Climate Change and War


By Jeffrey Sachs*

Project Syndicate
March 1, 2005

Visiting Africa's Sahel region, Jeffrey Sachs says it's clear that climate change is already driving warfare in Ethiopia and Sudan. This time, peacekeepers, sanctions and humanitarian aid are not going to cut it. Instead, the developed world needs to cut its emissions drastically while helping developing countries adapt—and fast.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair has declared that the two issues at the center of the G-8 Summit this July will be African poverty and global climate change. These may seem to be distinct issues. In fact, they are linked. A trip I took to a village in the Tigre region in northern Ethiopia shows why.

One morning, I was taken to a dry riverbed at the village's edge. Farmers were digging a pit in the riverbed, down to the water table approximately two meters below ground level. They explained that, until recently, this was a perennial river—one that flows throughout the year. But now, the river stops flowing during the dry season. Only when the annual rains begin in the summer does water reappear in the river bed. Until then, water-starved communities dig for water—if they can find it and if they can afford to pump it out.

In northern Ethiopia, as in much of Africa, the rain cycle has changed markedly in recent years. Ethiopian village life has long depended on two crops, one during a short rain in March and April, and the main crop during the long rain in the summer months. In recent years, the short rains have failed entirely, and long rains have been erratic. Hunger is omnipresent. Perhaps half of the children are severely underweight.

Much of arid sub-Saharan Africa, notably in the Sahel (the region just south of the Sahara desert), has experienced a pronounced drop in rainfall over the past quarter-century. This decline coincided with a rise in the surface temperature of the neighboring Indian Ocean, a hint that the decline in rainfall is in fact part of the longer-term process of man-made global warming.

Failures of rainfall contribute not only to famines and chronic hunger, but also to the onset of violence when hungry people clash over scarce food and water. When violence erupts in water-starved regions such as Darfur, Sudan, political leaders tend to view the problems in narrow political terms. If they act at all, they mobilize peacekeepers, international sanctions and humanitarian aid. But Darfur, like Tigre, needs a development strategy to fight hunger and drought even more than it needs peacekeepers. Soldiers cannot keep peace among desperately hungry people.

One course of action must be to help impoverished African regions to "adapt" to climate change and to escape the poverty trap. Water-stressed regions like Ethiopia and Sudan can adapt, at least in part, through improved technologies such as "drip irrigation," rainwater harvesting, improved water storage facilities, deep wells, and agro-forestry techniques that make best use of scarce rainfall. Better land-management practices (the re-planting of degraded forests, for example) can recharge underground water aquifers.

Poor countries cannot afford these technologies on their own—nor should they have to. Help for poor countries in Africa and elsewhere to adapt to climate change should not be described as charity or aid, but rather as compensation for damages being imposed on the poorest people on the planet. Greater help for these countries to escape from extreme poverty has been promised for decades but has not been delivered.

In addition to adapting to climate change, the world must also reduce future risks to the planet by cutting back on greenhouse gas emissions, which are the source of man-made climate change. While adaptation to climate change is necessary—because it is already occurring—it is not enough. If the world fails to mitigate future climate change, the effects of rising temperatures, increasing droughts, more numerous and severe tropical storms, rising sea levels and a spread of tropical diseases will pose huge threats to the entire planet. The famines in Ethiopia and the violence in Darfur suggest what can lie ahead.

The best way to reduce long-term climate change is to reduce carbon emissions. There are at least three options:

  • Shift to non-carbon energy sources such as solar or nuclear energy;
  • Capture and dispose of the carbon dioxide emitted at carbon-based power plants;
  • Economize on energy use, for example by shifting to hybrid automobiles and trucks.

Most likely, all three of these methods will have to play a role. The effort to reduce greenhouse gases will require decades of action, but, given the long lead times in overhauling the world's energy systems, we must start now. Rich countries need to lead the way.

It is ironic that the United States, which portrays itself as a friend of democracy and impoverished countries, gives the smallest share of its GNP in aid among the rich countries, and also refuses to participate in global efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. This is especially ironic because African countries like Ethiopia stand steadfastly and bravely with the United States in the fight for freedom and against terrorism, even as they struggle with hunger, disease and famine. Moreover, countries like Ethiopia are making valiant, indeed remarkable, efforts to overcome their problems, despite the lack of adequate—and long-promised—help from the world's richest countries.

Africans suffering from hunger and drought, and indeed poor people everywhere, have a right to ask much more of the United States and other rich countries. Tony Blair is right to call on his rich-country colleagues to follow through on their unfulfilled promises.

About the Author: Jeffrey Sachs is professor of economics and director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University.

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