Tuesday, August 28, 2007

The oblique nature of the impact of climate change

One of the things I've hammered on about this year regarding the impact of climate change is how many of the impacts of climate change will not be reported in the newspaper as impacts of climate change, but rather as political or social crises. In fact, there has even been an explicit push to stop people from even trying to connect political crises to climate change. When UN Secretary General Ban Moon-Ki argued in June (citing the arguments my friend Stephan Faris made in the Atlantic Monthly last year) that climate change was exacerbating resource conflicts in Darfur that drive the slaughter going on there, Idean Salehyan shot back in Foreign Policy that blaming the situation in Darfur on climate change in effect was letting the politicians in Khartoum off the hook. You can judge Salehyan's arguments on their merits, but what is certain is that insofar as people embrace his perspective that proximate political causes should always have explanatory and moral priority over background long duree causal factors like climate change, it will be impossible to really create any political consensus about the impact of climate change.

As I was trying to figure out why this is so, it occurred to me that the impact of climate change can perhaps best be thought of as an inversion of the genius marketing slogan of the chemical company BASF: "We don't make a lot of the products you buy. We make a lot of the products you buy better." In the case of climate change, you might say, "Climate change doesn't make problems. It makes a lot of the problems you have worse." And that seems to about right for describing the impact of climate change in Darfur, and also underscores why climate change, short of the most catastrophic scenarios, is unlikely to be a big problem in places which are otherwise politically, socially, and economically healthy. In places that are already stressed, however, climate change will ratchet up the leverage, and in some instances will function as the proverbial last straw, precipitating political, social, and economic collapses, that will be reported as such.

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