Peter Stoett, Visiting Scholar

Peter Stoett is a professor in the Political Science Department, and Director of the Loyola Sustainability Research Centre, at Concordia University in Montreal.  He is currently Visiting Scholar to the Leverhulme Doctoral Programme in Climate Justice at the University of Reading.

Preventing Perfect Storms Deepens the Climate Justice Challenge and Demands Western Introspection

A perfect storm: environmental degradation, violent conflict, and a public health crisis, usually in the form of an epidemic. We’ve seen this scenario unfold several times in recent years, and one might argue these three elements have been present to some degree in most major humanitarian challenges. Climate change will only exacerbate the situation, and climate justice demands not only climate adaptation funding but serious efforts to avoid the confluence of these three factors in the near future.

Too often, climate justice is discussed as though it can be separated from the violence that often accompanies environmental destruction. As though funding for technological innovation will somehow cover the costs associated with climate change. But if we expand our conception of the price people will pay to include the true parameters of associated violence and threats to human health, we must readily concede that technology is only part of the mandate of climate justice.

Of course, environmental justice was a missing factor in many perceptions without climate change to animate it. The earthquake that struck Haiti was a prime example: a natural disaster struck a country with a violent past and twinned environmental (especially deforestation) and health care deficiencies. When Ebola attacked the people of western African states, they were already burdened with the legacies of murderous civil wars in Sierre Leone and Liberia, and the illegal timber trade and other environmental assaults might have helped the bat infestation that started the epidemic in the first place. Sub-Saharan Africa faced an even greater challenge with the HIV-AIDS pandemic, initially caused by bushmeat consumption and spread in part by sexual violence in war zones.

But we will need to consider the impact of climate in humanitarian and health crises as well. The rise and spread of the Zika virus, which has been tentatively attributed to climate change, is also affecting areas where violence is not uncommon, and it spreading in drought-stricken and forest-fire prone Central America. Honduras is literally on fire, not only because of forests burning but because of gang violence and one of the highest murder rates in the world. Adding a zoonotic disease to this is like pouring gasoline on the flames.

Some even attribute the war in Syria to the impact of a long-term drought in that region, coupled with uneven access to health care amongst the Syrian population, leading ultimately to the re-emergence of polio and other diseases. There is no hard and fast causal direction in these cases: one thing does not necessarily lead to another. What we do know is that when all three of these apocalyptic horsemen are present, they feed off each other’s misery and chaos.

This is why wildlife conservation, climate change adaptation, the protection of biodiversity and clean water sources, and other environmental management approaches based on ecosystems services is such an important buffer. Losing natural capital can result not only in flaring tempers around access to resources, but it weakens the effectiveness of responses to natural disasters and the fallout of conflict. Similarly, it is extremely difficult to convince people to care about the environment when guns are blazing and the natural elements are blowing through holes in damaged roofs. Remember the citizens of Sarajevo stripping the trees in that beautiful city as the siege wore on?

Of course the international community is hardly oblivious to these factors, and continues to search for umbrellas, conceptual and technological, with which we can weather these perfect storms. The obvious answers – foster peace and sponsor peacebuilding, erect good governance architecture, professionalize environmental management, and build better hospitals – are not enough; necessary, but not sufficient.

Nor is the ignoble, if understandable, reflex to resort to thicker protective walls, or to somehow quarantine human beings who have the right and ability to travel and flee existential threats.  If we continue to see more humanitarian crises linked to infectious disease, will we see more movement toward the permanent establishment of a global bio-apartheid that savagely separates the vulnerable from those who can afford security? It is even a money-making proposition, and the transnational security industry realized decades ago.

To avoid this nightmarish scenario, we need to learn how to predict, respond to, and avoid the deadly mix of conflict, ecological destruction, and health crises. Despite good intentions there will be much more of this to come.  But, on World Environment Day of 2016, I wonder how self-critical we are prepared to be in order to achieve this.

Importantly, we need to look in the mirror and assess the contributions made by western governments and investments to these problems, with ethical clarity and moral courage. Do we foster militarism with arms sales? Do we accentuate the loss of biodiversity with large-scale natural resource extraction projects? Do we limit access to pharmaceutical products necessary for dealing with communicable and non-communicable diseases to enhance profits? Is climate change, largely the result of historical industrialization and agriculture in the west, making the response to humanitarian emergencies even more difficult?

The answer to all of these questions is, of course, yes. So part of climate justice, if we accept the premise that it has a preventive and not just a compensatory or remedial mandate, must be to take honest stock and appraisal of these western shadows cast in areas where the perfect storms have proven most likely and recurrent. This does not deflect attention from local incompetence, corruption, and malfeasance. But it does add another dimension to the climate justice agenda: the prevention of the violence-ecology-disease nexus resulting in humanitarian crises is not just enlightened self-interest, it is an imperative of climate justice as well.