rebuilt.

While later independent investigations cast some doubt upon the scale and significance of the profiteering, it left an indelible mark upon Nicaraguans. As evidence of the corruption mounted, event the conservative Catholic Church turned on the regime. These events contributed to a resurgence of the Sandanista movement, which formally took up arms three years later.

managua earthquake damage

An aerial image of the damage to Managua following the devastating 1972 earthquake (courtesy of the US Geological Survey).

Evidence suggests that inadequate and/or politically motivated disaster responses may have fed into subsequent conflict in Bangladesh (following the 1970 Bhola cyclone), Guatemala (after the 1976 Guatemala earthquake), and Sri Lanka (after the Indian Ocean tsunami).

How else might disasters spawn conflict?

When conflict occurs in the wake of disasters, it is not always an unintended and unforeseen consequence. In fact, according to Travis Nelson, it can actually be a survival tactic (paywall) employed by weak states. Nelson suggested that weak leaders may be more likely to launch small, diversionary conflicts in order to distract from inadequate disaster responses and generate nationalistic solidarity.

In July 1959, severe flooding occurred along the Yellow River, killing approximately two million Chinese. The disaster occurred at a time when the Maoist regime was weak and dealing with several crises, including the catastrophic Great Leap Forward. In the midst of these crises, the regime was unprepared for the floods, and Chinese elites began openly to question Mao’s rule. In response, the regime launched a series of border skirmishes with India, which eventually fed into the 1962 Sino-Indian War. The war aroused nationalist fervor and distracted from other challenges.

But do disasters really cause conflict?

In a word, maybe. But now we’re wading into a difficult and highly complex area that deals with endogeneity. In statistical modeling, a variable is said to be endogenous when it can be affected by other variables within the model. In other words, we cannot truly isolate the variable from the effects of others, making it difficult to determine whether or not its effects are mitigated by other factors.

As I’ve written before and will continue to say until I’m blue in the face, there’s no such thing as a natural disaster. Disaster events are inherently shaped and controlled by the extant political, economic, and social environments. As a result, disasters do not occur in a vacuum, and we can’t treat them as such. So even if it seems likely that a disaster helped cause a conflict, it would be difficult to say that it was an exogenous effect, as its effects would likely be influenced by existing political and social dynamics.

While it’s true that the 1972 Guatemala earthquake helped reignite civil war (paywall), as it seems to be, it’s also true that the vulnerability of Mayan peasants to the earthquake’s effects was dictated by structural inequalities and existing violent conflict. So can we really say that the quake caused the subsequent return to war? Yes. No. Maybe. Honestly, it depends on how you define “cause.”

Did climate change cause Syria’s civil war then?

Keith Kloor hammered this point home in his recent post on the question of whether Syria’s drought caused its brutal civil war. Kloor takes Tom Friedman to task for suggesting that the Assad regime’s response to the drought helped fuel the war but failing to acknowledge that the regime’s actions also helped facilitate the drought. He quotes, at length, from an article last year where authors Jeannie Sowers and John Waterbury argue,

When terms such as ‘stressor’ or ‘threat multiplier’ are applied to drought, shifting rainfall patterns, floods, and other environmental events in the Middle East, they often obscure rather than illuminate the causes of uprisings and political change. There is perhaps no better illustration of this dynamic than Syria, where a closer examination shows that government policy helped construct vulnerability to the effects of the drought during the 2000s. State policies regarding economic development, political control in rural areas, and water management determined how drought impacted the population and how the population, in turn, responded.

So yes, the regime’s response to the drought – which may have been driven by climate change – helped incite the rebellion. But the regime’s policies also helped drive the drought in the first place. So did the drought and – by extension – climate change cause the rebellion? Yes. No. Maybe. It depends on how you define “cause.”

So will climate change really be different then?

Probably. In a 1987 article, Beverley Cuthbertson and Joanne Nigg consider under what circumstances a disaster may produce discord among survivors (paywall), which they term a “nontherapeutic community.” They find that, unlike with geological and weather disasters, victims do not see manmade disasters, like chemical spills, as natural. Accordingly, survivors often disagree as to whether a disaster has actually occurred and who is accountable. These disagreements can lead to the emergence of “victim clusters,” elevating tensions. In extreme circumstances, this could potentially lead to violence.

