People often cite natural events as the possible consequences of climate change. "Sea levels will rise X number of inches” or, “Storms and droughts will become more intense, causing crop failures.” Things of this nature are often cited — to the detriment of another side of the argument. These events don’t necessarily mean much to the average person; the average person doesn’t know the social and political ramifications of any of these environmental changes.
Arguably the biggest concern is the massive refugee crisis that is likely to occur following major sea-level rise. According to the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP), over half of the world’s population lives within 60 miles of the coast (1) and three-quarters of major cities are on the coast. Sea level rise will be especially devastating in low-lying areas like Southeast Asia. In Bangladesh, 2000 people per day are moving to the capital city of Dhaka (2).
As the situation becomes more and more dire, this refugee crisis will become worse and worse. For example, the refugee crisis in Europe was triggered by the Syrian Civil War, which was partly caused by a prolonged drought. The drought caused famine and economic depression in the rural areas, forcing people to migrate to the cities. This led to further economic strain and, as they say, “the rest is history”.
If we can learn anything from this recent refugee crisis, it is that mass migration can lead to political instability and threaten national security. A huge exodus of people from the Middle East is quite likely, given the fact that this already unbearably harsh environment will become even worse. According to researchers at the Max Planck Institute and the Cyprus Institute estimate that “temperatures in the Middle East and North Africa will reach up to 114 degrees Fahrenheit five times more often than they have in the past” (3). This is in a place already plagued by heat, dust storms, and drought. The people in this region have been in fierce conflicts with one another for the better part of a century, and the increased strain of climate change will likely make this even worse.
There is also a second angle to Middle Eastern political instability; the region is a hotbed of anti-western views. Unfortunately, a staggering majority of greenhouse gas emissions are a result of Western capitalism and consumerism. Roughly 16% of global CO2 emissions come from the United States, a nation with roughly 3% of the world’s population (4). Being able to draw such a direct line from our lifestyle to their suffering will be an excellent recruiting tool for extremist organizations such as ISIS and Al-Qaeda.
A similar trend is visible on the horizon in Asia. The American-Chinese geopolitical rivalry will only increase as these effects become known. Many of our allies in the region may face a heavy-handed Chinese response to refugees across their border or political unrest in neighboring countries. Our obligations to these countries and our desire to oppose China could potentially draw us into open conflict.
Things look only slightly better on the home front. While the northern hemisphere will likely be less affected by the natural and environmental effects, such as sea-level rise and more severe storms, we are still potentially in danger of the other consequences enumerated in this article. For example, South and Central America are subject to more severe storms and sea-level rise. Much like southeast Asia and the Middle East, those affected will seek to migrate north in order to escape the worst of it. Given the already poor record the U.S. has of embracing immigrants from south of the border, mass-migration could likely lead to civil unrest and violence.
In addition, crop failures elsewhere in the world will make fresh food and produce much more expensive due to the forces of supply and demand. This will exacerbate inequality and create a society of ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots.’ Those on the top will still have access to the luxuries of the ‘old world’ while the rest of the world is left to eat their scraps.
This increased inequality at a time when people are expecting things to get better would likely lead to revolution. Robert K. Merton first created “Relative Deprivation Theory” in the mid-20th Century. It states that revolution and uprisings don’t occur when things are going bad, but rather when things cease getting better. The deprivation felt by those involved is relative to their expectations, rather than their absolute position. As people in America are no longer able to satisfy our consumerist nature and buy whatever food whenever they want, they will feel this deprivation.
So as it stands now, the situation looks pretty grim; however, it is not completely hopeless. Businesses and world leaders are waking up to the reality that it is fiscally responsible to deal with this issue before it gets out of hand. For example, the U.S. has been rapidly expanding its use of solar energy as the price decreases and efficiency increases. Twice in the past two years, Costa Rica has powered itself on 100% renewable energy for more than two months straight (5). Most importantly, however, 194 nations signed the Paris Climate Accords in December of last year, pledging to rein in greenhouse gas emissions and keep global warming under 2 degrees Celsius.
Thankfully, there is an international effort building to address the situation, but it is very fragile and in very immediate danger. On November 8th, the U.S. made the worst possible decision with regards to climate action. President-elect Donald Trump has repeatedly stated, “climate change is a hoax invented by the Chinese to make American businesses less competitive”. The fact that there is no evidence to support his claim obviously doesn’t matter to someone that has demonstrated a disdain for truth and facts and surrounded themselves with like-minded sycophants.
His recent pick for the Secretary of Energy, Rick Perry, has investments in the controversial Dakota Access Pipeline and infamously forgot what the Department of Energy (DOE) even was or did. Rex Tillerson, the new Secretary of State, is the CEO of ExxonMobil, the world’s largest oil company. And last but not least, Scott Pruitt, the new head of the Environmental Protection Agency, doesn’t believe in climate change either and believes the EPA itself should be dismantled. Trump’s cabinet picks have shown a clear disregard for the long-term well-being of the planet in favor of the short-term well-being of their bank accounts.
One glimmer of hope is that there is a building movement both at home and abroad to stop this madness. Businesses and private individuals, such as Elon Musk and Bill Gates, are spearheading the technological revolution that is needed to transform our economy. In addition, changing demographics in the new generation are leaning towards more environmental action. Majors related to environmental science are becoming more and more popular, including the relatively new field of environmental economics. If we get active and mobile we can take charge and show the world that Americans do care about these issues and are capable of living out or claim to be a beacon of hope and justice.
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1. "Urban Environment Unit , UNEP." Urban Environment Unit , UNEP. N.p., n.d. Web. 16 Dec. 2016.
2. McPherson, Poppy. "Dhaka: The City Where Climate Refugees Are Already a Reality." Resilient Cities. Guardian News and Media, 01 Dec. 2015. Web. 16 Dec. 2016.
3. "Climate-exodus Expected in Middle East." Phys.org. N.p., 2 May 2016. Web. 16 Dec. 2016.