Is Climate Change Making You Wobbly in the Head?

Collide-a-ScapeBy Keith KloorApr 25, 2014 11:20 PM


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In the latest report issued last month by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), there is a chapter on human security that caught the media's attention. I thought Seth Borenstein's AP piece did a nice job distilling the chapter's essence:

Top scientists are saying that climate change will complicate and worsen existing global security problems, such as civil wars, strife between nations and refugees. They’re not saying it will cause violence, but will be an added factor making things even more dangerous.

No argument there. Of course, many headlines were sensational (including this one by the New York Post slapped on the AP article) and over the top. No surprise there. Around this time (early April), Joshua Busby, an international relations scholar at the University of Texas, cautioned in a post at the Washington Post's Monkey Cage blog: "...the care that the [IPCC] authors took in describing the state of scientific knowledge about violence and conflict may get lost. As scientific claims go public, they often lose their nuances." It didn't take long for that to happen with the climate change = war narrative. Here's a curious claim in an otherwise nuanced Climatewirearticle (my emphasis)

But researchers who work in the [environmental/climate security] field say the IPCC's scientific caution about the still-nascent field of academic study masks a growing certainty in security circles that climate change is dramatically destabilizing already-vulnerable communities.

The rest of the piece actually says there is no such certainty, a point underscored by this passage:

"It's ambiguous. It's complex. It's not going to be this simple 'climate causes conflict' narrative, but rather climate impacts things we know are connected to conflict. It's still very contested," said one person close to the [IPCC] report.

Now let's jump ahead to an article by Eric Holthaus that appeared last week at Slate. His takeaway from the chapter on human security and climate change in the latest IPCC report:

Climate change is already destabilizing nations and leading to wars.

Next, he writes:

That finding was highlighted in this week’s premiere of Showtime’s new star-studded climate change docu-dramaYears of Living Dangerously.

I recently explored the strained logic behind the Syria civil war/climate change connection. [UPDATE: For a richly informed perspective on the larger climate-conflict debate, see this related post by Tim Kovach.] Nonetheless, what we're starting to see is the conflation take shape: Climate change is already triggering civil wars like the one in Syria. Grist has cross-posted the Slate piece with this headline:

"Climate change war" is not a metaphor

The intended message: Climate change fueled war is real and it's happening now. It makes for an intoxicating storyline. If the simplicity of it makes you dizzy, then you should read the recent Slatearticle by Daniel Sarewitz. It'll go down like black coffee. He writes that,

with climate change being blamed for almost everything these days, the one phenomenon that seems to have escaped the notice of scientists, environmentalists and the media alike is that, perhaps above all, climate change is making us stupid.

That might be a little too strong. But it should sober you up.

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