Given the fact that climate change is unequivocally manmade and that it has increasingly been linked to disasters, like droughts and heatwaves, it’s possible that climate-related disasters could be different. Disaster survivors could point to climate change’s fingerprints in the events that damage their livelihoods and use it as a call to take up arms. It seems unlikely, but it’s hard to be sure. Clearly, manmade climate change is different than anything we have dealt with in the past, and it is likely to change our calculus on these issues.

We may be able to say, to this point, that disasters probably don’t directly cause conflict, but as my grad school professor Ken Conca always says, you should be careful about driving forward by looking through the rear view mirror.

Why peace & international engagement may threaten Burma’s fragile ecosystems

cyclone nargis damage
cyclone nargis damage

Damage to the Irrawaddy Delta following Cyclone Nargis (courtesy of ECHO).

This article is cross-posted from New Security Beat.

Political and economic changes in Burma have been as rapid as they are surprising. In just three years, the country has gone from an isolated military dictatorship to a largely open country that is at least semi-democratic and has formally adopted a market economy. Both the European Union and the United States have eased economic sanctions, and dozens of foreign firms have moved in. Foreign direct investment increased by 160 percent in 2013 alone.

But the transition to an open and free state is far from finished and continued progress far from inevitable, as the country’s tattered ecosystems show.

Conflict and conservation

Nearly from the moment of its birth as a country, Burma has been beset by violence. Since 1948, the government has faced armed rebellions from no fewer than 30 ethnic minority groups. This constant warfare directly contributed to the military coup in 1962 and has helped drive corruption, structural violence, and economic stagnation.

Yet, counterintuitively, peace can sometimes end up being worse for the environment than war. According to Jeff McNeely, warfare among pre-industrial societies has historically led to the development of large buffer zones along borders; these buffer zones, in turn, developed into refuges for biodiversity. Modern warfare can likewise foster the development of such buffer zones, benefiting biodiversity and environmental conservation, though McNeely emphasizes that any such benefits are “incidental, inadvertent, or accidental.”

Cold War-era isolation has facilitated the development of modern refuges along the border between the Koreas and in the area surrounding the former Iron Curtain. But such havens may come under threat once the fog of war lifts. Judy Oglethorpe et al. note the environment is particularly at risk in the period immediately following conflict. Private actors move in to quickly exploit newly available resources, and post-conflict governments frequently prioritize revenues over long-term natural resource management.

One need look no further than the mid-1990s see this effect in Burma. Following the country’s second military coup in 1988, the junta began buying off the leaders of armed ethnic groups with resource revenues. In particular, the regime effectively used logging concessions to secure a number of ceasefire agreements.

However, according to Karen Ballentine and Heiko Nitzschke, “securing such ceasefires through a combination of economic inducement and military threat does not guarantee a sustainable or just peace, particularly where, as in Burma, the entrepreneurs of violence and corruption are rewarded at the expense of civilian well-being.” On the contrary, conflict economies in these areas simply morphed into “ceasefire economies,” and illegal logging flourished. After the junta reached a ceasefire with the Kachin Independence Army in 1994, for instance, the center of Burma’s illegal timber trade shifted to their former area of operations, along the northeast border with China.

Inequality and vulnerability

The risk of environmental damage from Burma’s modernization is not some looming threat; it is already unfolding. Current laws allow the government to seize land and distribute it to private actors without adequate compensation or informed consent. Such policies have contributed to a spike in large-scale land acquisitions or “land grabs,” with nearly 750 cases being reported in 2012-2013 alone.

Moreover, despite government attempts to curtail illegal timber exports, they have been on the rise. Burmese businesses exported more than 400,000 cubic meters of teak in 2013, double the government’s quota. The government continues to allow a handful of well-connected companies to dominate the timber industry, to the detriment of the country’s remaining forest cover – and more equitable development.

“Forestland conversion is predominately in resource-rich ethnic conflict areas – now the country’s final forest frontier – which is part of the government’s attempt at gaining greater state territorial control and access to natural resources,” wrote Forest Trends’ Kevin Woods in a report:

Many of these forestland conversion projects are promoted to local ethnic communities and elected officials as development projects to bring about peace and spur economic growth. In practice, however, these development projects have more to do with the well-connected Myanmar private company getting access to timber and land than central government and local state development goals.

