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Dealing with unrest, forgetting the environment

June 21, 2016
IranWire Blogger
7 min read
Dealing with unrest, forgetting the environment

How can environment experts in Iran and the wider region feed into climate change policy? And is the rest of the world listening? Sam Khosravifard investigates.

Environmental degradation in an undeniable reality, a wheel of destruction countries around the globe are struggling to stop, or at least slow down. But for developing countries, particularly those going through political turmoil, the challenges can be even greater. How is environmental policy shaped in these countries, and can leaders meet the necessary demands to help improve the global situation?

Every year, conferences and intergovernmental meetings take place around the world, with the aim of identifying a solution that will save Planet Earth. But for many developing countries, particularly those facing political and economic challenges as well as unrest and turmoil, environmental issues are often not a priority. And although heads of states continue to sign treaties and conventions to protect the environment, these commitments have not been enough to prevent global environmental devastation.

The task of reducing carbon dioxide emission is difficult for any country or government. The role developing countries can play to reduce environmental damage was set out during the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris in December 2015, also known as the 21st session of the Conference of the Parties (COP21), and is still discussed and debated in the media and among experts today, with solutions for cutting global emissions commanding considerable attention across social networks and mainstream media. At the same time, skepticism around the topic is also rife, with commentators and pundits questioning whether governments will actually have the ability — or the will — to achieve the targets to tackle climate change agreed by leaders in Paris. Targets include reducing greenhouse gas emissions, but also providing financial support to developing countries so that they can adequately meet the challenges that climate change initiatives present.

Negotiations between countries started at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992, and continue to the present day. The next climate change conference, COP22, is due to take place in Morocco in November 2016. 

The conference in Paris and continuing negotiations have commanded global attention. But political conflicts, which might have an impact on environmental management, have been less of a concern. A tweet summarized this negligence, albeit indirectly: “I did it! Raised the topic of political conflicts and its impact on biodiversity and ecosystem services in middle east to #IPBES #Asia #Pacific.” Dr. Aidin Niamir from the Senckenberg Biodiversity and Climate Research Centre posted the tweet, neatly reflecting debates coming out of an Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) meeting in Tokyo in August 2015. Over the course of the five-day meeting, close to 140 experts and academics addressed the six components of the IPBES Conceptual Framework —  which included acknowledgment of how nature benefits people and societies and interact.

The IPBES was established in April 2012 to “synthesize, review, assess and critically evaluate relevant information and knowledge generated globally by governments, academia, scientific organizations, non-governmental organizations and indigenous communities”, according to its website. Working with scientists and politicians, it has established a systematic mechanism to address biodiversity issues with the aim of applying natural science to decision-making at all levels.

Dr. Aidin Niamir’s tweet raised many questions: What is the effect of political conflict on biodiversity? Do politicians or citizens from those regions with high rates of unrest and conflicts — including many countries in the Middle East — prioritize or even consider environmental issues? How many experts from conflict and violence-ridden countries regularly participate in IPBES regional assessments and reports?

“Prior to the meeting and looking at the participants list, I noticed there were no delegates from the Asian subregion [based on the UN Geoscheme],” Niamir told me. “During the opening ceremony, I realized that countries currently experiencing unrest, violence or social disturbance are minimally represented.” He added that whenever human crisis moves to the foreground of a nation or region’s concerns, biodiversity issues get neglected. Middle Eastern  leaders have been notably silent on climate change, offering little or no explanation about what they are doing to combat it in their countries or in the region. 

Let’s assume that the absence of experts from countries facing especially severe political and economic challenges at the last IPBES summit was a coincidence. If, in fact, experts from these countries do participate actively in IPBES and similar meetings, and their input receives genuine consideration, then it raises another set of important questions. Is there any indication that their expertise has been taken into account when preparing guidelines or agendas in their own countries at the national scale? How influential have they been in regulating, adjusting or making strategic decisions with the aim of decreasing pressure on biodiversity and environmental resources?

If the answer is “very little”, then the decision-making processes should be reconsidered — simply because some of the largest environmental and biodiversity challenges come from the very countries that are underrepresented and suffer from severe political and economic instability. For example, there are high numbers of dust storms and water depletion in Middle Eastern countries, and instances of wildlife poaching in many African countries. Although intergovernmental decisions have had some positive impacts at the local or regional level, their influence has not been great enough to cease or even slow down the degradation of biodiversity and biocapacity around the world. Instead, it is more likely that further environmental pressure will actually introduce greater social and political conflicts.

The idea that scarce resources can result in human conflict has been a subject for debate for decades. Dr. Thomas Homer-Dixon, professor in the Faculty of Environment of Waterloo University, Canada illustrates in his book The Environment, Scarcity and Violence that insufficiency in environmental resources can contribute to violent conflicts, while human cruelty in turn might affect biodiversity and environmental values. Pundits refer to the phenomenon as “reciprocal causation”. 

Some researchers argue that unrest in the Middle East is a result of water scarcity. For instance, experts, including Dr. Jessica Barnes, assistant professor at the department of geography at the University of South Carolina and Dr. Peter Gleick, researcher at the Pacific Institute based in Oakland, California, have acknowledged that the turmoil in Syria, from the rebellion in 2011 to the present, is a result of water shortage, which has gradually worsened across the country. The shortage is a result of climate change, poor policy and an unstable political environment. According to Barnes, the water crisis in Syria is a direct result of agriculture policy. Writing in Geopolitics, a peer-reviewed Journal, she said the conflict was partially “a consequence of the ruling Ba’th party’s continuous promotion of water-intensive agriculture.”

Gleick highlights the other side of the reciprocal causation: “The conflict in Syria has also seen the targeting of water systems. During fighting around the city of Aleppo in the fall of 2012, the major pipeline delivering water to the city was badly damaged.” Dr. Gleick describes the extent of the devastation for the people of Aleppo: “In September the city of about three million people was suffering shortages of drinking water.”

For a variety of reasons, it is clear that the Middle East is facing catastrophic environmental conditions, and decreasing groundwater resources, increases in temperature, frequent dust storms, and population growth are likely to make living conditions even tougher than that currently experienced. If politicians continue to have a paternalistic attitude and continue to mismanage the environment, the entire region is likely to become uninhabitable.

Signing up to conventions and organizing intergovernmental platforms continue to be necessary, specifically from a political point of view. But it has not been enough, and the outcomes of these summits haven’t been influential enough to slow down the rate of devastation across the globe. Politicians must take a step back to make room for compromises, and have the foresight to take environmental conservation much more seriously. They must consult directly with biodiversity and environmental experts, involving them directly not only in discussions, but also in policy decisions on regional and global scales. We are running out of time. Governments must take action now. 








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