Menu

17.08.10

Climate change and extremism

There is a fascinating article in the Economist on the large-scale pattern of atmospheric circulation which links the heatwave in Russia and the floods in Pakistan. There is also a great article in the Sunday Times by Jemima Khan on the floods and Pakistan’s future. There are some obvious dots to be joined up between these articles.

The Economist writes:

“As Russia burns to a crisp, thousands of kilometres to the south-west torrential storms visit unprecedented flooding on Pakistan. Both events can be attributed to the same large-scale pattern of atmospheric circulation. They are also both the sort of thing climate scientists expect more of in a warming world.”

It concludes:

“Both heatwaves and heavy precipitation are more common everywhere than they were 50 years ago. Reflecting the latter trend, the Indian monsoon has been seeing more of its rainfall in extreme events than it did in the past. No single one of those events can be directly attributed to climate change; nor can Russia’s heatwave. The pattern of increases, though, fits expectations—and those expectations see things getting worse.”

Khan provides some perspective on the comparative challenge which the floods create for Pakistan:

“On top of the war against the Taliban, with almost daily suicide bombings, a separatist uprising in the province of Baluchistan, a hostile neighbour, recession, inflation and unemployment, Pakistan seems to face a natural disaster almost every year. Nothing, though, compares to the catastrophe of the floods … 14m people — about one in 10 of the population — need help … Two million people are now homeless, electricity grids have been closed down to prevent electrocution, water supplies are contaminated, livestock drowned, 1.7m acres of crops destroyed, bridges, roads, schools, whole villages swept away. Experts have warned of the high risk of a cholera epidemic and further monsoon downpours are forecast.”

Pakistan’s President, who, according to Khan, “is alleged to have acquired up to $1.5 billion (£960m) through corruption” continued with a planned trip to the UK to launch the political career of his son, Bilawal Bhutto Zadari, heir apparent to the Bhutto dynasty, rather than attempt to attend to this devastation. Unsurprisingly, Khan reports, this exacerbated ill-feeling towards the government, who have been unable to fully address the problems created by the floods.

Into the void and despair left by a natural disaster and an ineffectual and ineffective government step jihadi-linked charitable organisations, who, Khan writes, “have been very effective at providing aid in times of crisis. The 2m children in Pakistan’s madrasahs are provided with free shelter, food and limited education where there is no government-funded alternative.”

Khan is right that “the floods are likely to lead to massive poverty and unrest in an already volatile nuclear-armed country.” She’s also right that this is potentially a geopolitical catastrophe and is certainly an immense human suffering, which demands our fullest response. However, as climate change not only makes our weather warmer and weirder but also threatens festering niches for extremists to exploit, it seems the kind of situation which may become increasingly commonplace. It should motivate us not only to address the immediate suffering of Pakistan but to redouble our efforts to both mitigate climate change and to improve the ability of all parts of the world to adapt to its already inevitable consequences.

As Neil Buckley describes in the FT today, Russia’s infrastructure has coped poorly with the demands placed upon it by the fires. Given that Russia is a richer country than many in the world, this gives us some indication of how ill-prepared many countries must be for the adaptive challenges that climate change will surely present them with. Where states fail to meet these adaptive challenges, extremists could well step up to the plate. In this context, the dirty power stations which the Conservative-Lib Dem coalition are now set to allow to be built are not just ill-advised features of our energy and climate change policies but also potentially add to the security threats facing the UK.