Given these developments, Edward Webb et al. concluded in a January Global Environmental Change article that “recent policy developments seem poised to deeply and negatively affect remaining natural ecosystems across Myanmar.” They project that all remaining mangrove forests in the Irrawaddy Delta, one of Burma’s most densely populated regions, could disappear as early as 2019. Such an outcome would pose an existential threat to the more than 7.7 million people who live there, given the Delta’s extreme vulnerability to tropical cyclones.

After Cyclone Nargis killed more than 138,000 people in 2008, the UN Environment Program noted the loss of the mangroves and other environmental degradation played a key role in the devastation:

The cyclone’s impacts were exacerbated by earlier damage to the environment, including deforestation and degradation of mangroves, over-exploitation of natural resources such as fisheries, and soil erosion…The deterioration of the natural resource base, in effect, reduced people’s resilience against the impacts of Nargis.

Multilateral engagement could help

Peace and international engagement obviously do not doom a country to ecological catastrophe. But as it opens up, Burma is at a crossroads for environmental management the results of which will reverberate for security and development long into the future.

Engagement with environmental NGOs and international donor organizations may help. President Thein Sein has already expressed a desire to join both the European Union’s Forest Law Enforcement, Governance, and Trade Program and the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative. Additionally, the World Conservation Society is working with the government to double the extent of protected areas in the country from 5 percent to 10 percent. These are promising signs, but the scale of the illicit timber trade, the threat of land grabbing, and the vulnerability of the Irrawaddy Delta remain huge challenges.

Recent changes represent important, positive steps towards engagement from isolation and towards peace from war. But the country needs to be proactive if it hopes to foster sustainable peace and development. If it works carefully in concert with the international community, it may be able to secure both. However, if Burma fails to learn from the failed ceasefires of the 1990s, by opting to prioritize rapid economic growth over true sustainable development, it may be doomed to repeat the past.

Ohio lawmaker compares clean energy to the Bataan death march

Senator Bill Seitz
Senator Bill Seitz

Ohio State Senator Bill Seitz of Cincinnati (courtesy of The Columbus Dispatch)

When the Ohio GOP leadership introduced SB 310 last month, they intentionally tried to sideline Senator Bill Seitz (R-Cincinnati) from the process. We know that Sen. Seitz has a tendency to put his foot in his mouth. He has previously likened the clean energy standards to “Joseph Stalin’s five-year plan,” and he routinely labels his opponents as “enviro-socialist rent-seekers.” But this time he outdid even himself.

Last Wednesday, April 9, Sen. Seitz turned a Senate Public Utilities Committee hearing on SB 310 into a three-ring circus. First, during the middle of testimony from Aaron Jewell, a US Army veteran who fought in Iraq, Sen. Seitz reportedly got up, pulled out a pack of cigarettes, and walked out of the room to take a smoke break.

He came back into the session halfway through the testimony of Dan Sawmiller, a Senior Campaign Representative for the Ohio Beyond Coal Campaign with the Sierra Club. Mr. Sawmiller also served with the Ohio National Guard from 2000-2008, during which time he worked as a combat engineer in Iraq.

Mr. Sawmiller served with 485 other guardsmen and women to clear some of the most dangerous parts of Baghdad of improvised explosive devices, in order to make way for the movement of additional troops and supplies. At least one of his fellow servicemen did not make it home.

During his testimony, he detailed the work he did in Iraq. “I explained how my combat experiences drove my passion to work on energy efficiency and national security issues,” he said. “This drove me to work with the Sierra Club.”

But rather than showing respect and gratitude for his service and simply debating the facts of the clean energy law, Mr. Sawmiller explained that Sen. Seitz made outlandish comments that are offensive to those who have served in our military.

“The Senator referred to the current law as being on the Bataan death march for clean energy,'” he explained. “The more I think about what was said, the more offended I get as a combat veteran.”

