From Pakistan to Darfur: Climate Change's Emerging Political Hotspots

From Pakistan to Darfur: Climate Change's Emerging Political Hotspots

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Editor’s Note: In the wake of devastating floods that have submerged a fifth of the country and affected some 20 million people, Pakistan is emerging as a climate change hotspot. Journalist and author Stephan Faris has traveled around the globe documenting the effects of climate change. New America Media editor Ngoc Nguyen spoke with Faris, who says climate change worsens conditions in already fragile economies and drives people over the edge, opening the door to major social and political shifts. Faris is a Rome-based journalist, who writes for Time Magazine and The Atlantic Monthly. He is the author of “Forecast: The Surprising—and Immediate—Impacts of Climate Change.”

You write about climate change “hotspots” around the globe—what are these?

The science of climate change is still fuzzy when it comes to direct impacts. We have heard about the disruption to the water cycle and greater risk of warmer temperatures…It’s difficult to know for sure what the impacts will be. In a sense, climate change is going to be disruptive all over the globe… The difference is where those places are—a drought in England or Europe, where it can be managed, or Darfur and Sudan, where they will have a much more difficult time. Where are the hotspots? They are places where people are the most vulnerable because of social and political realties on the ground.

How are the floods in Pakistan related to climate change?

My understanding is that they may be linked. It’s an example of the disruption of the water cycle. The earth is warming in different ways, currents in the air and sea are moving in different ways, one place that is used to getting water is going dry and another place that is not used to getting water is getting too much and flooding. The Indian Ocean is a degree or two warmer. [The water is] evaporating more, so there’s a lot more water in the air. That water came down on Pakistan. It’s going beyond what people are used to.

In the wake of the deluge, has Pakistan emerged as a climate change hotspot?

Pakistan is a catastrophic event and shows that different societies absorb [the ripple effects of] disasters in different ways. Compare Pakistan and the U.S. We didn’t show our best after Katrina, but we generally have a good system of flood control, and citizens here have the resources to pull together after a disaster, and the government seems to be able to manage the disaster.

In Pakistan, people don’t have resources to fall back on. If they move, there’s not much of an economy to absorb migrants and help them to rebuild their lives. The disaster in Pakistan is probably larger than Katrina. More significant, it shows the inability of people and the state of Pakistan to absorb disaster. If something happens there, they die. They don’t recover.

We don’t know the political and social shifts that will take hold in Pakistan after these floods, but in the Gulf Coast of the United States, you documented some major shifts after Hurricane Katrina.

We don’t know if climate change caused Katrina or not, but we know that climate change will increase storms in the Gulf Coast. One way we’re seeing the impacts of that is through insurance companies. In the Gulf Coast, in Key West and Florida and New Orleans, people are having a harder time buying property because the insurance prices are rising. That’s already causing demographic shifts.

In Florida, for instance, 2007 was the first year they had recorded more people moving out than moving in. In Florida and Key West, the middle class is having a harder time buying houses. In some cases, the insurance policy was more than the mortgage.

Will immigration also rise as a result of climate change? A new study found that drought conditions in Mexico will cause farmland loss and drive people north.

The impacts of climate change are not distributed equally. Poor people are less able to adapt to it, so they have extra reason to move. If people lose their livelihoods and they can’t make ends meet, they may have to uproot themselves and go where they can survive. Immigration will rise dramatically as climate change makes itself felt. It’s already happening. The next step is looking at what does that mean for the rest of us, and the impacts for the political system.

At the moment, in Arizona right now, immigration has a huge impact politically. [The issue is] giving rise to the people who have a message about immigration…they say it is a bad thing, and they want illegal immigration to be controlled, criminalized. One could project, in the short run, an opportunity for those who want to demagogue on issues like immigration.

What have you learned in documenting the ripple effects of climate change on people’s lives around the world?

What I have found most interesting is the breadth across which climate change makes itself felt. In my book, various issues I looked at—the conflict in Darfur, immigration issues, the taste of wine and how that was changing…the Artic melting and the potential for shipping across the top of the world, insurance prices—climate change makes itself felt across so many different realms of our lives. Before that, I had heard of climate change, but it was abstract, something that happened to polar bears, Artic icecaps, but not something that happened to [us]. It’s not an environmental issue; it’s an issue about people and the way we live.