The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The instabilities of climate change have arrived

President Biden on Sept. 7 tours a neighborhood in Queens that was affected by the remnants of Hurricane Ida. (Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images)
Placeholder while article actions load

The Central Asian countries of Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan merge at one central point in a sort of swirl, with Uzbekistan at one point sitting north of Kyrgyzstan, which sits north of Uzbekistan, which sits north of Tajikistan, which sits north of Kyrgyzstan, which sits north of Tajikistan, like a geographic parfait. It is a place where border disputes are understandable to the point of unavoidable, and where, four months ago, one erupted.

There were a lot of reasons that Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan took up arms, leading to dozens of deaths, mostly reasons dependent on the specific political intricacies of the region. But a report from the independent research group Bellingcat identified another likely trigger, one that's immediately understandable: drought.

“[A] deeper look at satellite imagery reveals another possible reason why tensions have been high in the area — its changing climate, which has put water and arable land at a premium,” the site reported. “Data indicate less rainfall, lower ground temperature, and poorer vegetation health in the year preceding the clashes.”

It's obviously the case that armed conflict can erupt when resources are under threat or contested. What Bellingcat's article suggests is that this particular conflict, one that escaped the notice of most Americans, was driven specifically by a shift in resources that followed changes that stemmed from climate change.

It would not be the first conflict in which changes due to climate change were identified as a central trigger. In 2007, U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon linked the civil war in Sudan’s Darfur region to drought stemming from climate change. There’s an active debate over the extent to which changes in the climate helped spur the seemingly endless civil war in Syria. Nor is war the only negative effect of the changing climate. Drought in Central America spurred some of the migration from that region toward the United States. The World Bank in 2018 estimated that 140 million people might eventually be displaced from Africa, South Asia and Central and South America due to water shortages and agricultural shifts.

President Biden’s inauguration brought with it a renewed federal focus on climate change, manifested, among other ways, in a renewed focus on environmental shifts as a national security threat. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin released a statement soon after assuming command at the Pentagon, announcing that the department would “immediately take appropriate policy actions to prioritize climate change considerations in our activities and risk assessments, to mitigate this driver of insecurity.” At Biden’s direction, it continued, the department would begin to “include the security implications of climate change in our risk analyses, strategy development, and planning guidance.”

This was not a new focus: The national security community has been paying attention to the risks posed by climate change for decades, from the effects of rising sea levels on naval installations to the instability that’s expected to accompany both acute and chronic natural disasters. It was, instead, a reversion to the mean after an administration that often tried to muffle concerns about the changing climate.

Since Biden took office, the potent risks of climate change have been manifested repeatedly in the United States. A Washington Post analysis found that nearly a third of Americans live in a county or state where a disaster area has been declared this summer. That includes those affected by Hurricane Ida, which made landfall in Louisiana, releasing devastating winds and storm surge before its remnants drenched Northeastern states with enormous amounts of rain within a few short hours. As Biden pointed out in a visit to the affected Northeast region on Tuesday, more people died from the storm there than along the Gulf Coast. In part, that’s because the Northeast was seemingly caught by surprise when the deluge arrived.

“I know these disasters won’t stop,” Biden said during the visit — “they're only going to come with more frequency and ferocity.”

“We’ve got to listen to the scientists and the economists and the national security experts,” he said at another point. “They all tell us this is code red; the nation and the world are in peril. And that’s not hyperbole. That is a fact. They’ve been warning us the extreme weather would get more extreme over the decade, and we’re living it in real time now.”

Consider being the president of the United States in a moment where massive wildfires are destroying parts of drought-stricken California and huge hurricanes, powered by warm ocean water, are flattening parts of the South and drowning parts of the North — imagine not then prioritizing efforts to deal with climate change. Just as drought led to conflict in Kyrgyzstan, it leads to stresses in California. Just as changes to the weather force migration in Africa, they force migration within the United States. New Orleans is 20 percent less populated than it was in 2000 thanks in part to Hurricane Katrina. Hurricane Maria reshaped Puerto Rico in 2017. The wildfires in California are playing a role in its recall election for governor, even as farmworkers in that state’s agricultural heart are considering their options for survival. The effects are often more subtle, like a decline in home sales in areas of Florida most at risk from the flooding that will accompany higher sea levels. (It is unknown how many of those houses were purchased by Aquaman.)

In other words, climate change threatens to increase political and economic instability in the United States in hard-to-predict ways. The choice has long been whether to force small changes now — in things like greenhouse gas emissions and investments in infrastructure upgrades — or to deal with large, uncontrolled changes in the future. This is a political challenge, given that voters respond far more positively to spending money in the wake of disaster than to spending (less) money to prevent it from happening in the first place. But it’s also a power struggle because those smaller changes incur some costs and necessitate some behavioral changes often from more-powerful and wealthier Americans.

Biden spoke to that group on Tuesday while standing in a neighborhood in Queens where several people drowned in Ida's rains.

“The people who stand on the other side of the fences, who don’t live there, who are yelling that we’re talking about interfering with free enterprise by doing something about climate change? They don’t live there,” Biden said. It wasn’t the wealthy Manhattanites who contribute millions to political campaigns who were trapped in flooding basement apartments.

The president’s point was that the country needs to make some investments now, including from the wealthy and powerful, to lessen the long-term challenges. This is central to his infrastructure agenda, a proposal that inherits some of the economy-shifting ideas included in the Green New Deal. (Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), one of that legislation’s primary sponsors, joined Biden in New York.) His point was: We have been told for decades what was coming and now we’re seeing it, here and elsewhere, in ways and places we might not have expected — and that the moment to address climate change has come.

In reality, of course, that moment is long past.