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Climate Change Has Already Caused A Genocide
This is why I call it a self-made apocalypse.
Hamas’s attack on Israel and Israel’s recent reaction against Palestine has put genocide back in the mainstream. Whether it is pro-Israelis drawing attention to the horrors of the holocaust to legitimise Israel’s actions or pro-Palestinians pointing to the effective ethnic cleansing currently happening in Gaza, which many experts characterise as genocide, both sides can firmly agree on one thing: Genocide is one of the most heinous crimes we humans can commit. With such atrocities dominating the news, other vital issues are being utterly drowned out, such as the upcoming COP28 summit, which stands as our last diplomatic chance to halt climate change before it’s too late. If you listen to some voices on the fringes of the climate debate, such as my fellow Substack writer Michael D. Shellenberger, climate change won’t be a global catastrophe, and the risks are simply overhyped. But, this is demonstrably false, as the tiny amount of climate change we have felt so far has already kickstarted a brutal genocide which killed hundreds of thousands. Moreover, our current global geopolitics are ripe for such a humanitarian disaster to happen again. So, if you care at all about what is happening in the Middle East, this is why you should also profoundly care about climate change.
This horror started with a climate phenomenon known as desertification. Deserts are extremely sensitive to climate change, as minute changes in weather patterns and precipitation can make them rapidly shrink or grow. By the late 90s, the tiny amount of global warming we had already created was enough to shift many precipitation patterns worldwide, making many deserts expand. This changed many vital arable lands, on which countless subsistence farmers and nomads depended, to morph into inhospitable wastelands. These communities had two choices: stay and starve to death or migrate to better pastures.
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In some locations, communities could cope with desertification. If the people migrating are homogeneous with those already living in the more productive lands, they are happy to collaborate, share resources, and fight the climate danger together. But, in many locations, these two populations held vastly different cultures, nationalities and ethnic groups, setting the perfect storm for extremist views and genocide.
By the early naughties, such a perfect storm had settled over Darfur.
Darfur is a region in northwest Sudan. The north of it borders the Sahara, home to a predominantly Arab ethnic population of nomadic pastoralists. The region’s south has a more semi-tropical climate with much higher rainfall and is home to a predominantly ethno-African population of smallholder agriculturalists.
Over the late nineties and early naughties, the northern part of Darfur experienced extreme desertification as the Sahara sprawled southward. Later studies have found this was closely tied to man-made climate change and simply wouldn’t have happened without it. When I say extreme, I mean it. The Sahara moved southward at a rate of a mile a year and decreased the already minimal annual rainfall by up to 30%.
The Arab nomadic pastoralists simply couldn’t survive in this new climate and started to migrate southwards, encroaching on the ethno-African population of smallholder agriculturalists. These two ways of persisting off the land’s resources vastly differ in practice and culture. Nomadic pastoralists don’t tend to recognise property rights and see land as for the common good. Meanwhile, the more sedentary smallholder agriculturalists rely on property rights to ensure their crops go to feed themselves. What’s more, the two groups have high racial tensions between them.
These vast cultural differences and inherent racism combined with diminishing resources culminated in a genocide that started in 2003 and ended in 2008. During this period, 300,000 civilians died, and about 2.7 million more were displaced. Though, in many ways, this conflict is still going on.
As with many genocides, this conflict was complex, but I will try to summarise it without oversimplifying it. As the nomadic pastoralists moved southwards, they encroached on the smallholder agriculturalists’ land. They cut down trees and destroyed crops to feed their herds. This directly threatened the smallholder agriculturalists’ survival by taking away their food security, and they resisted this by setting up rebel groups to defend themselves. The Sudanese government, which is predominantly of Arab descent, and an Arab militia called the Janjaweed cracked down against these rebel groups and the smallholder agriculturalists they represented.
From 2003 to 2005, the Sudanese government forces and the Janjaweed engaged in a scorched earth campaign in Darfur. They depopulated land inhabited by the ethno-African smallholder agriculturalists through forced displacement and brutally violent attacks on civilians. Refugees fleeing the catastrophe were targets of further violence by the government and Janjaweed forces, and numerous villages were looted, not only for personal belongings but also for relief supplies. There were even widespread reports of horrific rapes. This was widely condemned as a genocide by the US, UN and HRW.
Sadly, we don’t know how many died during this period. Current estimates hover around 300,000, but some go as high as 500,000. Needless to say, the dehumanisation, death and destruction were on a scale that we cannot fathom. In many ways, this conflict is ongoing and was a precursor to the splitting of Sudan into Sudan and South Sudan and the current conflicts ongoing in the region.
This is how climate change played a significant role in kickstarting a genocide. What’s worse, it could happen again.
Many regions across the world at risk of desertification share the same climate, geological, cultural and ethnic divisions we saw in Darfur. This includes other areas of Africa, South America, North America, Eastern Europe, the Middle East, and several parts of Asia. Some of these places have a relatively homogeneous and cooperative population (such as the American Midwest) and, therefore, will likely only have to contend with shrinking resources impacting their economy and ecology. However, plenty of others, such as Africa, South America, the Middle East, Eastern Europe and Asia, have deeply divided ethnic and cultural groups within areas at high risk of desertification. As resources contract, tensions will rise, and the risk of genocide will increase.
What’s worse, many governments worldwide in developing and developed nations are leaning increasingly towards extreme right-wing stances. Needless to say, such governments have a structure and ideology that makes genocide possible. They enforce an “us vs them” mentality to strengthen their political power and often use marginalised groups, especially those in need, as scapegoats.
As such, don’t be too surprised if climate change-induced migration causes yet more genocidal tendencies, or flat-out genocides, in even developed countries this century.
This is why I call climate change a self-made apocalypse. Yet, I have only shown the tip of the iceberg here. I haven’t talked about the fact that the literal billions of refugees climate change will create over the next few decades will be a more significant refugee crisis than WWII. I haven’t discussed the knock-on effects of ecological decline, such as decreased food and water security or increased pandemic risks. I haven’t talked about extreme weather damage killing hundreds of thousands and crippling economic damage worldwide. I haven’t even talked about the fact that our heavily leveraged financial institutions have lent the vast majority of their money to businesses and individuals who depend on a healthy ecosystem to service those loans, meaning climate change could trigger a financial crash that would dwarf 2008 or the great depression.
So, when someone says, “Climate change isn’t that big of an issue”, you now know how ill-informed and misguided they really are. Climate change is already a disastrous force in the world, and it will get exponentially worse from here.
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