Psychology of Climate Change: Social Instability
By Kati Corlew, Ph.D.
Pacific Regional Integrated Sciences and Assessments
American Navy Admiral Locklear Samuel J. Locklear III is the top military officer for the security of the United States in the Pacific, including trans-Pacific security threats from North Korea and other Asian locations. He is the leader of the United States Pacific Command (PACOM), which monitors security for a region covering approximately one half of the earth’s surface.
In March, 2013, Admiral Locklear stated that climate change is the largest threat to security in the region, as reported by the Boston Globe.
Admiral Locklear stated:
“Certainly weather patterns are more severe than they have been in the past. We are on super typhoon 27 or 28 this year in the Western Pacific. The average is about 17.”
Storms of this magnitude damage infrastructure and disrupt the stability of societal functioning. Crops are destroyed and freshwater is contaminated. With basic needs and social structures thrown into disorder or destroyed completely, communities (or even entire countries or regions) are left in a state of heightened instability that threatens security.
Additionally, sea level rise threatens the long-term ability of coastal and island communities to continue to be communities. The Boston Globe goes on to report:
“The ice is melting and sea is getting higher,” Locklear said, noting that 80 percent of the world’s population lives within 200 miles of the coast. “I’m into the consequence management side of it. I’m not a scientist, but the island of Tarawa in Kiribati, they’re contemplating moving their entire population to another country because [it] is not going to exist anymore.”
Wholesale migration of entire populations due to climate instability is expected to overlap heavily with the experiences of refugees from political instability and war. Climate refugees will be populations who have lost everything, perhaps even their country. Without their community structures and relationships, property, and political power, populations who are forced to migrate because of climate change may wind up in a nebulous, uncertain, and inherently unstable position. Instability is often coupled with violence.
In Community Psychology, we explore the ways in which our social, political, and natural environments affect the physical and psychological well-being of individuals and communities. In essence, context matters. Researchers have been documenting the effects of climate change and variability on community well-being. It has been shown, for example, that countries experiencing El Niño are more likely to also experience war.
“Countries where the majority of the population lives in areas that become much warmer in El Niño years (red) are more likely to experience wars than those where temperatures are less affected (blue).”
Of course, the El Niño Southern Oscillation (ENSO, which includes El Niño and La Niña) is a seasonal weather pattern, not climate change. Do these things even relate? A recent consensus report about climate change in the Pacific indicates that they do.
Despite rumors of perfect and unchanging island weather, the Pacific is actually home to some pretty dramatic seasonal changes. A strong El Niño year can mean some island nations run out of drinking and irrigation water while others are plagued with storms. La Niña years can have similarly dramatic effects. In fact, the difference between an El Niño year and a La Niña year can be so strong that in the coming decades, the effects of climate change may be overwhelmed.
That is to say, in some years ENSO may greatly exacerbate climate change, while in other years ENSO could reverse the trends entirely. This means that we cannot expect to see a smooth slope of increasing impacts with climate change. We will instead see periodic upswings in disasters and climate change impacts, coupled with periods of relative calm.
In the coming decades, we can therefore expect periodic upswings in social instability. These “human dimensions” of climate change impacts on communities must be addressed along with the physical impacts.
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