In Paris, taking stock of the big challenges

Climate change and terror are connected by a common source: the greed for fossil fuels without fostering liberal democracy.

January 04, 2016 01:49 am | Updated September 22, 2016 09:54 pm IST

“The Paris Agreement is nothing but a diplomatic victory for world powers, as they can now mobilise the deal to work towards alternative pathways to energy production.” Picture shows people drawing attention to populations threatened by rising seas and increasing droughts and floods, during COP21 in Paris.

“The Paris Agreement is nothing but a diplomatic victory for world powers, as they can now mobilise the deal to work towards alternative pathways to energy production.” Picture shows people drawing attention to populations threatened by rising seas and increasing droughts and floods, during COP21 in Paris.

A new year gives us an opportunity to learn from past lessons. Last year, two events made Paris appear on front-page headlines: the terror attacks and the climate deal. Could the Paris agreement be an answer to terrorism as we know it today? Aren’t climate change and terrorism manifestations of the same world process, even though their interconnections might be complicated?

A 2014 U.S. Department of Defense report pointed to climate change being one of the major threats to the country’s national security. In November, when Democratic presidential candidate > Bernie Sanders referred to the occurrence of drought in Syria as a push factor for terrorism in that country, most people had rubbished it as an overstretched argument, but retired U.S. Rear Admiral and meteorologist David W. Titley made the same point. The U.S. government reports note how climate change has the potential to create instability and poverty in countries it affects the most, leading to discontent that pushes people to take up arms.

But what voices in the U.S. fail to acknowledge is how both climate change and terror are consequences of the plundering of fossil fuels. The complicity of powerful nations such as the U.S. in creating a situation in which both terrorism and climate change have managed to thrive has not been emphasised by the mainstream discourse.

Gathering evidence The Nigerian energy activist, Ken Henshaw, while deposing against the U.S.-based international oil and gas company, ExxonMobil, at the >People’s Climate Summit on the sidelines of the 21st Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, drew linkages between oil extraction activities around the Niger delta and the rise of extremist groups such as Boko Haram. “Nigeria is now called a terrorist country due to >Boko Haram insurgency ,” he said. “Much of the insurgency exists in the region bordering Lake Chad. In the last ten years, the lake has shrunk 20 times its original size. Livestock cannot breed anymore in the lands around the lake... People have become destitute, [have] joined criminal gangs... insurgency and fundamentalism thrive, as it has become easier to recruit people.” He said that linking climate change to terror is often viewed as an exaggeration, but failing to see the connections between the two would leave us blind to one of the most obvious existential crises in the world.

The “resource curse” phenomenon is very much at work in countries such as Nigeria, where the wealth of natural resources has not empowered the local communities, but has fuelled social conflict instead. Conflict brews among agents of world powers that buy oil, the ruling elites who profit from selling it, and the local population that struggles to maintain control over these resources. This has created an ideal condition for terrorism to thrive. Let’s look at Afghanistan or Iraq. Though terrorist organisations such as the al-Qaeda trace their origins back to the Cold War days, what has exacerbated tensions in the country of its origin today is the struggle over controlling natural resources. The Iraq invasion too was primarily motivated by the U.S.’s own greed for oil. The works of leading intellectuals such as Noam Chomsky and Mahmood Mamdani have exposed how the U.S. “war on terror” is essentially a war for controlling oil resources. While Professor Chomsky’s work has focussed on the U.S.’s actions in Arab nations, Prof. Mamdani has written about the conflict in Darfur, Africa. In his 2003 essay ‘Wars of Terror’, Prof. Chomsky recalls how former U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower and his staff discussed the “campaign of hatred against us [the U.S.]” in the Arab world, “not by the governments but by the people”. The basic reason is the recognition that the U.S. supports corrupt and brutal governments and is “opposing political or economic progress” in order “to protect its interest in Near East oil”, Prof. Chomsky writes. Today, China too has joined this race to plunder, taking major initiatives to develop the Amu Darya basin in Afghanistan, to be able to drill oil from the region. But such exploitation, without addressing the problems of corruption and the lack of government accountability, has directly aided the cause of terror.

Another concern is how revenues from oil are helping to fund terror, as is the case of the Syrian oil fields helping fund the IS. And though the U.S. recently surpassed Saudi Arabia as the world’s largest producer of oil, it continues to depend on oil-rich countries for augmenting its fuel supplies. Nigeria, Saudi Arabia and Iraq figure in the top five countries from where the U.S. imports most of its oil. The oil dependency of the world powers is, thus, not only brewing trouble in countries from where the fuel is being extracted, but also making them vulnerable to attack from militant groups. It is this dependency that is also keeping the U.S. from acting decisively against the Saudi government, despite suspicion since the 9/11 days that the country is funding terrorist groups. Realising this, world powers are now switching to alternative sources of fuel such as shale gas, though environmental groups are resisting it, as it involves fracking.

Pact and context The Paris Agreement has to be, therefore, situated in this broader geopolitical context. It was hardly surprising that in the lead-up to the final day of the UN climate summit, Saudi Arabia, the largest oil supplier in the world until recently, was the one country that opposed the climate deal, as its economic interests were at stake. But it finally budged, as it found itself increasingly sidelined at the negotiating table. Clauses on human rights were dropped from the operative portions of the agreement text, in keeping with Saudi Arabia’s demands, in order to achieve consensus over the agreement. The >Paris Agreement is thus nothing but a diplomatic victor y for world powers, as they can now mobilise the deal to work towards alternative pathways to energy production. This will help reduce oil dependency in their economies, and also help devise methods to drive down the profitability of oil, which could dry up funding for terror as well. There remain fears that much like the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, the Paris agreement too could suffer from a lack of implementation from powerful nations. However, with world powers now compelled to act out of self-interest to keep terror at bay, one hopes things would be different this time. The lesson from Paris 2015 is this: until world powers stop digging black gold from Iraq, Africa and Saudi Arabia, the webs of violence, terror and climate change will continue to keep us trapped in the times to come.

(Email: The writer attended the COP21 summit in Paris as part of a UN Women delegation from South Asia.)

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