Fire and Flood: Security in an Age of Climate Breakdown

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The Sahel is a region of land that stretches across the continent of Africa. Around three million square kilometres in size, it stretches from Senegal in the West to Sudan in the East, and is the transitional zone between the climate of the Sahara Desert (to its North) and that of the savannah (on its South side). It is also Ground Zero for Climate Change.

A scientific consensus has emerged in recent years that an increase in industrial pollution has changed the pattern of surface temperature found across the Atlantic Ocean. Through changing rates of evaporation, this has altered the meteorological balance of the Tropical region of Africa in recent decades, and lead to a decline in rainfall around 1970-1980. Peaks and troughs in precipitation over time are regular features of the region’s climate, but the subsequent increase has not matched the amount that fell in the 1960s. Desertification, caused in part by this drying phenomenon and the fact that climate change is warming the land faster than other parts of the Earth’s surface, has inevitably put pressure on food and water supplies. Some 37 million people in the region have severe food insecurity, with 6.3 million of those requiring emergency food aid.

The result of this has been profound, and has contributed to a major crisis in which multiple extremist Non-State Armed Groups have thrived. Fighting local governments, on occasion Western or UN peacekeeping forces and even each other whenever the opportunity arises, these groups have troubling implications for a world in which further climate breakdown is expected.

The reckoning of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees puts the number of Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) in the region (the number of people forced from their homes, but not out of their country) at 2,020,768. The number of refugees and asylum seekers (those who have fled their country) is 868,694. This tally, however, does not account for South Sudan, also in the Sahel, reeling from a bitter civil war. Large movements of people create significant tensions, as the UK found out in 2016, and this is a pattern we can expect to see repeated.

We can expect this because climate change doesn’t just mean expanding deserts and heating land – it means receding ice and rising seas. Sea levels rising means land being inundated. Land slipping beneath the waves means the people who once occupied that land will be displaced, deprived of their homes. And, as we have found to a great deal of cost in Afghanistan, those who are deprived of their homes can be prime targets of radicalisation; the Taliban drew their name, personnel, and ideology from the students (literally ‘students’ in Arabic) who attended the Madrassas set up in Afghan refugee camps, using funds from radical donors in Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, which taught an extreme and militant ideology cherry-picked from Islam.

Nor is terrorism the only threat that climate breakdown may intensify. As the arctic ice recedes, a great swathe of land becomes more accessible – one with both physical and maritime borders with the United States, Canada and Russia, and is subject to the interests of China, Japan, France, Germany and the UK. This creates yet another zone in which the interests of great powers can bump up against each other more often, adding to a list that includes the South China Sea, Syria, the Baltic and Barents Seas, and Eastern Europe.

Wildfires in California killed 31 people last year, destroying 9,000-10,000 buildings in a record-setting year for these fires. Many of those buildings were homes. The visiting of such destruction upon the livelihoods of so many people breeds anger, as shown by the protesters that met then-Senator Kamala Harris and Governor Chris Newsom upon visiting the town of Big Creek, half of which was destroyed by one of the largest fires in California’s history. These wildfires were caused by extremely high temperatures and extreme dryness, both of which are exacerbated by climate change.

Higher temperatures don’t just come with dryer weather. Paradoxically, it can also mean more moisture in the air. The fact that our planet is 71% water means that higher temperatures lead to more evaporation of sea water. Rising water vapour creates clouds and thereby storms, storms that will increase in power and frequency as global temperatures rise. This represents a clear and present danger to societies and economies that lie in the areas of highest risk from hurricanes  and typhoons, the ultimate products of this process, but also threatens places long thought stable.

In the UK, the Thames Barrier protects London from high tides and storm surges. Although recent preliminary analysis places the end of the Barrier’s operating life between 2060-2070,  we can expect the environmental situation to change significantly between now and then – decarbonising by 2030 will not stop climate change from occurring, but will limit it to the extent that it is reversible. If the Barrier were to fail in conditions of extreme stress, a storm surge in combination with a spring high tide, for instance, 45 square miles of Greater London would be flooded, putting schools, hospitals, offices, and potentially the government itself out of action, and rendering the London Underground inoperable. It is one thing to face an intensifying threat year in year out. The apocalypse in your back yard is quite another.

So, whether through fire or flood, one thing is certain – climate change means a more dangerous world. What we do about that is a question that must be answered.

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Political Editor for the Wessex Scene 2020-2021. Interested in politics, foreign affairs, and just about anything within those to be honest.

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