Blog: Stop Thinking About Climate Change as an Environmental Issue

By Brittany Tabora

Climate change is an environmental issue – but not just in the traditional sense of the word. If you define ‘environment’ as everything that surrounds an individual, the stereotypical ecological term is expanded to include issues such as human rights, inequality, conflict, poverty, gender, national security, health, etc. Climate change has a relationship with all of these issues because it acts as a root driver, a catalyst, a multiplier – a force that makes crises easier to break out and harder to resolve.

In order to effectively and meaningfully address climate change, we have to reframe the way we think about it. We must stop siloing issues into their respective headings, and instead draw connections between climate change and other problems to recognize and treat it with the urgency and gravity it demands.

We have already seen the catalytic and multiplying effect of climate change. In a seminal 2015 study by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the U.S.A, researchers concluded that “human influences on the climate system are implicated in the current Syrian conflict.” Prior to the outbreak of civil war, there was a drought which was the worst in the past 900 years, leading to large-scale crop failures and displacement of hundreds of thousands of rural families. While it is misleading to say the drought caused the Syrian civil war, the study claims that the severe drought was the consequence of human intervention with the climate. Additionally, we must remember that the linkages between climate change and conflict are not one-way interactions. War has profound negative impacts on the environment, releasing toxic substances into the ground, air, and water, destroying environmental governance systems, and damaging critical infrastructure like oil refineries and waste treatment centers.

Expected impacts and adaptive capability jointly affect a country’s capacity to cope with effects of climate change. Syria’s climate-induced displacement compounded existing stressors like ethnic conflict, weak agricultural policy, ineffective government response to growing discontent from former farmers, rapidly growing urban populations, and the accompanying stresses on resources and opportunities, creating the conditions for the outbreak of war. Countries with weak governance, economies, infrastructure, and few resources are much less able to prepare for and respond to climate effects.

Bangladesh has been cited as one of the countries most vulnerable to climate change by several indices. A low-lying country with large coastlines, Bangladesh faces rising sea levels, severe flooding, tropical cyclones, and increasing salinization of inland soils. Internal displacement has been a long-running trend in the country; however, the added variable of climate change only accelerates this process. Many of the climate-induced migrants that flee to the capital of Dhaka are victims of flooding or riverbed erosion in agrarian regions.

This is the case for Shoma, a 13-year-old girl who had to follow her father to Dhaka after her family lost their farm to flooding. In the city, her parents became even more impoverished and didn’t have a choice but to marry her off. Her mother said that had their family been able to stay in their village, they would have been able to wait until Shoma was 18 when she would have more freedom to make her own decisions.

In Bangladesh, where 18 percent of girls are married before the age of 15, child marriage is a huge problem and one of the many hidden connections to climate change. Looking at this problem more holistically, we see that climate change acted as a root driver by pushing Shoma’s family into another climate-vulnerable area, and further into poverty. With the added factor of gender discrimination, Shoma had to drop out of school and become a child bride.

We need to recognize the role that climate change plays in problems like child marriage, human trafficking, lack of education for girls, disease outbreaks, wars over water, increased nuclear risks, increased mental illnesses, rises in food prices, among so many others. These linkages are not as easy to draw, but it is necessary to recognize climate change as an integral factor in these problems. Additionally, we must remember that climate change is an issue of justice. The people who suffer the most – impoverished people, children, indigenous people, ethnic and racial minorities – are not the people contributing to climate change the most. Countries, corporations, and individuals with highly consumptive lifestyles have the moral responsibility to reduce our carbon footprint.

While climate change is dire and addressing it can seem extremely daunting, there are already so many people and organizations acting as great examples for the rest of the world. Pointing to Bangladesh again, community members, domestic academic institutions, international organizations, and local NGOs have worked collaboratively to help create floating gardens that families can use to produce food for consumption. In the village of Goalbari, the Christian Commission for Development in Bangladesh — with funding from the Norwegian Church Aid organization — helped identify the village’s most vulnerable households, researchers helped to improve the community’s design for the gardens by making them stay afloat for longer periods of time, and the women’s collective provided microloans to other women who wished to invest in gardens for their families. Additionally, project managers listened to both men and women community members to identify and understand their future needs, which is essential input when planning or implementing any community project.

This type of cross-sectoral action is crucial. We need different actors to work together and through multiple channels to help empower communities and individuals to build their own adaptive capacity, while also addressing other underlying causes such as poverty and gender discrimination.

Recognizing the linkages between climate change and other issues is key to understanding its widespread importance and to addressing it in an effective way. In order to mitigate and adapt to ever-increasing future challenges, there needs to be awareness and resilience initiatives on all levels – international bodies, national and local governments, policymakers, corporations, civil society organizations, non-governmental organizations, advocacy groups, activists, and everyday people.

How we act is dependent on how we see the world, and so the first and most important step for addressing climate change lies in changing the way we think. We have to stop talking about climate change like it’s just an environmental issue and understand that climate change lies at the core of today’s most pressing issues. For some of us, this may mean just making these connections between climate change and the issues we care about. For others, it means incorporating climate change into our work, whether that be awareness or advocacy campaigns, news articles, academic research, policy briefs, or policy itself. We must not only view climate change as part of a system, but also address it as a system and ensure all stakeholders are included in the conversation. Climate change is a defining issue of our time. Let’s start treating it like one.

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Brittany Tabora is a former intern for the Global Progressive Hub. She is currently a junior at Cornell University, studying International Agriculture and Rural Development. She is passionate about international development and women’s rights, and believes that recognizing the perspectives of multiple disciplines is essential for addressing the world’s most pressing issues.