Wednesday, March 21, 2007

The Genesis of Genocide

In a post today, Hilzoy highlights two of the more recently revealed examples of the GOP's deliberate obfuscation of scientific findings undertaken in the pursuit of maintaining a shroud of doubt around the crisis of global warming. These are stories of oil industry lobbyists-cum-administration officials-cum lobbyists again editing climate reports to soften the science-based conclusions about global warming.

There are also recollections of Congressional patronage games - with coveted science-focused committee chairs being offered to lawmakers with scientific qualifications, but only if they agree to betray their principles in the name of global warming denialism.

These revelations, while disturbing, aren't particularly new or unique with respect to an administration and Party that have been performing this muzzle and dodge dance for some time. It should be understood that these tactics are part of a deliberate and coordinated strategy executed with relentless cynicism by the Bush administration, its Congressional allies, the Republican Party and their respective ideological fellow travelers.

The call to arms was sounded over a decade ago, and the steady progression of the science led many Republican strategists to reiterate the stakes early on in the Bush years. As recounted by the New York Times in March 2003 (cited here):

Most scientists believe that [global] warming is caused largely by manmade pollutants that require strict regulation. Mr. Luntz [a Republican strategist] seems to acknowledge as much when he says that "the scientific debate is closing against us." His advice, however, is to emphasize that the evidence is not complete.
"Should the public come to believe that the scientific issues are settled," he writes, "their views about global warming will change accordingly. Therefore, you need to continue to make the lack of scientific certainty a primary issue."

Regardless of truth and consequences, execute the strategy. Empiricism be damned.

An article by Stephen Faris in the most recent issue of The Atlantic provides a chilling look at just how severe those consequences may end up being for many of the Earth's inhabitants. It's not just the effect that extreme weather phenomena like floods, landslides, droughts and hurricanes will have on the populations immediately impacted by such events. While the death and destruction from those events can be enormous, the specter of more catastrophic outcomes looms on the horizon.

The repercussions from dramatic shifts in temperature, rainfall and overall patterns will likely exacerbate, if not directly instigate, bloody conflict on a massive scale. The upending of societal orders that are, at least in part, dependent on a continuation of the existing pattern of sustainable interaction with the local environment will lead to new-found competition over suddenly scarce resources such as arable land, viable real estate and water.

To put it in less colorful language: previously peaceful neighbors will start fighting in desperation over what little is left after the Earth literally moves from beneath their feet. Faris offers a glimpse:

To truly understand the crisis in Darfur—and it has been profoundly misunderstood—you need to look back to the mid-1980s, before the violence between African and Arab began to simmer. Alex de Waal...was there at that time, as a doctoral candidate doing anthropological fieldwork. Earlier this year, he told me a story that, he says, keeps coming back to him.

De Waal was traveling through the dry scrub of Darfur, studying indigenous reactions to the drought that gripped the region. In a herders’ camp near the desert’s border, he met with a bedridden and nearly blind Arab sheikh named Hilal Abdalla, who said he was noticing things he had never seen before: Sand blew into fertile land, and the rare rain washed away alluvial soil. Farmers who had once hosted his tribe and his camels were now blocking their migration; the land could no longer support both herder and farmer. Many tribesmen had lost their stock and scratched at millet farming on marginal plots.

The God-given order was broken, the sheikh said, and he feared the future. “The way the world was set up since time immemorial was being disturbed,” recalled de Waal. “And it was bewildering, depressing. And the consequences were terrible.”

In 2003, another scourge, now infamous, swept across Darfur. Janjaweed fighters in military uniforms, mounted on camels and horses, laid waste to the region. In a campaign of ethnic cleansing targeting Darfur’s blacks, the armed militiamen raped women, burned houses, and tortured and killed men of fighting age. Through whole swaths of the region, they left only smoke curling into the sky.

At their head was a 6-foot-4 Arab with an athletic build and a commanding presence. In a conflict the United States would later call genocide, he topped the State Department’s list of suspected war criminals. De Waal recognized him: His name was Musa Hilal, and he was the sheikh’s son.

The fighting in Darfur is usually described as racially motivated, pitting mounted Arabs against black rebels and civilians. But the fault lines have their origins in another distinction, between settled farmers and nomadic herders fighting over failing lands. The aggression of the warlord Musa Hilal can be traced to the fears of his father, and to how climate change shattered a way of life.

...A few tribes drifted elsewhere or took up farming, but the Arab herders stuck to their fraying livelihoods—nomadic herding was central to their cultural identity. (The distinction between “Arab” and “African in Darfur is defined more by lifestyle than any physical difference: Arabs are generally herders, Africans typically farmers. The two groups are not racially distinct.) [emphasis added]

This should not be seen as a reduction of the conflict to purely environmental causes. There are other, insidious forces at work including the rapaciousness of the regime in Khartoum whose leaders view a "cleansed" Darfur as easier to exploit, as well as the inclination on the part of Sudan's neighbors to interfere by proxy.

In addition, droughts and other severe weather patterns would exist with or without, and previous to, the advent of global warming. It's just that the global warming we are beginning to witness today is a vastly accelerated version of the Earth's normal fluctuations, and with it, there will be a cluster of once rare and gradual climactic events occurring over a shorter time frame.

The results will not be to the benefit of humanity - where pre-existing societal fault lines were present, and where no such tensions existed.

Environmental degradation “creates very dry tinder,” says de Waal. “So if anyone wants to put a match to it, they can light it up.” Combustion might be particularly likely in areas where the political or social geography is already fragile.

As such, Darfur will not likely be the last bloody manifestation of global warming's eventual legacy of upheaval. Sadly, the Bush administration and the Republican Party seem more determined to fight the science of global warming than the crisis itself. But you can't spin or bamboozle mother nature. She's immune to the stuff. And in the end, she's The Decider.

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