The latest Atlantic Monthly has a cover story on climate change, and specifically who comes out ahead and who ends up behind. (More on that once I’ve read it.) As a sidebar, though, freelancer Stephen Faris has a piece on Darfur, ascribing the massacres in Darfur in part to a fight over declining fertile land on the fringe of the Sahara Desert.
It’s subscribers-only, but the gist is that while nomadic, fiercely Muslim horsemen of Arab extraction used to share land peaceably with rooted, less fiercely Muslim farmers of black African extraction, a steady decline in rainfall and a rise in temperatures have rendered the land in western Sudan unable to support both groups. The ethnic and cultural divisions — what poli-sci majors call “cleavages” — have been there all along, but a change in the local climate, however caused, broke them open. The janjaweed horsemen have the backing of the Islamist government in Khartoum, which supplies them with weapons and the occasional airstrike, which is why they’ve been steadily winning.
In case Darfur’s not top-of-mind for you, nobody’s quite sure how many people are dead there (the Sudanese government interferes), but it’s in the hundreds of thousands. The death toll in Rwanda was 800,000, and we — rightly — haven’t stopped rending our garments over that. Millions of people have run from the janjaweed, and the refugees, violence and atrocities have spilled over into neighbouring Chad, national borders not being strictly enforced in the desert. China and Russia have held up UN efforts to intervene; their state-owned oil companies have major stakes in Sudan.
Now, it’s impossible to pin the blame for the decline of the land in Darfur on any particular thing and Faris is careful not to do so. But:
Most scientists agree that greenhouse gases have warmed the tropical and southern oceans. But just how much artificial warming—as opposed to natural drifts in oceanic temperatures—contributed to the drought that struck Darfur is as debatable as the relationship between global warming and the destruction of New Orleans. “Nobody can say that Hurricane Katrina was definitely caused by climate change,” says Peter Schwartz, the co-author of a 2003 Pentagon report on climate change and national security. “But we can say that climate change means more Katrinas. For any single storm, as with any single drought, it’s difficult to say. But we can say we’ll get more big storms and more severe droughts.”
Among the implications arising from the ecological origin of the Darfur crisis, the most significant may be moral. If the region’s collapse was in some part caused by the emissions from our factories, power plants, and automobiles, we bear some responsibility for the dying. “This changes us from the position of Good Samaritans—disinterested, uninvolved people who may feel a moral obligation—to a position where we, unconsciously and without malice, created the conditions that led to this crisis,” says Michael Byers, a political scientist at the University of British Columbia. “We cannot stand by and look at it as a situation of discretionary involvement. We are already involved.”
When people talk about climate change, and the environment generally, as “a moral issue,” this is what they mean.
The photo above is owned by the UN High Commission for Refugees.