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Part 2: Friends of the Earth’s Asad Rehman on Climate Change and War

Web ExclusiveSeptember 24, 2014
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A day after some 400,000 people gathered in New York City for the largest climate change march in history, the United States began bombing militant targets inside Syria. In part two of our conversation, Asad Rehman, head of international climate for Friends of the Earth, discusses the connections between war and climate change.

Watch Part 1 of this interview.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman. Our guest, Asad Rehman, head of international climate for Friends of the Earth. Four hundred thousand people marched against global warming on Sunday for real action on climate change, the largest climate march, one of the largest political gatherings, in history. On Monday, more than a thousand flooded Wall Street. And then on Tuesday was a one-day U.N. climate summit, leading up to the summit in Peru and then next year, in 2015, the U.N. summit in Paris. But this week, as all of this was happening, the United States started pummeling Syria, attacking, they said, the Islamic State. What are the connections between war and climate change? Asad Rehman, can you talk about these connections?

ASAD REHMAN: Thank you. Well, as Friends of the Earth, we’re the world’s largest grassroots environmental justice federation, with our group spanning all over 70 countries around the world. And in many of the countries where we see discovery of natural resources, such as oil or coal, we see huge conflicts, both at a local level, for environmental issues, and then it’s a global level. And we, as an environmental justice organization, have always said, if we can find the trillions that we’re finding for conflict, whether it’s been the invasion of Iraq or Afghanistan or now the conflict in Syria, then we can find the kind of money that’s required for the energy transformation that will deliver clean energy, renewable energy for the 1.2 billion people without, and will deliver and transform our energy sector. So what we would like to see is a war, but a war on climate, a war on the right to food, a war on, you know, the right to energy, those to make sure that all the people, the citizens of the world, can have those kind of resources and the kind of living and the basics of life that we all aspire to.

And many of the conflicts that we see arise because of those particular issues. We see conflicts because there are stresses, whether it’s in terms of our water or stresses in terms of land, and those are exasperated. So the solution, in many places, isn’t to bomb the country; it’s to actually empower the communities, empower the people, to have a better life, to have renewable energy. And if we’re investing in renewable energy, I’m sure there would be very little conflict in terms of the Middle East. I’m sure that countries wouldn’t be wanting to go to war to try and defend wind turbines or solar panels in the Middle East, as they are about trying to defend the oil reserves there.

AMY GOODMAN: Are you saying, for example, that the war in Iraq, that began years ago, was actually about oil, what was under the ground, and who controlled it?

ASAD REHMAN: Well, in my other life, I was national organizer of the Stop the War Coalition and very involved in the antiwar movement. And I think it’s absolutely clear that one of the main motivations for the conflict in the Middle East was always about control of the oil reserves and that oil has been a curse on the people of the Middle East. It’s not brought the huge benefits that actually should have been brought. In fact, it’s been a harbinger of conflict and of violence and of destruction of ancient civilizations and communities and the lives of millions of people. So I would say that they would probably be saying, if only they didn’t have oil, then actually they would have had a much better life, they would have had much safer environments and a much safer life for themselves and their families.

AMY GOODMAN: And what about in other parts of the world, for example, in Latin America?

ASAD REHMAN: Well, what we’re seeing in Latin America, I mean, I think, is a deeper issue, and it’s a complex issue which the environmental justice and the social justice and the economic justice movements have been having a lot of discussion about. You know, can you develop your own country by exploiting the natural resources that are there? And unfortunately, for poorer countries, who have no resources, and where developed countries, who are primarily responsible for the climate crisis, as they are for other crises—20 percent of the world’s population responsible for 70 percent of the historic emissions that are in the atmosphere. They should be providing the finance for countries to be able to grow cleanly, to be able to develop, to be able to meet the very real, legitimate development needs of their own populations—the right to housing or to food, the right to education, the right to safe environment. All of those needs need to be met.

And when governments, rich countries, refuse to provide the finance for poorer countries to be able to grow cleanly, poorer countries are left with a stark choice: Do you exploit your natural resources? Do you exploit the oil that’s in the soil? Do you exploit the coal or the gas? And many countries, and particularly in Latin America, have decided that they have no option but to do that, which is also leading to conflict at a local and a national level between environmental groups and indigenous groups and the state. We would like to be in a position where actually, you know, governments stepped up to the mark. When Ecuador pulls the Yasuní project and said, “Pay us even a fraction of the price, and we’ll keep the oil in the ground. And we’ll be able to invest that in our infrastructure to develop a clean and green economy in Ecuador,” unfortunately, rich, developed countries turned their back on Ecuador, forcing Ecuador and Bolivia and other countries with that stark choice. I’d like a world where countries weren’t faced with that choice, where people weren’t faced with that choice. And I think that’s up to us to make sure our governments—rich, developed countries—provide that kind of finance.