Let that sink in for a minute. According to an elected representative of the people of Ohio, a policy that has lowered electricity bills, stimulated economic growth, reduced greenhouse gas emissions, and helped spark a clean energy sector that employs more than 25,000 people is on par with an internationally recognized war crime that killed 10,000 American and Filipino soldiers. Not only is such a statement utterly absurd, it insults the memory of the men who died (and those who survived) either on that march from Bataan or in the nightmarish prison camps that followed.

Did I mention that April 9 marked the 72nd anniversary of the surrender at the Bataan Peninsula and the first day of this horrific six-day march.

While Sen. Seitz may dismiss the connection, there is a reason why the United States military has invested hundreds of millions of dollars into renewable energy and energy efficiency – it saves money and, more importantly, lives.

Fossil fuel boosters love to claim that hydraulic fracturing will allow the US to drill its way to energy independence. But, as Brad Plumer explains,

Even if, one day, the United States produces enough oil to satisfy its own needs, it still won’t be entirely “independent” from the rest of the world. That is, the US economy will still be vulnerable to supply shortages or turmoil in the Middle East (for instance). There’s a reason for that. Oil is relatively easy to trade on the global markets.

Because oil is fungible international commodity, the US military will continue to maintain a vital interest in it. In a 2010 article, Roger J. Stern estimated that the US spent at least $6.8 trillion to secure oil reserves from 1976-2007. He calculated that the military costs of securing oil supplies from the Persian Gulf “exceeds the value of Gulf petroleum exports in all years except 1990 and the value of US petroleum imports from the region by roughly an order of magnitude.”

In other words, the US government is spending substantially more money to secure Middle Eastern oil reserves than the oil itself is worth. Stern concluded that, rather than trying to increase the supply of oil, we should curb demand by investing in energy efficiency, as this strategy “would address the core problem.”

Our reliance on fossil fuels has a direct impact upon the performance and flexibility of the armed forces. At least 70% of all tonnage on the battlefield is fuel, leaving the military highly vulnerable to energy market volatility. According to the Department of Defense, the military spent $13.2 billion on fuel for its operations in 2010. Due to the difficulty of delivering fuel to forward operating bases, fuel costs can often exceed $400 per gallon.

This dependence on fossil fuels also creates operational challenges. Infantry soldiers in Afghanistan carry 26 pounds of batteries on missions to power their equipment. This weight hinders their mobility and increases the physical strain on their bodies. That’s why Tremont Electric, a Cleveland-based clean energy company, is working with military contractors to integrate their kinetic energy device, the nPower Peg, into body armor.

And just as Napoleon once said that an army marches on its stomach, today’s military runs on its fuel and water convoys. These convoys are highly vulnerable, however, and became a favorite target for militants in Afghanistan and Iraq. The DoD reports that at least 3,000 US soldiers and military contractors were wounded or killed in raids on such convoys from 2003-2007. This breaks down to roughly one casualty for every 24 convoy trips.

Veterans like Dan Sawmiller and Aaron Jewell are well aware of this intimate connection between energy security and national security, as they saw it every day on the streets of Baghdad. But Sen. Seitz has chosen to demean their service and ignore their voices, because he serves the interests of ALEC and its funders in the fossil fuel industry.

“Clean energy has proven to be a great deal for Ohio’s homeowners and businesses,” Mr. Sawmiller said. In a letter sent yesterday to Senate President Keith Faber (R-Celina), he called on the GOP leadership “to demand respect for the sacrifices that Ohio’s soldiers have made for generations” asking for a more dignified way to debate legislation.

If you are also tired of the Bill Seitz’s continued insults and bloviating, take a stand. Call Sen. Seitz’s office at (614) 466-8068 or send him an email demanding that he apologize to our veterans and stop his mindless attacks on Ohio’s clean energy standards.

How oil will make Syria’s civil war even deadlier

syrian oil field worker
syrian oil field worker

Many Syrians now work in the oil fields of Deir el Zour in order to make a living (courtesy of McClatchy).

The New York Times published an article yesterday that likely raised some eyebrows.

Islamist rebels and extremist groups have seized control of most of Syria’s oil and gas resources, a rare generator of cash in the country’s war-battered economy, and are now using the proceeds to underwrite their fights against one another as well as President Bashar al-Assad, American officials say.

