Barrie Dunsmore: Climate change and the political landscape

Editor’s note: This commentary by retired ABC News diplomatic correspondent Barrie Dunsmore first aired on Vermont Public Radio.  All his columns can be found on his website, www.barriedunsmore.com.

We don’t really need United Nations climate experts to warn us. If we merely look around America, we see polar vortexes in the Deep South, record droughts in the South and West that starve crops and feed forest fires, excessive tornados churning through the country’s midsection and once rare powerful hurricanes and blizzards plowing up the Atlantic Coast seemingly every weekend. We know instinctively that our weather is profoundly changing — and yet far too many of us are seemingly oblivious or resigned to nature’s warnings. What will it take to shatter this indifference?

What if I were to tell you that what set off the current civil war in Syria, in which 150,000 people have been killed and millions made refugees — was not initially a dispute over democracy — or dictatorship — or religion?

It was ignited by climate change. That was the conclusion in a lengthy report titled “Understanding Syria,” published last year in the Atlantic. The author is William Polk, one of America’s true renaissance men — diplomat, academic, adventurer and Middle East specialist for more than half a century. I wrote about his analysis at the time, but in view of the latest U.N. global climate update, it’s very much worth revisiting.

• Four years of devastating drought from 2006 to 2011 turned Syria into a land like the American Dust Bowl of the 1930s. It was the worst drought ever recorded in Syria.

• Over a decade, extreme weather patterns dramatically reduced the arable land, the water and the crops needed to support a rapidly increasing population.

• Those years of drought and dust storms caused 800,000 farmers to lose their livelihood and a quarter of them simply gave up their land. Crop failures reached 75 percent. As much as 85 percent of livestock died.

Climate change, if left unchecked, will eventually lead to water and food shortages on a global scale that will threaten the very survival of millions of people.

 

Having set the scene, historian Polk then described what happened next. Tens of thousands of frightened, angry, hungry and impoverished former farmers jammed into Syria’s towns and cities, where they constituted tinder ready to catch fire.

The spark was set on March 15, 2011, when a relatively small group gathered in the town of Daraa to protest against government failure to help them. Instead of meeting with the protesters and hearing their complaints, the government saw them as subversives. President Bashar Assad ordered a military crackdown which backfired — and riots soon broke out all over the country. What had begun as a food and water issue, had turned into a political and religious death struggle.

That brief summary is a classic case study of how climate change can provoke violent breakdowns in civil order — and in Syria’s case become a full scale civil war. Syria is an early omen. Climate change, if left unchecked, will eventually lead to water and food shortages on a global scale that will threaten the very survival of millions of people. It’s an open question if any political system will be able to contain the kinds of anarchy that could be unleashed by such a human catastrophe.

Leave a Reply

30 Comments on "Barrie Dunsmore: Climate change and the political landscape"

Comment Policy

VTDigger.org requires that all commenters identify themselves by their authentic first and last names. Initials, pseudonyms or screen names are not permissible.

No personal harassment, abuse, or hate speech is permitted. Be succinct and to the point. If your comment is over 500 words, consider sending a commentary instead.

We personally review and moderate every comment that is posted here. This takes a lot of time; please consider donating to keep the conversation productive and informative.

The purpose of this policy is to encourage a civil discourse among readers who are willing to stand behind their identities and their comments. VTDigger has created a safe zone for readers who wish to engage in a thoughtful discussion on a range of subjects. We hope you join the conversation.

