2017-12-20 / Voice at the Shore

Stockton lecturer links climate change to genocide

By ELLEN WEISMAN STRENGER
Voice shore editor


Professor Alex Alvarez, Stockton’s Ida E. King Memorial Lecturer, with Holocaust Resource Center Executive Committee Chair Susan Lang (left) and Executive Committee member Barbara Roth. Professor Alex Alvarez, Stockton’s Ida E. King Memorial Lecturer, with Holocaust Resource Center Executive Committee Chair Susan Lang (left) and Executive Committee member Barbara Roth. Could climate change cause genocide?

Most definitely, said Dr. Alex Alvarez to the roughly 75 students and community members attending Stockton University’s Annual Ida E. King Memorial Lecture on November 28.

Alvarez, a visiting professor of Holocaust and Genocide Studies at Stockton who teaches at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff, gave a lecture entitled “Unstable Ground: Climate Change, Borders, and Genocide.” That is also the title of his recent book, published in July.

The lecture’s basic premise: Climate change leads to natural disasters such as flooding in coastal areas (notably, Alvarez said that nearly half of all people on earth live within 60 miles of a coastline), as well as droughts and an increased incidence of devastating storms, such as the recent hurricanes. Such disasters create enormous social stress and havoc that can lead to violence and genocide, especially in areas of the world that are already poor and unstable.

“In July 2015, the Pentagon issued a report asserting that climate change represents an ‘urgent and growing threat’ to national security because it will create continuous and ongoing stresses that will challenge the ability of communities and nations to meet the needs of their populations,” said Alvarez.

“These stressors will accumulate over time, sometimes… eroding the ability of any particular state to adapt,” he added— unless that state has a great deal of “social, economic, and political resiliency,” something more likely be found in wealthier nations.

Climate-related problems have wreaked havoc throughout history, said Alvarez, who cited several recent examples of how environmental issues have led to civil unrest and genocide.

In Darfur, water was “at the heart of the genocide” that began in 2003, said Alvarez. Members of Arabic semi-nomadic tribes in arid, drought-prone North Darfur (which borders the Sahara Desert) were willingly recruited by the government to “participate in the genocide” of tribal groups in wetter South Darfur.

“Killing and displacing tribal groups that stood in their way” enabled North Darfur tribesman to take over more lush grazing lands with water for their livestock, he explained.

Similarly, drought was a major factor in the Syrian conflict. “The ongoing conflict in Syria can be partially traced to the social and political unrest brought about by a deep drought in the region” from 2006 to 2009, said Alvarez. That drought resulted in the loss of half of the wheat crop, two-thirds of the barley, and one-third of the livestock, all of which heightened tension within the country.

Conflict and unrest in one nation can have a domino effect. The government of Democratic Republic of Congo failed in the mid-1990s with disastrous consequences in part due to stresses created by a stream of refugees into DRC from the Rwandan genocide.

“The resulting turmoil and conflict helped destabilize the entire region,” noted Alvarez. Once the Democratic Republic of Congo’s government fell, the civil war that ensued resulted in the loss of five million lives and widespread sexual assault. Neighboring countries also took advantage of the conflict, using it as an opportunity “to gain access to the Congo’s natural resources,” he said.

Instability and war create ripe conditions for genocide. “Communities come together during times of threat, but this also increases the risks for populations who ‘don’t belong,’ who are defined as ‘the enemy’ or as ‘outsiders,’” said Alvarez. “Targeting internal enemies for elimination is the essence of genocide.”

This clearly happened in Nazi Germany, and could potentially happen again as climate change adds to the extreme stresses that many nations face. “Just as Hitler and the Nazis scapegoated the Jews for Germany’s defeat in the First World War and the subsequent collapse of the German economy during the Great Depression, so too others may blame vulnerable groups for the problems of a particular place and time,” he noted.

Today, refugees represent a huge and growing group of at-risk outsiders—and many more people are projected to become refugees over the next 30 years as they are displaced from their homes by climate change-related incidents. The International Organization for Migration predicted that 200 million people would likely be displaced, said Alvarez. A report released last month “suggests that climate change will create the world’s biggest refugee crisis ever,” he noted. That impending refugee crisis, combined with the hostile attitudes currently faced by immigrants (which Alvarez calls “crimmigration”) in the economically stressed U.S. and Europe, “is deeply worrying,” he said. Alvarez emphasized that conflict and genocide are not inevitable outcomes of climate change, but rather the worst-case scenario of what could happen. “The trick is to find ways to resist the leaders, processes, and mentalities that have been shown to lead to intolerance, violence and conflict, and to nurture and accelerate those that lead to cooperation, tolerance, and non-violent solutions,” he said. “Our future quite literally depends upon it.” 

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