The apple core I had just tossed had no sooner hit the bottom of the bin when I heard the familiar scolding from my mom. Once again, I had forgotten to put it in the compost bin.
As a kid, I didn’t really know why I needed to be environmentally conscious, whether it was recycling water bottles, turning off the lights after leaving a room or taking short showers to conserve water. Sure, we want to keep polar bears around for the next generation and make sure that coral reefs don’t die from bleaching, but I didn’t know of any reason to care in the grand scheme of things.
I’m definitely not alone. The New York Times surveyed Americans in March about how they perceived the threat of climate change. Though a majority of respondents agreed that climate change is a threat to some Americans, few believed that it would personally affect them.
This apathy about climate change is ignorant at best and dangerous at worst. Climate change is not just about saving the polar bears — it is fundamentally a humanitarian issue that will impact every person on Earth, and we can already see where climate is impacting society.
Take the Syrian Civil War, for example. The war started in 2011 as part of the Arab Spring, a social and political movement that swept across the Middle East and North Africa. Syrians protested against their government, citing grievances including food shortages and corrupt governance. The government responded by opening fire on protesters. Today, Syria is divided between government, rebel and terrorist control, with little hope of resolution in the near future.
This war cannot be understood without acknowledging the unprecedented drought that preceded it from 2006 to 2010. A 2016 study of historical rainfall amounts in the region from the Journal of Geophysical Research determined that this was likely the worst drought in over 500 years. Another analysis, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in 2015, concluded that the drought was likely a result of anthropogenic climate change.
The drought devastated rural regions in Syria. The prices of grain and livestock more than doubled as agricultural production fell and herds perished. To survive, farmers in rural regions migrated to the cities, where population rose by more than 50 percent over eight years.
Combined with ineffective resource management, the drought inevitably led to conflict. To date, Human Rights Watch estimates that the war has killed about 470,000, created 4.8 million refugees and internally displaced another 6.1 million.
Syria isn’t the only country where climate change has caused civil strife. Yemen, a country on the Arabian Peninsula, had its own uprising in 2011 as part of the Arab Spring, and the government responded with lethal force. This led to a coup in late 2014, which turned into a civil war that remains a crisis today.
Given the changing climate, conflict was inevitable in Yemen. The country has experienced a drastic decrease in water supply. With decreasing water supplies, Al-Thawra, the country’s leading newspaper, found in 2015 that anywhere from 70 to 80 percent of all conflict in Yemen’s rural regions are based in a lack of access to water.
One cause of this water shortage is climate change. No rivers flow through Yemen, meaning the only source of freshwater is rainfall. Most of the country already receives very little rainfall, and the drying climate takes away what little freshwater Yemenis have.
This water shortage has led to Yemen’s current humanitarian crisis. According to a 2014 U.N. report, over half the country has no access to clean water and about 40 percent are food-insecure. Yemen is also currently experiencing the world’s largest outbreak of cholera, a disease primarily spread through unsanitary drinking water.
Of course, Syria and Yemen aren’t the only places where climate change has had a humanitarian impact already. Countless other countries are susceptible to humanitarian crises in the near future, particularly poor nations in Africa and the Caribbean. In our country’s own backyard, Hurricanes Harvey and Irma brought destruction on a massive level — according to United Nations agency UNOSAT, more than 88 percent of buildings on the island of Barbuda were damaged or destroyed by the storms.
On a national level, there’s not much impact we can make. The Trump administration in June announced the United States’ withdrawal from the Paris Accords, effectively dismissing climate change.
This means it’s more important than ever to reduce our personal contributions to climate change. We can recycle our water bottles, turn off the lights when we leave the room and take shorter showers — all of which are great first steps on the path to halt climate change.
By being environmentally conscientious, we aren’t just saving wildlife. We’re preventing the civil strife over resources that we see in war-torn regions from becoming a global — and yes, a domestic — occurrence.
The people we help by fighting climate-induced crises won’t all be from far-flung corners of the globe — some will be right down the street.
Write to Brian at firstname.lastname@example.org.