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Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

Syria and Climate Change
distributed 1/30/15 - ©2015

I was surprised by our lack of passion. A crowd of informed, concerned church people were talking about the devastating impacts of climate change, and the conversation was dry and technical. Lots of head, and very little heart.

Saturday morning in a church basement, for the second day of an intellectually-packed set of lectures, may have dampened the emotional tone. But the style of our discussion wasn't all that unusual. Climate change is hard to talk about, hard to think about, in a way that engages us deeply.

The solution to this emotional disconnect is hard, too. Connecting the dots to reveal the full extent of a crisis was the painful, conflictual, truth-telling and possibility-opening work of the biblical prophets. It is a faithful work that needs to be taken on today, if we're going to come to grips with the climate crisis.

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The workshop leader had broken us into small groups. Six of us gathered around a table, with newsprint and markers. Draw a picture, he said, of the effects of climate change.

We ran through the usual list, with the semi-technical language of those who have studied the issues. "Extreme weather events" -- a combination of drought and floods and powerful storms. "Sea level rise" -- inundating Miami Beach, island nations like Tuvalu, much of Bangladesh, and the whole Mekong Delta. Melting ice -- at the polar ice caps and Greenland, and with glaciers and snowfields around the world. The pictures we drew were cartoon-like icons of scientific research.

The disasters seemed huge, but also sort of manageable. From our comfortable setting, floods and blizzards are inconvenient and disruptive, but recovery is possible. Droughts happen, and relief efforts help. Rising seas creep up gradually, and island nations are planning to relocate their entire populations. It is sad, but it seemed very abstract.

I stretched my thinking to find something that would hit us harder. I told the folk around my table of articles that say the Syrian civil war and the rise of the Islamic State are a result of climate change. My friends looked up in surprise.

I sketched out what I could remember. Years of exceptional drought in Syria caused food shortages and drove farmers off the land. Impoverished village folk moved to the cities, with no jobs and no communities of support. The repressive and corrupt government did little to help, and crushed dissent. What had been a tense, but stable, political situation fell apart with the added stress of prolonged drought. (A short on-line "comic book" about "Syria's Climate Conflict" gives a vivid summary of what can be dry academic research.)

Experts tell us that the same interplay of climate factors and failing states led to the Arab Spring in 2011, which started with protests over high food prices. "Extreme weather events" are not just about crop failures or rampaging floods. They have a ripple effect that quickly spreads and amplifies into social turmoil.

I've learned that the term used by security analysts is "threat multiplier." A retired Pakistani general, who now works for the Global Military Advisory Council on Climate Change, said, "Climate change is indeed a threat multiplier, exacerbating existing pressures as well as presenting new challenges to security in fragile societies."

A paper from the American Meteorological Society "assesses the complicated connections between water and conflict in Syria." They note that, "Because conflicts are rarely, if ever, attributable to single causes, conflict analysis and concomitant efforts at reducing the risks of conflict must consider a multitude of complex relationships and contributing factors."

An extended drought, by itself, does not lead to a revolution. But it is a powerful threat multiplier that escalates other simmering conflicts. Thomas Friedman writes about a million Syrian farmers and herders leaving the land and going to the cities, where they overwhelmed the infrastructure. "They didn't start the revolution, but when the revolution started, they couldn't wait to join."

"Extreme weather events" didn't hit home for our workshop group, but civil war and spreading Middle Eastern turmoil provided a genuinely frightening image of a climate distorted world. Suddenly, it didn't seem abstract at all.

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Describing the complicated "threat multipliers" of climate change is not fun. It makes us realize that the world is more out of control than we thought. Chaos is close at hand. Our friends and neighbors, or fellow church members, may not be grateful if we tell them about the second- and third-tier effects of climate disruptions.

But if we don't name that frightening truth, then climate change seems far too manageable. If we look only at the direct effects, then it seems possible to "adapt" with relief efforts and engineering projects. We won't be motivated to change.

Climate disruptions as threat multipliers show why we must act quickly to reduce greenhouse emissions. Otherwise borderline -- or even stable -- societies around the world will collapse into conflict and chaos. It is a frightening prospect, and we need that powerful, emotional reaction to move us, individually and as a society, toward change.

In our church communities, we want to spread good news. We want to proclaim hope and healing. An explanation of climate change and "threat multipliers" does not feel like good news. But an honest description of what is going on is faithful news. It is the sort of horrifying message announced by the prophet Jeremiah to call his people to repentance. (I discussed one of those passages in "Doom and Gloom, Old and New".)

The possibility of good news is a step down the road from admitting the terror. Only when we recognize what is going on, only when we realize that we cannot continue on this path, only then do we open ourselves to the hope-filled possibility of change. Only when we come to grips with chaos and devastation can we perceive the genuine good news of getting ourselves back into right relationship with God's creation.

In the spirit of the biblical prophets, faithful churches today will dare to name the frightening reality already taking shape around us. We will connect the dots of climate disruptions and existing injustice. We will show that our global society is moving quickly toward chaos.

Then, and only then, faithful churches will be able to name the good news which is adequate for the bad situation. God calls us to shalom -- to right relationship with all of creation -- and that way of life is more just and joyous than our way of destruction.

To get to the good news, we have to face the bad news. Churches -- which gather as ongoing communities -- are a setting where we can work through that difficult process of honesty, fear and then hope. May we do so carefully, boldly, and soon.

Shalom!

Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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