Privacy policy
Sort by:   newest | oldest | most voted
George Plumb
1 year 10 months ago

Thanks Barrie for connecting the dots on climate change, over population, and conflict. You are right that, “Climate change, if left unchecked, will eventually lead to water and food shortages on a global scale that will threaten the very survival of millions of people.” Actually, it will likely not just be millions but hundreds of millions. Unfortunately it will be the poorer nations that will first suffer the most. Because the 1% are largely climate deniers and they prevent the political actions that we need the only thing left at this point is for us as individuals to get off… Read more »

Joseph Gainza
1 year 10 months ago

Thank you Barrie for highlighting one of the least understood facts about climate change: it has social, political and economic implications which we ignore at our peril. As you point out, the 1% are mainly climate change deniers. Of course they would be as one of the essential changes which must be made if we are to survive climate change is a leveling of the wealth gap so that the poorest have the means for survival and the wealthiest cannot manipulate the political process to benefit only them. Climate activists must align with economic justice activists to provide straight talk… Read more »

Rebecca Jones MD
1 year 10 months ago

Absolutely right Barrie, you lay out the reasons climate change has to be approached as a human rights issue. As such, there is the potential we can motivate people to rise up and address it because it is the right thing to do, and not wait til it is literally burning down their own door. All of the great movements the country and the world have seen, have occurred because enough people simply cannot live with themselves anymore without standing up for what is right.

Steve Comeau
1 year 10 months ago

Rebecca, The die is cast on climate change. With about 400 ppm of CO2 in the atmosphere and no ability of any government or individuals to reduce the current emissions quickly, it is a done deal. If people were to “rise up” as you say what should they do? What should they ask for? Here in the Vermont and the rest of the United States large scale energy use is embedded into everything we do. It is part of the social fabric. It is very hard to change. Just as you say climate change is a human rights issue, I… Read more »

Kathy Nelson
1 year 10 months ago

Thanks for an interesting take on the Syrian conflict, Mr. Dunsmore, but I think there was more going on there than just drought. Two men chose to comment, George and Joseph, about the “1% climate change deniers” as though some artificial label was the source of the problem. Who do you suppose this 1% could be? Is this another Koch Brothers conspiracy theory? Or are we forgetting the religious fanaticism and power grabs perpetrated mostly by men? Sure, women, end up fighting in wars, that men start, and they do a lot of the dying. Do women wage war when… Read more »

George Plumb
1 year 10 months ago

You always have a different perspective Kathy. According to Wikipedia, “Archaic Homo sapiens, the forerunner of anatomically modern humans, evolved between 400,000 and 250,000 years ago.[10][11] ” And, “The last glacial period, popularly known as the Ice Age, was the most recent glacial period within the current ice age occurring during the last years of the Pleistocene, from approximately 110,000 to 12,000 years ago.[1]” Scientists almost entirely agree that the current climate change is the only one caused by humans. But if all the women of the world had access to good education, equal employment opportunities, free contraception, and full… Read more »

Kathy Nelson
1 year 10 months ago

George, whatever your views on Syria might be, or your opinion of Infowars might be, you may find this referenced tidbit interesting: http://www.infowars.com/turkey-behind-sarin-attack-in-syria/ You might also want to start watching the news from Suspicious0bservers: http://www.youtube.com/user/Suspicious0bservers You might get some good info on there about how the sun drives climate change, like it is doing now. Humans do pollute and we are a filthy lot, no doubt, but we are not the only factor in climate change. Here is a brief blog on drowned cities: http://www.beforeus.com/drowned.html Cities have been being drowned for many thousands of years, before there were enough humans… Read more »

1 year 10 months ago

What’s the biggest single source of CO2 in Vermont? Bet you don’t know, largely because there’s a virtual media blackout on the topic and most environmental groups won’t talk about it (at least, not publicly).

Give up? Biomass energy, with the McNeil Generating Station being the biggest climate culprit in the state.

Here’s a rare article on the topic by Digger: http://vtdigger.wpengine.com/2013/05/29/facing-climate-change-vermonts-biggest-polluters/

Aly Johnson-Kurts
1 year 10 months ago

Great analysis. Thank you.

John Greenberg
1 year 10 months ago

Tim Smith:

Here’s your syllogism: The dinosaurs went extinct before there were people on the planet. Therefore, human actions never cause extinctions.

Glenn Thompson
1 year 10 months ago

Nor did humans cause the reversal of the last great Ice age!

