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Extreme Weather Events May Shape the 21st Century, as Wars Shaped the Last Century

David Callahan

Veterans Day has long been a moment to reflect on how successive wars of the 20th Century reshaped America and the world. But judging by what just happened in the Philippines, we could well be living in a century where cataclysmic weather events play that history altering role. 

First, a brief point about the decline of war. While literally dozens of armed conflicts are going around the world right now, none of them involve great powers -- or have in decades. That stands in stark contrast to the 20th Century when the mightiest industrial nations slugged it out both directly and via proxy (e.g., Vietnam) on multiple occasions, reshaping history in the process. My bet is that peace endures between the great powers in coming decades given their close economic interdependence and the spread of democratic norms. 
Meanwhile, though, climate change is shaping up as force equal in danger to, say, fascism or militarism -- although granted, I'm comparing two very different kinds of phenomena. We can't say for sure whether the typhoon that hit the Philippines -- the strongest hurricane ever seen anywhere -- was caused by climate change, but we can add this devastating storm to a growing list of other lethal weather events over recent years as the Earth's temperature has hit record hits. 
A big storm that wipes out rural parts of a developing country is nothing like World War II, but consider this scenario: Climate change causes widespread drought, which drives up food prices worldwide, which leads to civil unrest in the Middle East and a wave of popular revolts that remake the region. According to some analyses, that's a close approximation to how things unfolded with the Arab Spring. 
Of course, I realize that separating out climate change and warfare makes no sense, since a large body of evidence suggests that climate change is already a driver of instability and violence, and this will get worse in coming decades. As Christian Parenti showed in his alarming 2011 book The Tropic of Chaos, the perennial scourge of warfare is becoming entwined with the new phenomenon of climate change. 
So far, the violence caused by climate change has mainly been in Africa, which has been hit hardest by climate change. But that is likely to change down the road, and Parenti shows effects elsewhere in the world, too. 
And even if climate change doesn't drive so much violence directly, the economic and human disruption of climate change could unfold on a scale comparable to major wars -- for instance, as millions of climate refugees streams out of places like Bangladesh, or the American Southwest for that matter. 
What's going to happen if the great rivers of Asia dry up because the snowpack of the Himalayas disappears? Or if New York City gets hit by a real hurricane, dealing a huge blow to the world economy?
A century ago, on the eve of World War I, the leading powers of the world engaged in various efforts to contain growing militarism and nationalism, and promote peace. Those efforts failed -- and failed again after World War I. A big lesson of that failure is that nations must try harder when overriding threats to humanity loom on the horizon. Today, as we remember veterans of war and watch in horror what's happened in the Philippines, we should reflect on that lesson.