Author and journalist Christian Parenti called for government action to address climate change during a lecture Thursday evening.

The talk focused on issues raised in Parenti’s latest book “Tropic of Chaos: Climate Change and the New Geography of Violence,” in which he discusses the confluence of social and economic conflict, violence and climate change.

The Department of English, Program in the Environment, Graham Sustainability Institute, LSA, the Erb Institute and the King-Chavez-Parks Initiative, a state funding faculty fellowship, sponsored the event.

Gregg Crane, director of the Program in the Environment, said he was interested in having Parenti speak to the academic community because he exemplifies a scholar and journalist taking a stance on a controversial debate.

“It raises the question of when is it fair game or when is it proper for scholars and academics to get involved in policy,” Crane said. “He offers evidence and comment that would push us in a certain policy direction.”

Parenti said the idea for the book emerged from years of reporting in conflict zones. He said that experience fostered an interest in uncovering the causes of violence in these countries.

Parenti mentioned the War in Afghanistan and the ways in which climate change influenced the rise of poppy cultivation, a significant source of support for the Taliban. In a country that has been plagued by protracted drought since the 1990s, farmers were attracted to poppy cultivation — despite its illegality and inherent risk — because the crop was five times more drought resistant than wheat, a staple crop for many agricultural economies.

Parenti called this cause-and-effect relationship a “climate change-related causality.”

“Even in that war that has so many other causes and has gone on for so long, there was an element of a climatic cause to it, ” Parenti said. “The drought meant that there was only one crop that farmers can grow and can survive, and that’s poppy. That in turn helps explain why the farmers support insurgents who in turn support them.”

Parenti’s book focuses on the causality between climate and violence, a relationship that has been particularly prominent in the Global South, a socio-economic geographic term that refers to Africa, Latin America, and parts of Asia.

“I set out to unpack the climatological element in different conflicts around the world,” Parenti said. “I wanted to provide a progressive, left critique and explanation of the idea of state failure.”

Parenti argued that climate change driven by human activity is exacerbating violence in conflict countries because of two factors: the legacy of Cold War militarism and the rise of neoliberal economic thought.

Parenti said brutal counterinsurgency tactics such as torture, burning of villages and relocation of massive populations in Latin America, Africa and Asia during the latter half of the 19th century has permanently damaged the social fabric of these societies. In turn, he said people have responded violently due to the existence of weak states and the availability of cheap weapons.

Specifically, the collapse of the governments of Uganda and Somalia in the 1990s led to the outflow of cheap weapons to surrounding conflict regions through the black market from both these countries.

“These regions are littered with cheap weaponry,” he said. “There are people who can’t afford transistor radios or flashlights but they can pay for AK47’s and few bullets. That’s how people adapt to climate change.”

Parenti said in many developing countries, the rise of neoliberal economic thought resulted in weak governments with little power to regulate the economic market.

This school of thought advocates for a laissez-faire market and the reduction of government regulation of the economy. The philosophy is commonly associated with economists Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman.

As climate change caused extreme weather and economic downturn due to food, water and energy shortages, Parenti said states became unable to respond to such problems. In countries that were already facing political strife, these conditions lead people to turn to insurgent militaristic groups such as Boko Haram or the Islamic State.

“States were left as hollow, often corrupt shells of their former selves that don’t have the capacity to mitigate or adapt to climate change,” Parenti said. “People turn to the state and there’s nothing there, so what do you do? Well, there’s the guns, the old networks and the charismatic leaders with their crackpot millenarian schemes and their ethnic hatreds.”

The lecture also discussed how the United States has played a role in the recent escalation of climate violence following the Arab Spring, namely a reinvigoration of the War on Terror with recent activity in Iraq and Syria.

“The U.S. participation in the (Syrian War) has also been a form of climate violence, though not often recognized as such,” Parenti said.

A lasting solution must encompass both climate change mitigation and adaptation, Parenti said. Mitigation involves reducing greenhouse gas emissions and stemming reliance on fossil fuels. Adaptation involves adjusting society to properly manage problems caused by climate change such as urban fuel pollution and rising water levels.

The lecture emphasized that while the military plays a primary role when intervening in global conflicts, the government is a key driver in combatting a problem’s roots. Parenti argued that ultimately civilian policymakers are the ones who will have to respond to the core problems of reducing greenhouse gas emissions and adapting to new challenges raised by climate change.

Students and university communities also play a role in mobilizing policymakers to adopt sound environmental policies.

“People can just sink into kind of like a quiet careerist sensibility, and all student movements help shake that up and politicize campus life,” Parenti said of the role of student movements on college campuses.

“Students can create social movements that pressure their campus to consume clean energy and pressure their campuses to divest (from fossil fuels),” Parenti said. “They can also be part of a national movement that pressures government.”

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