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Climate Chaos: Christian Parenti’s New Book Exposes How Global Warming Could Lead to Global Warfare

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Extreme weather from Texas to Somalia may indicate that a new era of climate war is upon us. Just this month, massive floods have shut down two nuclear power facilities in Nebraska. In New Mexico, the nation’s top nuclear weapons lab in Los Alamos is being threatened by an uncontrolled wildfire. Meanwhile, the United Nations warns the Horn of Africa is facing its worst drought in 60 years, affecting more than 10 million in Djibouti, Ethiopia, Kenya, Somalia and Uganda. We speak with award-winning journalist Christian Parenti, who argues in his new book that global warming is leading to social and environmental catastrophe. “The weather associated with climate change, extreme weather such as the drought, punctuated by flooding in East Africa, is adding to this. Climate change very often doesn’t just look bad weather, it looks like ethnic violence or religious violence or banditry or civil war,” says Parenti. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZALEZ: From Texas to Somalia, much of the world is experiencing extreme weather this year. Here in the United States, a top government climate scientist said this past spring had some of the most extreme weather the country has seen in the past century, with epic floods, massive wildfires, drought and deadly tornadoes. Just this month, massive floods have shut down two nuclear plants in Nebraska. And in New Mexico, the nation’s top nuclear weapons lab at Los Alamos is being threatened by an uncontrolled wildfire.

Meanwhile, the United Nations is warning that a the Horn of Africa is facing its worst drought in 60 years. The drought has affected more than 10 million people in Djibouti, Ethiopia, Kenya, Somalia and Uganda.

AMY GOODMAN: Award-winning author, journalist, Christian Parenti, has just come out with a book that examines the effects of climate change on the most vulnerable populations in the world, from Africa to Asia to Latin America. Christian Parenti joins us now in studio to talk about his new book, Tropic of Chaos: Climate Change and the New Geography of Violence.

Christian, welcome to Democracy Now! Let’s start with the title, Tropic of Chaos.

CHRISTIAN PARENTI: Well, it refers to the space between the Tropic of Cancer and Tropic of Capricorn, the countries where you see the most extreme effects of climate change kicking in, but where you find vulnerable populations, people who live close to the land or the sea and so have a minimal margin of error when bad weather strikes.

But also, these are countries and economies that have been ravaged by the Cold War and neoliberal economic restructuring. From 1945 to 1990, the U.N. said there were 150 or so armed conflicts that killed 20 million people, displaced 15 million, and 60 million were wounded. That all happened in the Global South, in this belt of states. And so, now that’s where climate change is kicking in, and that was also the same terrain where the last 30 years of IMF and World Bank-backed structural adjustment of privatization, deregulation of economies, cutting state support for farmers and fishermen, that that program affected those states most intensely.

And now, the weather associated with climate change, extreme weather such as the drought, punctuated by flooding in East Africa, is adding to this. And there’s this catastrophic convergence. And climate change—the argument of the book is that climate change very often doesn’t just look like bad weather, it looks like ethnic violence or religious violence or banditry or civil war.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, and you start the book with a chapter titled “Who Killed Ekaru Loruman?” in Kenya. And who was he, and what was your conclusion as to who killed him?

CHRISTIAN PARENTI: Ekaru Loruman was a Turkana pastoralist in northwest Kenya in the Rift Valley, and he had been killed the day before in a cattle raid. And so, I asked, you know, who killed him? At one level, a neighbor killed him, someone from the Pokot tribe who was trying to steal his cattle. And he was at a waterhole which was close to their territory because of this intense drought, and that was forcing the herds to concentrate around waterholes, because there wasn’t enough grazing elsewhere.

But then also, why weren’t there other waterholes? Partly because of neoliberalism. The Kenyan government has stripped away its support for farmers and herders.

