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The Iron Sky: Why We Must Battle Climate Change To Win The War On Terror

25/12/2015 8:27 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:25 AM IST
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The wood boat on cracked earth, metaphoric for climate change and global warming.

Paris. Beirut. Baghdad -- all three cities were targeted by ISIS this month. And even with hundreds of deaths, these were only a few among countless other victims of terror attacks that have taken place this year. As I read the news today, I can only imagine what is going through the minds of the victims' families.

In the same month, seven years ago, Mumbai witnessed its own terrorist attack. The 'city that never sleeps' stood still for four days as terrorist attacks took place across Mumbai, killing 164 people and wounding 308. Among the innocent civilians and police martyrs that were killed was my parents' friend and Additional Commissioner in the Mumbai Police, Ashok Kamte. Both my parents are police officers and he was my mother's batch-mate from her National Police Academy days. As a kid, I remember visiting his family's house when he was the Superintendent of Police (SP) of Kolhapur district in Maharashtra. It was so surreal and numbing to hear that he had died on 26/11. I still remember the morning of 26 November, watching in tears as the news of terrorist attacks flashed on the television screen. Even though I had only met Ashok uncle a few times, his death in a senseless terror attack broke my heart. We lost not one but 163 such people during that carnage.

"This isn't a story that was started by a religious movement or a terrorist group, but rather by man-made climate change."

The same pain tugs at my heart today as I read about the attacks in Paris, Beirut and Baghdad. Although it is in the name of religion that ISIS carries out such condemnable acts, no religion preaches the merciless killings of human beings. Instead, it is a lack of empathy created by a fight for survival that has led to such acts of terror. A fight that will only get worse when I hear countries like Poland closing their borders to refugees in the name of national security.

I have always believed the world to be a place where a butterfly flapping its wings can cause a tsunami. Terrorism isn't caused by an act of war or a fundamentalist speech -- it is caused by the inequalities that countries have faced in the past as well as the ones they are facing today. Inequalities that only get exaggerated by problems like climate change. Religion isn't at the root of terrorism, it is scarcity of resources and a lack of empathy.

Syria's perfect storm

Let me tell you the story of Syria, a country that was once peaceful but more recently became so conflicted with terrorism that thousands of people have had to flee to become refugees. This isn't a story that was started by a religious movement or a terrorist group, but rather by man-made climate change. The story begins when the country suffered its worst drought on record from 2006 to 2010. The drought was very intense and lasted longer than could be explained by natural variations in weather. This was no ordinary drought, but rather an impact of climate change.

Nearly 85% of the livestock died and Syria's famed fields of Halaby peppers withered away. President Bashar al-Assad's office offered little help to the common farmers. His government awarded well rights along political lines, so most farmers had to drill their own illegal wells. And people who spoke out against him faced imprisonment, torture and even death. Nearly a million rural villagers lost their farms to drought. These people moved into cities like Daraa to look for other means of livelihood. In the cities, the water problem became even more acute, and there weren't enough jobs. The once prosperous farmers were now lucky to even find work as street sweepers. Tempers rose and frustrations festered.

Finally, a group of teenage boys expressed their anger by spray painting a slogan they borrowed from new revolutions in Cairo and Tunis.

Unfortunately, the local secret police came and arrested 15 of the teenagers. In the cell of the nearby political security branch, the police beat and tortured the boys. Without showing any empathy or remorse, these policemen burned their skins pulled out their fingernails. The boys came from some prominent families in Daraa, and upon hearing this, the family members marched to the governor's house. Assad's Syria was a government accustomed to authoritarian rule, meaning any protests that happened in Daraa were violent in nature. Soon after, Syrians in other cities gathered in support of the 'children of Daraa'. The protests spread following the path of the drought, from Damascus to al-Qamishli. This kind of sustained uprising wasn't supposed to happen in Syria.

"One can even compare the Syrian situation to that of the state of Maharashtra in India, where a prolonged drought has been occurring since 2009."

Right up until the first protests in Daraa, international security analysts had proclaimed Syria immune to the rising "Arab Spring" or the popular name given to the democratic wave of civil unrest in the Arab world that began in December 2010. It was this revolutionary movement that created an ideal atmosphere for terrorism to grow and thrive. It wasn't only the political oppression that caused the conflict -- perhaps man-made climate change played a bigger role.

Climate change and conflict

According to Francesco Femia, Director of the Washington-based Centre for Climate and Security, environmental stressors are capable of causing wide-scale conflict. When 1.5 million people lose their livelihoods and face drinking water shortages, a survival mindset sets in. The displacement of a massive population further leads to a sense of social unrest. After decades of ineffective leadership, the effects of climate change may have been the "ultimate unhinging stressor for Syria."

But even if the country recovers from political instability and eradicates terrorism, Syria still stands to lose nearly 50% more of its agricultural capacity by 2050. If current rates of greenhouse gas emissions continue, more extreme droughts will return and water shortages will worsen. But this situation isn't only restricted to Syria, extreme weather events have started occurring in other parts of the world too. From rise in global sea levels to increased forest fires, climate change has finally started showing its impacts.

Maharashtra: a worrying parallel?

One can even compare the Syrian situation to that of the state of Maharashtra in India, where a prolonged drought has been occurring since 2009. Hundreds of farmers commit suicides every year, yet the government doesn't do anything to address the climate change impacts that are affecting Maharashtra. With only 8% water left in the dams this year, it is essential that we address such impacts of climate change. Otherwise, environmental stressors will lead to potential law and order problems in Maharashtra. We need to learn from the Syrian situation, where a lack of resources eventually led to conflict and war.

"When countries and religions turn against each other, the world seems like an iron sky -- full of hate and apathy, holding us back from making any real change."

The importance of climate action

Furthermore, it may not even be a coincidence that the terrorist attack on Paris was committed just weeks before the biggest climate conference or the COP21. An interesting article in the Ecologist, points out that the failure of the COP21 will benefit ISIS as they stand to make $500 million a year from oil sales -0- together with other oil producers. Another article in the Financial Times, says that "Oil is the black gold that funds ISIS's black flag -- it fuels its war machine, provides electricity and gives them critical leverage from its neighbours." The article goes on to state that ISIS derives its financial stability straight from its status as a monopoly producer of an essential commodity consumed in vast quantities throughout the area it controls. Even without being able to export, it can thrive because it has a huge captive market in Syria and Iraq. So the last thing that ISIS needs is a global climate agreement that limits consumption on fossil fuels.

In this time of horror it is crucial that we guard the powerful climate action mandate, so as to ensure that we bring the victims of the ISIS attacks to justice. "It is through empathy we build bridges and through hate that we destroy them." When countries and religions turn against each other, the world seems like an iron sky -- full of hate and apathy, holding us back from making any real change. In this time of need, let us show empathy to those who need it and work towards a future that builds bridges rather than one that destroys them -- let us start by breaking out of this iron sky.

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