Social reactions: Fear and violence predicted as the climate crisis cuts food and water

Sep 25, 2019 | 28 comments

Editor’s note: This is the fourth of an eight-part series about the climate and biodiversity crises. John Keeble is a former Guardian and London Evening News journalist. He is part of Cuenca’s thriving hiking, cycling and writing communities. You can download free his latest novel, Beyond Extinction, via www.johnkeeble.net. To read part one of the series, click here.

By John Keeble

Pretty peaceful where you live? No sign of the climate crisis? Enough to eat? That’s good. But don’t expect it to last – certainly not unless you are planning to check out fairly soon and leave the mess to the kids in your family to suffer.

People usually think the world climate and biodiversity crises only affects others. Maybe water or food shortages here and there around the world. Perhaps rising seas taking the odd island you have never heard of.

It isn’t going to be like that. Actually, it isn’t like that now as the repercussions of our abuse of the planet are felt with tragic “weather events” – what a nice, reassuring euphemism – as well as forced migrations and unendurable pollution.

If you doubt that, just think of the past few weeks: Hurricane Dorian driven to record ferocity by warmer seas, the UN identifying civil wars over food resources, warnings of the poor suffering while the rich buy protection, fires across the globe, and record ice melts around polar regions.

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A future when climate changes will leave millions short of food and water.

A new report by the Global Commission on Adaptation, convened by 18 nations including the UK, says: “The climate crisis is here, now: massive wildfires ravage fragile habitats, city taps run dry, droughts scorch the land and massive floods destroy people’s homes and livelihoods. So far the response has been gravely insufficient.”

It adds that severe effects are now inevitable and estimates that unless precautions are taken, 100 million more people could be driven into poverty by 2030. Or, put another way, the rich elites will survive and the poor will go to the wall.

My questions: How do you feel about those matters? Or do you think we can just deny them away?

George Monbiot, one of the UK’s most respected environment writes, said in The Guardian: “Only one of the many life support systems on which we depend – soils, aquifers, rainfall, ice, the pattern of winds and currents, pollinators, biological abundance and diversity – need fail for everything to slide. For example, when Arctic sea ice melts beyond a certain point, the positive feedbacks this triggers (such as darker water absorbing more heat, melting permafrost releasing methane, shifts in the polar vortex) could render runaway climate breakdown unstoppable. When the Younger Dryas period ended 11,600 years ago, temperatures rose 10C within a decade.”

Rising temperatures will mean critical shortages of water and food. And they will mean violent competition for what is available.

Michelle Bachelet, the UN commissioner for human rights, said 40 per cent of civil wars during the past 60 years have been linked to environmental degradation.

The competition for dwindling resources exacerbates ethnic strife and forces migrations – while, at the same time, potential destination countries are erecting real and political walls.

Fear of hordes of refugees has fuelled right-wing xenophobia in the US and Europe and, further down the scale in countries like Ecuador, many individuals oppose incomers who, in turn, are desperate for any safe haven. A measure of desperation now, before the worst of climate change is felt, can be gauged from how many desperate people have died trying to cross the Mediterranean from Africa to an unwelcoming Europe – around 6,000 in the past three years.

At the same time, social media and right-wing politicians have whipped up fear and hatred, destabilising national and international social and political structures at a time when cooperation is vital to combat the causes of the climate crisis.

Politico magazine, reporting on the International Society of Political Psychologists’ annual meeting in Lisbon, said Shawn Rosenberg, doyen of the profession, predicted the end of democracy. New media and technologies meant anyone could create their own meanings and garner support. The old elites, including political institutions and mainstream journalists, have lost control.

The article’s author, Rick Shenkman, founder of George Washington University’s History News Network, wrote: “[Rosenberg said that] when people are left to make political decisions on their own they drift toward the simple solutions right-wing populists worldwide offer: a deadly mix of xenophobia, racism and authoritarianism.”

That doesn’t sound helpful in a world where resources are going to be strained and strife increased.

Dr Bobby Azarian, writing in Psychology Today about the motivations of Trump supporters, pointed to established links between perceived threats, exaggerated fear and right-wing (conservative) responses.

He wrote: “As long as [President] Trump continues to portray Muslims and Hispanic immigrants as imminent threats, many conservative brains will involuntarily light up like light bulbs being controlled by a switch. Fear keeps his followers energized and focused on safety.”

Okay, you’ve had enough of conflict and instability. What about food supplies and the survival of the fattest?

A century ago, many people had enough space and skill to supplement, at least, their food supply. I know my family did in their garden in Essex, east of London. Now? Could you do that? I certainly could not. If the food supply chain breaks down, that is it for me. How about you?

How likely is it that the climate and biodiversity crises will affect the food supply chain? No one really knows but you only have to look at conflict, profiteering and famines around the world to see how food supplies are sensitive to damaging factors.

Valérie Masson-Delmotte, a key player in the recent UN report on climate change, said rising temperatures put at risk global food supplies.

“Today 500 million people live in areas that experience desertification,” she said. “People living in already degraded or desertified areas are increasingly negatively affected by climate change.”

Sort of obscures problems nearer home for many people. Say, US states now short of water, Nestle scoring a double whammy by draining water resources and using plastic bottles for its marketing; and southern Europe facing severe water shortages and huge flooding in climate changes – especially southern Spain, an export fruit and vegetable garden. A few hours jet ride away from Spain, India has suffered killer droughts in recent years.

My question: What happens when it finally dawns on you that you can eat a pound of steak or drink 2,400 gallons of water (the amount it takes to produce the pound of steak)? This compares with the bad boys of the plant-based food world: a pound of Californian avocados takes 70.4 gallons of water from rivers, lakes, streams, and aquifers, according to the Mother Jones website. And the avocados do not usually scream when they are killed.

The problem is that all seven billion of us want an avocado or whatever we like to eat. That is a lot of food being grown and moved around the planet.

There is little doubt that climate change will bite into food production, even without the devastating cascade effects that Monbiot suggests.

Don’t believe it? I’m with you: I don’t want to believe it either.

My only niggling doubt is this: all the indicators, carbon dioxide in atmosphere, ice melting in the polar regions and on glaciers, vanishing fish stocks… they are all far worse today than predicted just a couple of years ago.

We could be living in the last utopia, expecting everything to be all right. Until it is too late and we sleepwalk off the cliff.

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