And then, why was the raid so violent? Why was he killed with an AK-47? Why was this traditional pattern of cattle raiding, why did it look more like low-intensity conflict? That is, in part, the result of the Cold War, where there were all these proxy fights in the Global South that led to, among other things, state failure in Somalia. So now that whole region is full of cheap guns. There was a moment of state failure in Uganda, and weapons were looted there.

So, he was killed by climate change, as it is articulated through these other pre-existing crises. And around the world, I found, in doing this research, examples of that, where climate change is a direct cause of violence or sometimes an indirect cause of violence. But you look at many violent conflicts, and there is frequently a climatological aspect, not the primary thing necessarily, but an increasingly important aspect.

JUAN GONZALEZ: You also point out in the book—you have several chapters devoted to how the U.S. government and the Pentagon, particularly, is responding. At the same time that the Bush administration was denying climate change, the Pentagon was preparing for it.

CHRISTIAN PARENTI: Mm-hmm. The Pentagon, particularly around 2007, was putting out these reports and think tanks around them, realizing they were going to be called upon to respond to this problem. And to their credit, the armed services take climate change seriously, which is more than you can say for, say, the GOP leadership in the House. And what they see again and again is not so much a future of interstate conflict, but of irregular warfare within states—social breakdown, increased banditry, mass migration. And they realize they’re going to be called upon to respond to these low-intensity conflicts and these civil wars, so front and center in their program of response is counterinsurgency. And, you know, this goes by different names—small wars, low-intensity conflict, counterinsurgency. And this has, as part of the war on terror, become very important to U.S. foreign policy.

And I’m critical of that, one, because I don’t think it will work. I don’t think it’s moral. But also, counterinsurgency, if you look at its record, what it does to societies is very damaging. Because the object of counterinsurgency is the population rather than territory, it leaves societies fragmented and vulnerable. And you see in Central America, as you guys have reported, societies that were the front lines of counterinsurgency in the '70s and ’80s are now as violent as they were during the war, but it's a crime wave, which is the direct result of the legacy of counterinsurgency. And an interesting fact, you know, in World War I, five percent of casualties were civilian. World War II was 50 percent. By Vietnam, it was 80 percent. Now it’s up to 90 percent. And the—well, anyway, it’s just this is what is proposed as a way of managing the problem, and I think it won’t work, and it will make societies even less capable of adapting to the extreme weather and the necessary economic changes that they have to develop.

AMY GOODMAN: Tropic of Chaos is Christian Parenti’s book, Climate Change and the New Geography of Violence. When we come back from break, we’ll have Christian take us on a tour of the countries he visited and the way climate is changing there and what is happening to people in the most vulnerable countries. This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. And we welcome your questions and comments. You can send us by Twitter, by Facebook, your questions for Christian Parenti. Stay with us.


AMY GOODMAN: Our guest is Christian Parenti, contributing editor at The Nation magazine, author of a number of books. His most recent has just been published. It’s called Tropic of Chaos: Climate Change and the New Geography of Violence. And he has a cover story in The Nation magazine, “Pakistan One Year After the Floods: When Extreme Weather Hits amid Extreme Poverty, Escape Becomes Nearly Impossible.” Start there, Christian.

CHRISTIAN PARENTI: I was in Pakistan about a month ago, looking at the effect of the floods, which began last summer. And one thing I was surprised to see was that a lot of people who had been displaced by the floods were refusing to leave the refugee camps that they were in now, because they didn’t want to go to these landlords. And so, the flood, to me, revealed one of the underlying problems in Pakistan, which helps explain why it’s such a violent place. There’s an ethnic insurgency. There’s a religious insurgency. There’s a massive crime wave. And so, these peasants would say, you know, “We’d rather stay in these aid camps,” even as they cut off aid. They were protesting for the right to stay. The cops would attack them, because they didn’t want to go back to the countryside, where they would fall into debt to these landlords who have private prisons and treat them really as, you know, bonded servants. And this is an example of how climate change works through other problems. It exacerbates pre-existing problems. And so, the floods in Pakistan have, you know, primed yet another set of social problems. Where I was in Sindh, there’s no insurgency, but it was a very badly hit area for the flood. Just north of it in the Punjab, the Taliban are actually moving in there. And you can imagine what the long-term effects of these floods could be in terms of those types of politics. Where I was in Sindh, what you saw was mostly a rise of banditry and, you know, perhaps an incipient ethnic rebellion developing.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Talk about some of the other countries in that part of the world—Bangladesh, Kyrgyzstan—that you also write about.

