Climate change and the way we respond to it is much more than an environmental issue. If we don’t tackle the climate emergency urgently, society will become very different to how it currently is and both national and global economies will be much, much weaker. No issue can be dealt with alone – it will take a much broader response to create a more sustainable world for us to live in. This blog, however, is looking much closer at the societal impact of inaction.
A planet with warming air and warming oceans create conditions that will increase the intensity and frequency of extreme short- and long-term weather and events. In a previous blog, I looked at how the UK would have to get used to major flooding events occurring on an increasingly regular basis as warming conditions better suited the formation and strengthening of storms. That was just a UK example.
The fact of the matter is is that the USA and the Caribbean will encounter a greater number of hurricanes with stronger winds and heavier rains. Widespread drought will increase the size of deserts and increase the number of people living in poverty all over the world, and sea level will force the hundreds of millions of people living within just a few kilometres of the coast out of their homes and further inland.
As these extreme weather events occur, society is put on hold. Whether that’s in global cities or the smallest rural villages, daily life stops for a short time before people return and rebuild; society becomes unsettled and some look to exploit that. Combine that with socioeconomic factors that had already caused cracks in society and the results can be devastating. In fact, that’s just how the Sicilian Mafia first found power.
The Origins of the Sicilian Mafia
The Sicilian Mafia can be tenuously dated back to the 1700s, although it wasn’t until the 1860s when the group began to emerge. Much of Sicily was in poverty and there was very little invested into the island’s infrastructure. People were angry towards the Church and State for doing little to help but this peaked in 1893 and allowed the Mafia to gain a foothold.
An intense drought in 1893 that lasted two years had a devastating impact on crops grown on the Italian island and amplified the poor conditions that many were suffering in. Without help from the State or Church, a Socialist uprising that demanded better pay and greater security began against those in charge. Unable to do much about it from the Italian mainland, the State, landowners and managers of agricultural estates looked towards the Mafia to suppress the uprising, helping the criminal organisation grow and integrate itself within local government and judicial structures in the 20th century.
Fast Forward to the Modern Day
I’m not saying that an extreme weather or climatic event, like what was seen in Sicily in 1893, is going to lead to the formation of any group like the Mafia, but the temporary (or longer lasting) breakdown in society that happens after extreme events can expose cracks in society that already existed and be a trigger for the worst case scenario to become more of a reality.
I’m also not saying that the 1893 drought in Sicily was a result of climate change. The industrial revolution was in full flight in cities all over Europe at this point but it’s difficult to say that the emissions that were being pumped into the atmosphere were already having an impact on extreme weather events. However, it absolutely highlights the ability of extreme weather events to push an already fragile society over the edge. The emergence of the Sicilian Mafia isn’t the only example of this either.
One of the more recent civil wars in the Middle East also has roots in climate change and devastating climactic events. Between 2006 and 2010, Syria was in the midst of a drought that led to continual crop failures, water shortages and mass unemployment all over the country. The uprising that began, at least in part due to the drought, led to a bloody civil war that has crippled Syria and contributed to the rise of ISIS in the region.
Tens of thousands of Africans are also fleeing from drought, poverty and famine in their home countries and heading towards Europe in search for a better life and better economic opportunities for themselves and their families. Many head to Libya where promise of transport to Europe is incredibly enticing for those that are desperate to cross.
The fall of Colonel Gaddafi during the Arab Spring has allowed for the emergence and growth of criminal gangs and traffickers to make huge amounts of money filling boats with desperate people and sailing them into the Mediterranean Sea. The lawless, political vacuum that has existed since 2011 has allowed these gangs to thrive and helped create the migrant crisis that has led to the rise in nationalism all over Europe.
Those that do make it across to Europe are often in no better position than they were back in their home country. To return full circle to the Sicilian Mafia, migrants who make it across become owned by someone who hires them out for work, taking majority of any wages earned and forcing them to live in tents or makeshift huts. To call this a re-emergence of the slave trade would not be overstating just what is happening in North Africa and Southern Europe.
There are a lot of aspects that have combined to create the trafficking gangs in North Africa, the migrant crisis in Europe and the rise of nationalism, but at the base of this is the migration of people out of their home countries due to extreme events and growing poverty due to the climate emergency. There are already thousands trying to make the trip, without action that number will only increase in the years to come.
It’s All Linked
If we’re to create the sustainable planet that we need to survive and thrive on this planet, then heeding the warnings from the 1890s and the more modern examples discussed above are of utmost importance – each example is the result of a number of factors all coming together at an opportune time to result in some of the biggest crises in the world. However, what is undeniable is that an extreme weather event has been part of each. If we don’t act on climate change and limit warming, extreme weather events are going to increase in intensity and frequency and we will continue to see the worst of society exploit that.
This isn’t specific to just extreme weather events, either. The COVID-19 pandemic has the vast majority of us on lockdown, many who should be on lockdown, and some of the most incredible people in society working incredible hours to keep everyone as safe as possible. However, many in the fossil fuel industry are pushing for governments to relax regulations on emissions and pollution at a time when we should be doing more to ensure that air is cleaner and the environment healthier than it was before this pandemic.
If we don’t act on climate change, society will become more vulnerable to those that will take advantage of a crisis. More frequent and more intense extreme events will become increasingly unsustainable for society, whilst also having a major impact on the economy and the environment.