Paul Lorenzini
1 year 10 months ago

Tim, you have great common sense because you observe the big facts, not the little factoids that those with a chip on their shoulder, or a boogeyman in the closet spit at us.

John Greenberg
1 year 10 months ago

Yeah, those thousands of climate change scientists with “a chip on their shoulder or a bogeyman in the closet,” what would they know anyway?

Lance Hagen
1 year 10 months ago

Did you ever wonder why some climate scientists are so keen at having climate change be viewed as a ‘crisis’? Follow the money, a ‘crisis’ receives a lot more research grant money. I know, I once played in this arena.

John Greenberg
1 year 10 months ago

Lance, I agree: let’s follow the money. It leads to some of the biggest corporations in the world who have a distinct economic interest in continuing to sell carbon-related products. There are literally billions of dollars at stake for them. And it’s not like there’s any mystery about this either: the think-tanks challenging the climate consensus ARE supported by fossil fuel companies. Over the years, I’ve seen quite a few articles detailing which companies provided how much funding, so specific information is readily available. In addition, it isn’t just “some climate scientists” who are “keen at having climate change be… Read more »

Lance Hagen
1 year 10 months ago

Now John, since you are always asking for references to support stated arguments, please provide links to support your statement of “I’ve seen quite a few articles detailing which companies provided how much funding, so specific information is readily available.” (And they can’t be from advocacy groups that support the ‘climate change crisis’. All they do is continue to make this claim without definitive proof)

John Greenberg
1 year 10 months ago

Lance, When I ask you for documentation, I don’t tell you where it can or can’t come from: “… they can’t be from advocacy groups that support the ‘climate change crisis’.” That caveat makes it far too easy for you to simplyh DEFINE any source I might cite as an advocacy group, as you’ve previously done with IPCC. In any case, I don’t remember the articles I read and I’m not willing to go back and try to find them. But it’s easy enough to Google on the topic and get all the sources you want. Here’s are 3 articles… Read more »

1 year 10 months ago

Good points, Barrie. Someone here said that climate change has been happening for ages. Sure, but does that give us an excuse to contribute to its acceleration ? Climate-change contrarians are mostly cop-out citizens under the influence of corporate connivers.

Paul Lorenzini
1 year 10 months ago

Everything is accelerated now isn’t it?

Paul Lorenzini
1 year 10 months ago

If I lived in Syria now, I would prepare for a blessing of floods, and while dangerous and destructive they may bring prosperity back to the average people.

If Syria floods, no one will remember the dry time, but all problems will still be blamed on climate change.

When the glaciers grow blame man
When they shrink blame man
When it rains blame man
When it doesn’t blame man
When the skies are cold blame man
When they are to hot blame man
Why is it my fault?
Because you say so?
I think not.
What problem are we solving with weather fear?
Only Nostradaemus knows.

Matt Fisken
1 year 10 months ago

“Climate change, if left unchecked, will eventually lead to water and food shortages on a global scale that will threaten the very survival of millions of people.” It’s fine to suppose that an idling car in Vermont will lead to horrible suffering halfway around the world (the butterfly effect), but if anthropomorphic climate change caused by greenhouse gas emissions is in fact a serious problem, there isn’t much we can do about it at this point. Driving an electric car or putting up solar panels do not sequester CO2, but those are the in vogue responses to ACC because they… Read more »

John Greenberg
1 year 10 months ago

Matt, When you say “It’s fine to suppose that an idling car in Vermont will lead to horrible suffering halfway around the world (the butterfly effect),” you misstate the science that’s invoked here: there is no butterfly effect involved. Current climate models suggest that CO2 building up in the atmosphere traps sunlight causing the planet to warm. Since the earth is one planet with one atmosphere, the locality of the release is irrelevant: a release in Vermont has the same impact as an equivalent release in Bangladesh. Filling the atmosphere is no different from filling a bathtub. If, in addition… Read more »