CHRISTIAN PARENTI: Yeah, in—Kyrgyzstan is an interesting example. It’s not on many people’s radar here. But last spring, 2010, people might remember that there were these ethnic riots between Uzbeks and Kyrgyz that left the capital in ruins, and the government called for Russian troops to come in, and the Russians very wisely said, “No, we’re not going to do that.”

Well, you dig into what that story is, it’s not just a bunch of ethnic hatred between people. Kyrgyzstan gets 90 percent of its electricity from hydroelectric. They have this series of old Soviet dams. It’s been suffering, like Pakistan, like Afghanistan, like India, one of the worst droughts in living memory. So, the water level in these dams was half of what it should be. The government started rationing power as a result. Then comes the driest, coldest winter on record, and herds are dying, pensioners are freezing to death. Industry has to shut down because there’s not enough power. Unemployment soars. Then comes the spring. The president decides he wants to privatize the utility company, so he jacks the utility tariff by 100 percent and promises to jack it 100 percent more after that. And that’s what leads to these protests that then devolve into this ethnic rioting between Uzbeks and Kyrgyz. So, there’s a very clear, but attenuated—displaced through other issues, displaced through bad governance and neoliberalism—there’s this clear link to the climatological crisis in the region.

In Afghanistan, that’s where I kind of came up with the idea for this book. I was reporting on the poppy economy, the heroin economy, and asked the farmers, “Why are you growing this illegal crop that the government and NATO come after you for growing?” And one reason they would give was that it’s drought-resistant, which was actually the first I had heard of this drought. And then they kept repeating that, year after year, as I would do other stories on this. Turns out Afghanistan is suffering the worst drought in living memory, that coincides with the U.S. occupation there, and the Afghan government and the NATO forces attack poppy as part of their counterinsurgency strategy and nation-building strategy. The Taliban defend poppy. The farmers grow poppy because it uses one-fifth the amount of water that wheat uses.

So, along with the ethnic issues for young Pashtun men who join the Taliban and the religious ideology, there’s also a very material motive for the young recruits to the Taliban that is rooted in climate change, which is that the only way they can survive is to grow poppy. And one of these armed forces says, “We’ll protect you as you do that.” The other one says, “We’re going to eradicate your fields.” So that’s not the cause of the war, but it’s an important factor, and an increasingly important factor, in why it drags on and on and on and why there’s such a social crisis in Afghanistan that expresses itself as war.

JUAN GONZALEZ: So, in effect, in many of these instances that you’re talking about, what climate change is actually doing is almost like turbocharging or being the fuel to the existing conflicts, making them far worse than anyone envisioned that they would be, existing class conflicts or disparities that exist in the nation?

CHRISTIAN PARENTI: Yeah, exactly. And the Pentagon refers to it as a threat multiplier, which it sort of is. Speaking of the Pentagon, I was making a point earlier about counterinsurgency, I mean, the strange thing is that conventional warfare is associated with increased social solidarity—not that I’m for conventional warfare. But, you know, during the bombing of London, during the blitz, people came together. Out of that kind of comes social democracy in England.

Counterinsurgency, on the other hand, leaves societies divided, because the civil society is the battlefield. And the government forces, or the occupying forces, inevitably create paramilitary forces that are manned by criminals, that involves smuggling. It involves all sorts of criminality, that is a genie that, once the war is over and the mission completed, is impossible to put back in the bottle. And so, counterinsurgency as a response to climate change or a form of global management by the United States and rich countries essentially seeds the world with problems, that can range from crime waves to social breakdown.

