The NIC's Global Trends report is wrong in one respect; the impact of climate change is not over the horizon, but recent history. The consequences of fragile resource security in regions with a sensitivity to the effects of climate change have already occurred. A recent report entitled 'The Arab Spring and Climate Change' by the Center for American Progress (CAP), the Stimson Center, and the Center for Climate and Security stated:
The early events of what came to be called the Arab Spring offered a textbook example of what analysts mean when they talk of complex causality and the role of climate change as a “threat multiplier”. A proximate factor behind the unrest was a spike in global food prices, which in turn was due in part to the extreme global weather in 2010-2011. This was not enough to trigger regime change - we have seen food-price spikes and food riots before - but it was a necessary part of this particular mix.
The 'Arab Spring' began in Tunisia on 19 December 2010, after a street vendor (Mohamed Bouazizi) carried out an act of self-immolation in protest of the country's widespread corruption. A revolution followed and the Tunisian government (backed by France and the U.S.) fell on 14 January 2011. Inspired by this victory, rebellions swept across the Middle East. In turn Egypt, Algeria, Yemen, Lebanon, Palestine, Jordan and Bahrain (14 February) all experienced tumult. In Libya (16 February) the government's opening dialogue with protesters consisted of massacre. A series of escalations followed until a state of civil war was reached. A month later Syria experienced the same steps; uprising, oppression, resistance and finally civil war. While the rebel forces (supported by a UN-mandated NATO intervention) of Libya defeated el-Qaddafi's regime (20 October), the Syrian conflict deadlocked, becoming a proxy war between just about every power with an interest in the region.
The genesis of the Arab Spring is found in the 2008 Bahrain, Egypt, Yemen and Jordan 'bread riots'. A series of extreme weather events, including drought in Australia and the U.S., flooding in India, and a cyclone in Burma created crop shortfalls which, in turn, caused food commodity prices to double. In response, many governments began to subsidise food. However, it was a costly policy, badly implemented. Two years later Russia, Ukraine, China and Argentina all experienced drought, while Canada, Australia and Brazil were hit by storms. Once again commodity costs sky-rocketed.
Before the civil war, the economic, political and social stagnation of Bashar al-Assad's Syria (usually self-sufficient in wheat production) faced the effects of the environmental crisis impacting other Arab Spring states. Francesco Femia, co-founder of the Center for Climate and Security:
We looked at the period between 2006 and 2011 that preceded the outbreak of the revolt that started in Daraa. During that time, up to 60 percent of Syria's land experienced one of the worst long-term droughts in modern history. Around 75 percent of farmers suffered total crop failure, so they moved into the cities. Farmers in the northeast lost 80 percent of their livestock, so they had to leave and find livelihoods elsewhere. They all moved into urban areas - urban areas that were already experiencing economic insecurity due to an influx of Iraqi and Palestinian refugees.
In 2011 [the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration] released a report showing that a prolonged period of drying in the Mediterranean and the Middle East was linked to climate change. It was in line with previous projections. And on their map, Syria was coloured bright red, meaning it had experienced the worst drying in the region.
School children writing on a wall, protesting a regime that, along with every other failing, was incapable of providing them with bread, ignited a war that has caused 120,000 deaths and created 2.3 million refugees. A war in which Russian and U.S. warships have faced each other in potentially the most dangerous use of ultimatums since the Cuban missile crisis and WWII. Admiral Locklear is right to fear climate change and if the headlong actions of the Five Eyes alliance are proportionate to a threat, it is difficult to imagine such capabilities being summoned to counter anything other than this crisis.
There was a further causal factor behind the Arab Spring that will not have escaped the attention of the U.S. Joint Task Force Commander of 'Operation Odyssey Dawn' (NATO's military intervention against el-Qaddafi), Admiral Locklear. That factor was Locklear's other security concern: cyberspace. Specifically, social media and WikiLeaks.