While the oil and gas fields are in serious decline, control of them has bolstered the fortunes of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, and the Nusra Front, both of which are offshoots of Al Qaeda. The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria is even selling fuel to the Assad government, lending weight to allegations by opposition leaders that it is secretly working with Damascus to weaken the other rebel groups and discourage international support for their cause.

Needless to say, this is a disconcerting series of events. But the fact that does not make it surprising.

To date, there has been a lot of ink spilled on how natural resources and/or climate change may have contributed to the ongoing civil war. The Center for Climate and Security, probably the best source of information on this subject, has assembled a collection of  more than three dozen such articles. There appears to be a solid case that the combination of an historic drought (likely driven by climate change) and incredibly poor water resource management by the al-Assad regime may have helped sparked the crisis. (It would obviously be excessively reductive and deterministic to claim that climate change caused the conflict, but it likely contributed to it. Anyways, I digress.)

But helping drive the onset of violent conflict constitutes just one of the three major ways that we know natural resources contribute to conflict. Natural resources can help finance ongoing conflict and create incentives for leaders to spoil peace efforts in order to continue profiting from resource rents.

These two connections appear to be quite common facets of modern conflict. We know, for instance, that Charles Taylor funded violence in Liberia by exploiting the illegal timber trade and that both parties in the Angolan civil war financed their war efforts by selling diamonds. Moreover, the ready availability of revenues from opium production in Afghanistan and diamonds in Sierra Leone have provided incentives for warlords and rebel leaders to avoid brokering peace and to finance resumed conflict.

nr wars

This chart lists 18 recent civil conflicts which involved natural resources (courtesy of UNEP).

In fact, according to the UN Environment Programme, natural resources have helped to fuel some 40% of all civil conflicts since 1960. Given these realities, it is wholly unsurprising – though no less disconcerting – that rebel groups like ISIS and the Nusra Front have turned to oil reserves in the areas under their control.

There was one new and disturbing piece of information buried in the article, though.

A second American official said that while Mr. Assad’s government is growing ever more desperate for oil, [ISIS] is becoming increasingly independent of wealthy donors in the Persian Gulf and other funding sources. As the group has gained control of more territory, it has been able to sustain its operations through a combination of oil revenues, border tolls, extortion and granary sales, the official said.

As ISIS continues to stuff its war chest with oil rents, it no longer depends as heavily upon its Persian Gulf benefactors. This outcome risks to further exacerbate the brutal nature of the conflict, as ISIS finds itself free of any restrictions that may have previously been attached to its funding (granted, it’s unlikely that these groups would be concerned about the dictates of donors, but they may have, at least, had to deal with practical restrictions due to a lack of resources).

Beardsley & McQuinn previously explored the relationship between rebel group behavior and funding sources (paywall). They compared two rebel groups – the Free Aceh Movement (GAM) in Indonesia and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in Sri Lanka.

They found that GAM had to rely heavily upon the local population to raise revenues and recruit fighters. This process required GAM to expend a considerable amount of effort and resources; Beardsley & McQuinn note that the relatively meager funds it raised and small number of fighters in its ranks meant that GAM used low return on investment (ROI) methods to finance its rebellion. Accordingly, the group needed to remain attentive to the needs of the Acehnese people, which drove its leaders to the bargaining table after the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami devastated the region.

LTTE, in contrast, was able to procure funding and recruits much more readily. The group financed its war effort through a combination of extorting payments, controlling business enterprises, and garnering donations from Tamils abroad. These tactics had a much higher ROI and did not require LTTE to consider the needs of the people in conflict-affected areas. As a result, the group was much more willing to engage in violent attacks that either directly harmed Tamils or that garnered retribution on Tamils in return. Additionally, the group saw little incentive in brokering peace after the tsunami, as it had more to gain from ongoing conflict than from international aid flows. The Sri Lankan civil war only ended in 2009 after Colombo brutally suppressed LTTE controlled areas.

So while it should come as no surprise that Syrian rebels, including al Qaeda-linked groups, would turn to oil resources for funding, it should raise red flags. The Syrian civil war isn’t going to end anytime soon, regardless of what happens in Geneva, and this new report suggests that things are only going to get much, much worse long before they improve.