AMY GOODMAN: Earlier this month, more than 3,000 participants from 180 countries gathered in Bonn, in Germany, to lay the foundation for the upcoming U.N. climate talks in Durban, South Africa. Tove Ryding headed the Greenpeace delegation at the talks.

TOVE RYDING: It’s easy for politicians to respond after a catastrophe has happened than to show and be proactive, to actually try to prevent the catastrophes before they happen. And that’s the essence of what we need in these negotiations. We need proactive politicians who actually take the opportunities to solve this problem before we end up in a climate disaster. After all, what we’re talking about here is actually millions of green jobs. It’s to transform our societies to energy systems that are safe, that are stable, and that are based on renewable energy and energy efficiency.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Tove Ryding of Greenpeace, Christian Parenti, in Bonn, Germany, recently talking about what has to be done.

CHRISTIAN PARENTI: Yeah. Unfortunately, you know, the international climate talks, due to the U.S., have really stalled out. And what’s necessary to deal with climate change and to avoid a future of warfare and social breakdown is both adaptation, because we’re locked in for climate change even under the best-case scenario, and mitigation. So, key facts that all your listeners, I’m sure, are aware of, that after 350 parts per million of CO2 in the atmosphere, we enter a danger zone, where there’s potentially self-fueling climate change. We’re now at 390 parts per million in the atmosphere. So, even if the world economy ceased operating tomorrow, there is going to be climate change kicking in and disrupting society over the next coming decades, and we need to adapt to that. War and banditry are a form of negative adaptation. Counterinsurgency, building borders, that’s a form of militarized adaptation.

There are also positive forms of adaptation that I found in the book. In northeast Brazil, this was almost like, if it didn’t exist, you’d want to invent it. It was the Movimento Sem Terra, the Landless People’s Movement in Brazil, was—which has been, as listeners to the show will know, very successful in redistributing land to the landless in Brazil. I found a place where they—there was a community that, on one side of a road, they owned land, and on another side of the road, they were occupying land from an absentee Italian rancher. On the land they owned, where they had rights, they were adapting new agro-ecological forestry methods, real low-tech drip irrigation, not using pesticides, not using fertilizer, restoring the soil. On the side of the road where they didn’t own land, where they were operating with greater risk, they used traditional mainstream methods of clearing the land, burning it, planting mono-crops, using pesticides, and they—you know, they were a bit embarrassed about this, because they were very proud of this green adaptive farming they were using. But they explained, “We can’t invest the five years it takes to get this up and running with these ecological methods, if we don’t have the right to this land.”

I mean, that’s a perfect example of how adaptation is social justice. I mean, people in the Global South are not going to be able to come up with new technologies and new economic forms of organization that can work with this extreme climate, if there isn’t at the center of that agenda social justice and redistribution of wealth, inside countries and globally, and also redistribution of technology and capital.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, Christian, I wanted to ask you about the negative adaptation in places like the United States. You also deal a lot with—in the book, you travel to Mexico and the U.S.-Mexico border and the huge wall going up. Earlier this week, the rising star of the Tea Party movement, Minnesota Congresswoman Michele Bachmann, launched her bid for the Republican 2012 presidential nomination. Bachmann and other Republicans are strong supporters of Senate Bill 1070, Arizona’s anti-immigrant law that empowers state and local law enforcement to stop, question and arrest whoever they suspect may be an undocumented immigrant. Here’s what Bachmann said about Senate Bill 1070 in an interview with All Patriots Media back in May 2010.

REP. MICHELE BACHMANN: What’s Arizona supposed to do? The federal government has fallen down on its job. It has failed to secure the borders, failed to protect the people of Arizona. When you have innocent Americans being killed on their ranches and in their homes, when you have Phoenix, the kidnap capital of the United States, I applaud Arizona for having to do whatever they can to keep their people safe.

JUAN GONZALEZ: That was Michele Bachmann. This whole idea of what has to be done to keep your people safe from the hordes coming over?

