The March of Climate Determinism

By Keith Kloor | March 20, 2014 12:35 pm

In the late 2000s, a new climate change story line emerged in the media.

The seeds for this narrative were perhaps sown ten years ago, when a worst-case scenario report commissioned by the Pentagon triggered breathless headlines about a research field known as “abrupt climate change.” Perhaps you saw the 2004 movie.

The sensationalist portrayal of a sudden climate-induced doomsday was dismissed in scientific circles as implausible, but the film caught people’s attention.

What followed was a more sober analysis from Beltway think tanks assessing the linkages between climate change and geopolitical strife. Congress held hearings on the climate/national security nexus and the issue –while politically contentious–was taken seriously in the U.S. military and intelligence communities. Indeed, climate change was projected to be a major driver of future conflicts and instability around the world.

I wrote about this emerging issue on numerous occasions in the late 2000s, including in this space. (Here’s a more recent round-up of high profile studies.)

In the last several years, some scholars and influential pundits have argued that global warming played a major role in the Arab Spring. The notion that climate change sparked Syria’s hellish civil war has also gained currency in some circles.

When we get to this point–when famines and wars with deeply rooted socio-political causes–are attributed to climate change–we are approaching the same territory inhabited by those who routinely cast every severe weather event and catastrophe in the context of climate change. (This unfortunate tendency is rued by some in the climate community.)

Researchers who study the environment/security intersection–and who strive to remain unbiased–know that the climate change-security discourse has taken a problematic direction. (Indeed, some warned about it.) At the Woodrow Wilson Center’s Environmental Change and Security program, read this new post by Francois Gemenne, who writes:

Debate on the human security dimensions of climate change has often been cast from a deterministic perspective, where global warming will automatically translate into mass migrations, competition for resources and land, and ultimately conflict and devastation. There are two problems with this rhetoric.

To understand those problems, read the whole commentary. And when you’re done, check out this 2007 piece by Mike Hulme, who also warned about the seduction of climate determinism.


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About Keith Kloor

Keith Kloor is a NYC-based journalist, and an adjunct professor of journalism at New York University. His work has appeared in Slate, Science, Discover, and the Washington Post magazine, among other outlets.From 2000 to 2008, he was a senior editor at Audubon Magazine.In 2008-2009, he was a Fellow at the University of Colorado’s Center for Environmental Journalism, in Boulder, where he studied how a changing environment (including climate change) influenced prehistoric societies in the U.S. Southwest.He covers a wide range of topics, from conservation biology and biotechnology to urban planning and archaeology.


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