Spring Thaw: What Role Did Climate Change and Natural Resource Scarcity Play in the Arab Spring?
Several high-profile reports in the last few months have suggested that climate change and natural resource scarcity contributed to the events that have rocked the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) since December 2010. Thomas Friedman is apparently working on a Showtime documentary about the topic. But what exactly was the role of environmental factors in the mass movement?
According to the authors of The Arab Spring and Climate Change, a series of essays edited by Caitlin E. Werrell and Francesco Femia and jointly published by the Center for American Progress, Stimson Center, and Center for Climate and Security, while political uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Syria, and elsewhere were a direct response to oppressive governments and social dissatisfaction, climate change may have acted as a “threat multiplier,” further exacerbating the underlying causes of revolution.
“Global warming may not have caused the Arab Spring, but it may have made it come earlier,” write Sarah Johnstone and Jeffrey Mazo of the International Institute for Strategic Studies in one essay.
Another report, Underpinning the MENA Democratic Transition, published by E3G, cautions that economic shocks driven by climate change and resource scarcity in the region could challenge fledgling democracies. “Failing to invest in preventive measures now will generate future risks that require additional government capacity to manage,” they write.
“The world is entering a period of 'ag-flation,’ or inflation driven by rising prices for agricultural commodities,” warn Johnstone and Mazo.
Egyptians, for example, depend on bread for one-third of their caloric intake and spend an average of 38 percent of their income on food, writes Troy Sternberg of Oxford University in The Arab Spring and Climate Change, but the country’s arid climate and poor resource management means it cannot produce enough wheat for domestic demand. As a result, Egypt is the world’s largest wheat importer, buying 9.8 million metric tons in 2010.
In the winter of 2010 and 2011, China – the world’s largest wheat producer – was struck by a “once-in-a-century” drought. At the same time, wheat production in Russia, Ukraine, and Canada also fell dramatically due to drought, wildfires, and abnormal cold (Canada). With global wheat supplies constricted, the Egyptian government failed to balance subsidies and market prices with public needs. According to research by Johnstone and Mazo, at the time of the uprisings in early 2011, food prices had increased by 20 percent, and 40 million Egyptians – about half of the population – were receiving food rations.
“We have reached the point where a regional climate event can have a global extent,” writes Sternberg. Nine of the top ten wheat-importing countries per capita in the world are in the Middle East, and seven of those countries experienced violent political protests in 2011.
“The failure by governments in the region to ensure their citizens’ food security during the 2010 price spike undermined any residual legitimacy of regimes rife with corruption and unable to effectively address poverty and unemployment,” Nick Mabey and his co-authors write in Underpinning the MENA Democratic Transition.
Reducing the Vulnerability of New Democracies
Climate change not only contributed to the timing of the Arab Spring, argue Mabey et al., but it may also impede the spread of democracy moving forward.
While international attention has been focused on building democratic institutions, stabilizing living standards should be a higher priority, they write. New democracies are especially vulnerable to economic shocks, and, as demonstrated by the events of 2010 and 2011, livelihoods in Middle East and North Africa are uniquely affected by climate change and food price spikes. Investments in energy, water, and food security therefore have the potential to have outsized effects on living standards and in turn the chances of democracy surviving, they argue.
Why is the region so vulnerable? Because in addition to the environmental challenges already present, especially drastic changes in resource availability are projected for the near future:
"Tunisia, for example, will see a decrease in available drinking water of 30 percent by 2030; increases in the likelihood of crop season failure of over 50 percent by 2050; and over five percent of its population would be impacted by a one meter sea level rise. Egypt’s concentration of industry and population in the Nile Delta makes it the third most vulnerable developing country in the world to sea level rise. There are also potential risks from international disputes over the Nile Basin management as water flows become more volatile and upstream countries drier due to climate change. … Modeling suggests that major import crops like wheat are likely to increase in price by up to 80 percent by 2030 due to growing global demand; climate change could increase prices by a further 40 percent."
To support democracy, Mabey et al. write, “development strategies in the region need to focus more strongly on building economic and social resilience alongside broader-based economic growth.”
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