CHRISTIAN PARENTI: Yeah, I mean, you see in these anti-immigrant elements of the right in the Southwest the potential for a kind of green fascism. There are some of them that even make an environmental argument about immigration, and I think that that response is very dangerous. And one of the reasons people are leaving their homes in Latin America and coming to the U.S. is because of climate change. The other reasons are the history of U.S. military intervention and support for states that have engaged in counterinsurgency, and the U.S. support for neoliberal economic restructuring.

And in Juárez, I found numerous examples of people that I would consider climate refugees. One guy was a fisherman from Michoacán. He ended up at the border. When I met him, he’s sitting on the Rio Grande, looking in the U.S. He’s been deported. He’s saying, “You know, I really don’t want to get involved in the drug trade, but that’s like the only thing I can do here, if I can’t get back into the U.S.” His plight began in the late ’90s during an El Niño event, when warm water came up, and there was toxic algae plume that drove away the fish. You think, why would a small fisherman not be able to sustain one bad season? Part of the answer is, NAFTA had basically gutted all the old supports the Mexican government had for small fishermen. There were no more cooperatives and cheap loans, so he had to go into debt privately. He then lost his boat and migrated north and ended up in the U.S. and was kicked out of there, and then found himself, like many other people, in Juárez, you know, where he could—one way he could survive would be to get involved in the drug trade. Similar examples with some Tarahumara indigenous people who were driven off their land by a combination of drought and debt and deforestation.

So, Michele Bachmann’s vision of militarizing the border is incredibly dangerous, and the future projections for migration are intense. The U.N. says that, you know, possibly 10 times as many people could be on the move by the middle of the century as today. So we have to start looking at forms of adaptation to keep people on the land, to keep people productive in their home countries.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, this question follows from Facebook, from Dale Rodriguez on our Facebook page. He says, “Is there any way that regular people like me can really do anything to effect positive change in the climate wars? I ask because,” he says, “it seems as if the public is taken out of the conversation and the conversation is only between the government and big corporate interest.”

CHRISTIAN PARENTI: Yeah, well, I mean, we have to empower the social movements that exist to insert a third element, which is society and social movements. And there are actions planned in August in D.C. around opposing tar sands and the pipelines that would go to Canadian tar sands. This is one very simple easy point of purchase. If those incredibly filthy fuels are brought online, the emissions will be so enormous that it could wipe out all other efforts at mitigation. So there’s something that people can plug into. And there’s good groups like Greenpeace, Sierra Club, 350.org, that are organizing around this. Also, I mean, a key thing is the campaign against coal. We have to shut down coal mining, and there can’t be any new coal plants, and we have to take old coal plants offline.

AMY GOODMAN: Do you have any hope in the climate conference, the U.N. talk that’s going to take place in South Africa, in the Global South? I mean, Kumi Naidoo is there, head of Greenpeace, from South Africa, a well-known anti-apartheid activist, combining these two struggles.

CHRISTIAN PARENTI: I maintain hope, yes, but Obama’s record on this stuff has been really appalling. So I think that the—you know, the U.S. is not, I don’t think, in the next few years going to play a particularly positive role, so we have to be realistic about that. But I still maintain hope that the rest of the world can push this agenda of redistributing capital and technology to help people adapt.

And I end the book with, you know, a couple of very concrete, simple things that could be done without getting the Republicans to go along, without allocating new money. The federal government and state governments in this country constitute about a third of GDP. If they were serious about clean purchasing, of buying only clean electricity, only electric vehicles, that would be a way—that would be positive in and of itself. It would reduce emissions, but it would indirectly help create economies of scale for clean technology. And when those technologies are cheap enough, then there will be adaptation throughout the private sector.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to do part two with you after the show, and we’ll post it at democracynow.org. Christian Parenti’s book is Tropic of Chaos: Climate Change and the New Geography of Violence. He’ll be at the New School tonight at 7:00 at 55 West 13th Street, speaking about Tropic of Chaos.

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