Matt Fisken
1 year 10 months ago

John, You have missed or manipulated my points. My example of idling in Vermont in no way suggested that the effects of GHG emissions are localized. It was an example of a choice many make (in this state and around the world) without believing/caring it has an effect on the planet’s atmosphere. I could have said, “using a leaf blower in Ohio” or “driving a stock car in Florida.” It is my understanding of geologic science that there is not a lot of economically recoverable/transportable/usable fossil fuels left in the ground. We have burned a vast majority of it already,… Read more »

John Greenberg
1 year 10 months ago

Matt, I assure you I was not trying to misstate your arguments, but as I read your new comments, I don’t believe I did. Let’s go point by point: 1) You now say that you understand that the effects of climate change aren’t localized, but you still haven’t corrected the basic misunderstanding which the words “butterfly effect” imply, and THAT is what I replied to. The butterfly effect occurs when one event impacts another, not only in a different locale, but in a seemingly totally unrelated manner through a long chain of causality. What we’re dealing with here, however, is… Read more »

Matt Fisken
1 year 10 months ago

I’m not sure why John so vehemently rejects the concept of the butterfly effect as it relates to climate change, specifically, as it relates to relatively minor increases or decreases in the rate at which GHGs are added to the atmosphere (compared to the levels at which they currently exist). I’m reading http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Butterfly_effect : “In 1961, [Edward] Lorenz was using a numerical computer model to rerun a weather prediction, when, as a shortcut on a number in the sequence, he entered the decimal 0.506 instead of entering the full 0.506127. The result was a completely different weather scenario. … One… Read more »

John Greenberg
1 year 10 months ago

Matt, I’m sorry you think I deliberately misinterpret what you write. All I can tell you is that I’ve tried to respond to what I understood you to be saying. But there’s little point in belaboring the point. 1) “I’m not sure why John so vehemently rejects the concept of the butterfly effect as it relates to climate change….” Your quote makes the point I was trying to make: “if the theory were correct, one flap of a seagull’s wings could change the course of weather forever” That IS what I understand by the butterfly effect, and it’s NOT how… Read more »

Paul Richards
1 year 10 months ago

How much man is contributing to climate change is unsettled science. There is too much politics brought into the issue making it hard for anyone to ever get close to the truth. Besides the world is so complex that I don’t believe any scientist, looking at this snapshot in time, can determine what effect, if any, man is having on warming overall. The government has created such a huge distrust that no one believes them. Especially when they tell us they want to extract more money from us to pay to reduce the global warming that man is causing. If… Read more »

John Greenberg
1 year 10 months ago

1) Paul Richards asserts: ‘How much man is contributing to climate change is unsettled science.” Actually, it isn’t. The scientific community speaks with one voice now on this issue. An analysis of “the peer-reviewed scientific literature, examining 11 944 climate abstracts from 1991–2011 matching the topics ‘global climate change’ or ‘global warming’” concluded that “the number of papers rejecting the consensus on AGW is a vanishingly small proportion of the published research.” http://iopscience.iop.org/1748-9326/8/2/024024/article Similarly, a survey sent to 10,257 Earth scientists, completed by 3146 individuals, found that “the debate on the authenticity of global warming and the role played by human… Read more »

George Plumb
1 year 10 months ago

Thanks John for your in depth responses to the human caused climate change deniers. If that isn’t enough here is one more source of 176 analytic statements of why they are wrong.
http://www.skepticalscience.com/argument.php
But even if they are correct having our whole economy and all of our lifestyles dependent on diminishing fossil fuels is unsustainable anyways. Why not just use some of the remaining fossil fuels to build renewable energy sources rather than pollute the air by burning coal and oil which is also bad for our health?

1 year 10 months ago

Engaging with climate change deniers is a waste of time and only puts more wind in their sales.

Unfortunately there are various degrees of climate change deniers…those rightly opposing fossil fuels because of CO2 emissions yet advocating for biomass energy–which has higher CO2 emissions per unit of energy produced–is just another form of climate change denial.

wpDiscuz
Thanks for reporting an error with the story, "Barrie Dunsmore: Climate change and the political landscape"