The social cost of climate change

Sophie Trevitt writes. 

While it’s easy to think of climate change as an environmental issue, rising temperatures are already having a human impact, and women are especially effected.

 Young climate change activist and women’s rights advocate Ruth comes from Nairobi, Kenya and knows only too well the conflict precipitated by climate change. She tells the story of two neighbouring, pastoralist communities Sambure and Turkana that erupted into conflict about three months ago. Oil was discovered in Turkana in February/March this year. Ruth explains, “This place barely has roads, barely has anything! The government has not discovered a permanent source of water, but they let someone come in and discover oil – you can imagine the irony.” 

Cattle rustling has always occurred within the region and with food and water shortages and a lack of infrastructure, heads of cattle are very valuable. Situations like this are aggravated by weather of above normal temperature when the likelihood of violence leaps an enormous 30%; particularly in pastoralist communities where rainfall and water temperature determines the proximity between neighbouring communities. 

In this particular instance, the discovery of oil has shifted the political dynamic between the communities. Over a series of weeks, political clout was thrown around, fifty police officers were massacred in Sugutu Valley trying to recover stolen cattle, women were raped and villagers were killed. 

“Story is this – that region is resource rich.” And, in an area of political instability and harsh weather conditions due, at least in part, to the warming nature of climate change which renders land less arable and food more scarce; resource rich means conflict prone. Ruth tells similar stories of conflict which echo the trends showing that violence against girls and women, particularly sexual violence increases in times of political upheaval - which are frequently provoked by land, water and food disputes caused by climate change. 

Africa is not alone in its vulnerability to conflict contributed to by climate change but it is a good example of the way in which climate change is a “threat multiplier”. It exacerbates any pre-existing factors that could precipitate conflict such as poverty, food and water shortages or political instability. Nairobi, Ruth’s country, is not the only Kenyan region that is already experiencing the impacts of climate change. However, one of the additional complexities facing already under-resourced countries such as Kenya is that any strategy that attempts to adapt to climate must also appreciate the degrees and ways in which climate change impacts regions differently.

For example, ability to cope with climate change is likely to vary “across households and villages” depending on the already established adaptation mechanisms, different degrees of food and water scarcity and levels of pre-existing political and social unrest. It remains however, that “many people in Kenya rely on rain- fed agriculture for their livelihoods as small farmers or as employees in the commercial agricultural sector” and thus are particularly susceptible to changes in rainfall. These changes have dramatic impacts on food security which bring repercussions for land access and utilization which is already a “highly politicised issue” within the region. 

Ruth paints a vivid picture of the way in which the inability to cope with the changing environment can escalate and aggravate already unstable situations. She sets the scene by saying “I live in a country where the army is known for excesses and aggresses.” About three months ago a dispute broke out between two clans over arable land. The clans fought and militias were brought in to diffuse the conflict but instead killed 140 people over two weeks. The villagers discussed bringing the national army in to stop the bloodshed but decided not to “because even if they came the women would get raped and men would get killed”. The dispute between the clans began as a common-place land dispute but escalated into mass slaughter because of the increased resource pressure brought by the drier, hotter weather conditions.

Similarly, Ruth recounts the rape of ten thousand women that occurred in the Kenyan post-election violence. She says that the tightening of resources and changing weather conditions due to climate change has the capacity to re-enliven the inter-ethnic conflicts in a context where political and social stability remains precarious.

She makes a final point about the capacity of corrupt Governments and colluding corporations to use climate change as a tool of oppression. Ruth talks about LAPSET – a massive road and railway network and oil pipeline that stretch from Sudan to Ethiopia. She says that the project is “going to displace a lot of people but the Government isn’t willing to compensate anyone.” So instead they “destabilise a region so that nobody is going to say anything when you steal resources and when you go and mine and pollute the environment”. She uses this as an argument for renewable energy as not only a climate change mitigation strategy, but also as tool of liberation. “Renewable energy should be a big thing for us in Africa because corporations like Shell collude with our governments to oppress us.”

It is clearly established that women bear the brunt of the violence, the poverty and the work that comes part and parcel with climate change. And so, it is imperative not to separate climate change from the people whose lives it affects. To use the words of former British Foreign Secretary, Margaret Beckett; climate change “is not a matter of narrow national security; it is about our collective security in a fragile and increasingly interdependent world." The collective security, economic empowerment and equal standing of women all over the globe depends on providing the resources to adapt to the impacts of climate change that are already being experienced as well as reducing our collective emissions to avoid more precarious and volatile conditions in the future. 

Lead image via Shutterstock

profile of TheVine