AMY GOODMAN: What about how Venezuela fits into this picture? I mean, Venezuela is really a petro-state.

ASAD REHMAN: Absolutely, and I think there’s a big debate and a big issue in terms of, you know, what happens with, particularly in developing countries, those countries with big state oil companies and where the oil revenue is being used for social good. And what we, clearly—if you just take an environmental perspective and say absolutely it shouldn’t happen, then you’re brought into conflict with social justice aspirations of people, in terms of, yes, they want the right to better housing, etc. I think we have to have a win-win solution. So, we have the win-win solution in terms of, OK, is that their fair share? Where is the oil being exported to? Who is actually benefiting from the oil? Are the profits going to the Big Oil companies? Are they going for the big business and corporations in the West to continue an unsustainable consumption and production model? If it is, then local people aren’t benefiting. So what we have to do is help Venezuela transform from an oil and petro-state to one which can use its own natural resources to create a better environment.

AMY GOODMAN: Friends of the Earth is extensively working in Africa. What are the examples you see there of the pressure of getting the oil from the soil?

ASAD REHMAN: Well, one of our groups, Friends of the Earth Nigeria, an environmental rights action group, has been historically one of the groups at the forefront of campaigning around Shell and its operations in the Niger Delta. And if you go to the Niger Delta, if you see the communities there and the way that they are living in pollution, with oil slicks around them affecting their health, their local environment, poisoning their water, poisoning their fishing, then you realize that actually oil has been a curse for those local communities. It’s brought nothing but misery. And for many, many countries, what has been proven now is that when oil reserves are found, they only benefit the elites, they don’t benefit local people. And that’s why you see, in many countries, local communities saying, “No, we want to stop that exploration.” And you see that in Uganda, where Friends of the Earth Uganda is very actively involved in saying, “Look, we don’t have to exploit our natural resources if we’re finding oil. We can invest in green energy, clean energy. We can invest in food and agriculture. We can invest in other forms of economic activity which actually benefit people without polluting and destroying our countries.” So, in many, many countries, we’re seeing this.

And this is now happening not just, I think, in terms of in the Global South, but we’re also seeing it here in the North, as well. We see it in the United States and in the U.K. and in Europe, where local communities are saying no to fracking. And the argument is that the economic benefit of fracking, the economic benefit of tar sands in Canada, is better, but who is it better for? It’s not better for local people. The only people benefitting are the Big Oil companies, the Big Energy companies, and their profits.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, the Pentagon in the United States recognizes very clearly the dangers of climate change when it comes to fomenting wars as a result of, well, what are now being called “climate refugees.”

ASAD REHMAN: Absolutely, and I think there have been huge amount of studies, both by the American military, by the intelligence services here, and around the world, looking at the security threats. And we see, both in terms of the migration of people, the conflicts that arise because of the stresses on water or land. And we see, and we can map that, many of the conflicts that we see around the world, whether it’s in the Horn of Africa. When people say, “Well, you know, this is a tribal conflict,” actually, a lot of the times these are conflicts because climate has changed, food production is being affected, harvests are failing, stresses on the local water, access to who has access to water, and that leads to conflict.

But those climate refugees, you know, are overwhelmingly going to the poorer countries and neighboring countries. They are very rarely—they’re not reaching rich, developed countries. But the response of our rich, developed countries, whether it’s to the environmental crisis and climate crisis in Central and Latin America, is not to actually deal with the problem. It’s to build the walls higher, to electrify the fence, to look for a military solution to this. And that, unfortunately, is what leads to the hundreds of people, tragically, who are dying in boats trying to flee from Africa to Europe. What would be much better is if we took responsibility, because our actions—the way we live, the way our businesses act, the way our governments act—are responsible for creating the conflicts in the first place. So we need to step up.

So, the climate fight is not just an environmental fight. It’s a social fight, social justice fight, an economic justice fight. And that’s why what we saw, whether it’s been on the demonstrations on Sunday or what we’re seeing around the world now, is our movements are coming together. They understand that the climate crisis exasperates all other crises, that our solutions are the just solutions on economic and social justice. And that’s why you’re having trade unions marching with environmentalists, why you’re having indigenous communities marching with, you know, ecofeminists. We all recognize that we need a better, safer and more peaceful world, and that the climate crisis not only provides us a challenge, but actually the solutions in there can help create that better world I think we all want to aspire to.

AMY GOODMAN: Asad Rehman, I want to thank you for being with us, head of international climate for Friends of the Earth. This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman.

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