You cannot have human rights where humans cannot live. You cannot have democracy where no demos is possible. Climate change is not a long-term problem, it is an immediate one which requires immediate action.
Climate change is on course to make large regions of the Middle East and North Africa uninhabitable by humans, with midday temperatures reaching highs of 46 degrees Celsius (115 degrees Fahrenheit) by the middle of the century and heat waves occurring potentially ten times more frequently than they do now. By 2025, an additional 80-100 million people in the region will be exposed to water stress — meaning that demand for water exceeds supply available, deteriorating both quantity and quality of fresh water. In a region already beset by water scarcity challenges, climate change will only exacerbate them.
Rising sea levels as a result of climate change pose an existential threat to several small island developing states, such as the Maldives, Kiribati, and Fiji. These states are at risk of becoming uninhabitable not because of a lack of water, but a lack of land. Not accounting for population growth in the meantime, this means over 2.5 million people will be forcibly displaced. These refugees will pose a stark challenge to the states to which they flee andere can be no bureaucratic or political stalling over accepting them. If they are not taken in, they have no land to which they can return. The wholesale disappearance of their territory poses another challenge: what happens to a state when their people remain but the land on which their state existed has become completely uninhabitable? What happens to the political authority of a state whose territory is lost not through political or military means, but from the land itself disappearing? What happens to the Fijians when there is no more Fiji?
Climate change is not exclusively a problem for other countries. It is directly tied to the drastic increase in size, frequency, and intensity of wildfires in the American west. Fires like the 2018 notorious Camp Fire in California are becoming more frequent as the climate of western regions becomes hotter and drier. When global average temperatures increase just one degree celsius, wildfire risks in much of the western half of the country increase by as much as 656 percent.
These are not all of the effects of climate change, nor are they the only challenges on this scale which climate change poses. They do, however, demonstrate the dire threat which we are meeting with relatively little alarm.
Some of the common goals of foreign policy, especially among western, developed states, are the pursuit of democracy and prosperity. The U.S. Department of State lists its vision as “[to] promote and demonstrate democratic values and advance a free, peaceful, and prosperous world,” for instance. These are admirable goals, and I am in no way a supporter of authoritarianism. My ideal world is filled with stable, prosperous, environmentally sustainable democracies which protect the human rights of all of their citizens. We may not have time to achieve this ideal world, at least not if our priorities are misaligned.
Put simply, while the pursuit of democracy and prosperity in states is incredibly important and necessary work, we must deal with the immediate existential threat of climate change before we can re-prioritize that goal. A green authoritarian state is better than an uninhabitable democracy. In Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, the need for food and water comes before the need for self-actualization, and parallel to that the need for a state to be able to provide life to its inhabitants must come before ensuring the political and economic rights.
While the Department of State also does environmental work, it is considered simply one part of the Office of the Under Secretary for Economic Growth, Energy, and the Environment, which is one of six under-secretariats within State. Environmental issues must be given a significantly more prominent role in American policy, as well as in the policies of all countries. Agreements to combat climate change, such as the Paris Accords, must be ambitious, universally adopted, and adhered to. The consumption of fossil fuels must be aggressively curtailed and replaced with renewable sources of energy. Environmentally sustainable practices must be enshrined in law and mainstreamed in all aspects of development and industry. Any progress made on the fronts of political freedom and economic development should have some connection with combating climate change.
This proposal may seem extreme, but extreme problems require extreme solutions. The time for half-measures and dragging our feet has ended. The time for real action has begun.
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Alex Casanas is an M.A. candidate in Middle East Studies specializing in international affairs and development at George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs. He previously studied at Gonzaga University, where he earned a B.A. in international relations.