The former British MP and cabinet minister Tony Benn writing in the New Statesman, 14 April 2011:
The release of US diplomatic cables by WikiLeaks has shown the sensitivity of those in power to the idea that the public at large is able to read memorandums and papers that the establishment prepared for its own purposes.
Similarly in Egypt at the start of the year, the masses could gather in Tahrir Square in Cairo because texting, Facebook and Twitter freed them from dependence on the official sources of information, such as state-controlled television and newspapers.
WikiLeaks and the Arab world revolts remind us of the power of free-flowing information and its role in the development of society from the time of Caxton through to Google. The result in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya has been to make possible popular revolutions that would never have taken place had this information not been available.
The year 2010 may well be remembered as a watershed year when activists and journalists used new technology to speak truth to power and, in so doing, pushed for greater respect for human rights. It is also the year when repressive governments faced the real possibility that their days were numbered.
Information is a source of power, and for those challenging the abuse of power by states and other institutions, it is an exciting time.
[Mohamed Bouazizi’s] act of self-immolation happened around the same time as Wikileaks published documents showing that Western governments which had allied themselves with Ben ‘Ali’s government were aware of all these issues but apparently unwilling to exert external pressure on the government to respect human rights. The combination of these two events seems to have triggered widespread support for protesters in Tunisia.
Until Wikileaks, it appeared that governments believed they retained the upper hand. But [...] Wikileaks has changed the nature of the game with regard to who controls information.
There is a world of difference between knowing something and knowing it for a fact. Today truth can move rapidly and cannot be destroyed once released. It generates powerful emotions that can be translated into action. ZDNet's Zack Whittaker: “the Wikileaks cables release spread quickly through social networks, like Facebook and Twitter. These 'viral' methods of communication and instant dissemination of information became one of the primary sources for the Tunisian people to organise protests, rallies and demonstrations.”
In response, the Arab Spring regimes attempted to interdict protesters' communications. The Tunisian Internet Agency's director Kamel Saadaoui: “I think Ben Ali did not realize where the situation was going or that he could be taken down. Maybe if he had known that, he would have cut the internet. But the number of blocked sites did grow drastically when the revolution started. They were trying desperately to block any site that spoke about Sidi Bouzid. In a few weeks the number doubled.”
Wired has detailed how Tunisian authorities used "a country-level keystroke logger, with the passwords presumably being fed from the ISPs to the Ben Ali regime" to disrupt protests. Facebook's Chief Security Officer Joe Sullivan: "We've had to deal with ISPs in the past who have tried to filter or block our site. In this case, we were confronted by ISPs that were doing something unprecedented in that they were being very active in their attempts to intercept user information."
In every case, the Arab Spring regimes failed to suppress the flow of information or quell their populations. In all, five governments were overthrown and seven conceded to reform demands. It remains to be seen how resistant to reactionism the revolutions and protest movements will be. There have been setbacks and the Syrian civil war continues.
The Spring and Occupy movements were driven by similar issues and the U.S. government followed the Arab autocracies' methods of oppression. There was a difference, in that social media (in the U.S.) was not interrupted but instead used to monitor the movement.
There were other differences between the Spring and Occupy movements. In the U.S. no one was in a state of desperation, no one was starving. The U.S. GDP (PPP) per capita is $49,965 and Tunisia's is $9,795. Levels of inequality (measured by the Gini index) are comparable at 45 and 41.4 respectively. In Tunisia, the protests were created, sustained and expanded in a markedly different context from the Occupy movement's demonstrations.
Had circumstances seen the Occupy protests threaten the state, the U.S. government would have followed every step of the Arab Spring regimes, until faced with the final question.
That no meaningful reform has taken place in the U.S. since the 2007–08 financial crisis, can only mean that another one will occur. The paralysis of politics in the U.S. is becoming dangerous. At some point, as in the Arab Spring, the U.S. elites will meet with different conditions.