In her introduction to a compelling new study, “The Arab Spring and Climate Change,” released Thursday, the Princeton scholar Anne-Marie Slaughter notes that crime shows often rely on the concept of a “stressor.” A stressor, she explains, is a “sudden change in circumstances or environment that interacts with a complicated psychological profile in a way that leads a previously quiescent person to become violent.” The stressor is never the only explanation for the crime, but it is inevitably an important factor in a complex set of variables that lead to a disaster. “The Arab Spring and Climate Change” doesn’t claim that climate change caused the recent wave of Arab revolutions, but, taken together, the essays make a strong case that the interplay between climate change, food prices (particularly wheat) and politics is a hidden stressor that helped to fuel the revolutions and will continue to make consolidating them into stable democracies much more difficult.
Jointly produced by the Center for American Progress, the Stimson Center and the Center for Climate and Security, this collection of essays opens with the Oxford University geographer Troy Sternberg, who demonstrates how in 2010-11, in tandem with the Arab awakenings, “a once-in-a-century winter drought in China” — combined, at the same time, with record-breaking heat waves or floods in other key wheat-growing countries (Ukraine, Russia, Canada and Australia) — “contributed to global wheat shortages and skyrocketing bread prices” in wheat-importing states, most of which are in the Arab world.
Only a small fraction — 6 percent to 18 percent — of annual global wheat production is traded across borders, explained Sternberg, “so any decrease in world supply contributes to a sharp rise in wheat prices and has a serious economic impact in countries such as Egypt, the largest wheat importer in the world.”
The numbers tell the story: “Bread provides one-third of the caloric intake in Egypt, a country where 38 percent of income is spent on food,” notes Sternberg. “The doubling of global wheat prices — from $157/metric ton in June 2010 to $326/metric ton in February 2011 — thus significantly impacted the country’s food supply and availability.” Global food prices peaked at an all-time high in March 2011, shortly after President Hosni Mubarak was toppled in Egypt.
Consider this: The world’s top nine wheat-importers are in the Middle East: “Seven had political protests resulting in civilian deaths in 2011,” said Sternberg. “Households in the countries that experience political unrest spend, on average, more than 35 percent of their income on food supplies,” compared with less than 10 percent in developed countries.
Everything is linked: Chinese drought and Russian bushfires produced wheat shortages leading to higher bread prices fueling protests in Tahrir Square. Sternberg calls it the globalization of “hazard.”
Ditto in Syria and Libya. In their essay, the study’s co-editors, Francesco Femia and Caitlin Werrell, note that from 2006 to 2011, up to 60 percent of Syria’s land experienced the worst drought ever recorded there — at a time when Syria’s population was exploding and its corrupt and inefficient regime was proving incapable of managing the stress.
In 2009, they noted, the U.N. and other international agencies reported that more than 800,000 Syrians lost their entire livelihoods as a result of the great drought, which led to “a massive exodus of farmers, herders, and agriculturally dependent rural families from the Syrian countryside to the cities,” fueling unrest. The future does not look much brighter. “On a scale of wetness conditions,” Femia and Werrell note, “‘where a reading of -4 or below is considered extreme drought,’ a 2010 report by the National Center for Atmospheric Research shows that Syria and its neighbors face projected readings of -8 to -15 as a result of climatic changes in the next 25 years.” Similar trends, they note, are true for Libya, whose “primary source of water is a finite cache of fossilized groundwater, which already has been severely stressed while coastal aquifers have been progressively invaded by seawater.”
Scientists like to say that, when it comes to climate change, we need to manage what is unavoidable and avoid what is unmanageable. That requires collective action globally to mitigate as much climate change as we can and the building of resilient states locally to adapt to what we can’t mitigate. The Arab world is doing the opposite. Arab states as a group are the biggest lobbyists against efforts to reduce oil and fuel subsidies. According to the International Monetary Fund, as much as one-fifth of some Arab state budgets go to subsidizing gasoline and cooking fuel — more than $200 billion a year in the Arab world as a whole — rather than into spending on health and education. Meanwhile, locally, Arab states are being made less resilient by the tribalism and sectarianism that are eating away at their democratic revolutions.
As Sarah Johnstone and Jeffrey Mazo of the International Institute for Strategic Studies conclude in their essay, “fledgling democracies with weak institutions might find it even harder to deal with the root problems than the regimes they replace, and they may be more vulnerable to further unrest as a result.” Yikes.
Thomas L. Friedman is a columnist for The New York Times.
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