Australia: Fanning the Flames of Warming and Warfare

Australia's coal exports, and the carbon emissions that come with them, threaten the Great Barrier Reef. (Photo: Proper Dave)

"These trends are going to go on and on unless we can stabilize emissions of our greenhouse gases," former Australian Climate Commissioner Will Steffen said on the recent bush fires that swept through South Australia. The Australian science community cites these record temperatures and weather patterns as evidence of anthropogenic climate change. "We need basically to decarbonize the world economy. ... We need to do this rapidly. We need to do this deeply," Steffen said in summing up the key message of the forthcoming climate change talks in Paris.

Like so many warnings on the world's environment, these latest ones are overshadowed by yet another terror incident, this time in Paris. Two weeks previously, a major terrorist incident occurred opposite a key media outlet in Sydney. The terrorist claimed it was a consequence of Australia's military presence in Iraq. So the question is, are government policies, in particular those of the current Australian government related to Iraq, compounding terrorism to the detriment of the environment? And if so, how would a greater effort to address climate change affect the turmoil in the Middle East and terrorist attacks in the West? Is there a connection?

Take the present situation in Australia. When the catastrophic South Australian bush fires were raging last week, Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott flew to Iraq, even though Australia has never received a request from the current Iraqi government to be there militarily. Noting this, television spokesman on international affairs Dr. Keith Suter said Abbott's agenda on Iraq is a mystery. One thing is clear, though. Australia’s presence in Iraq and focus on terrorism take the spotlight off its non-compliance in dealing with climate change.

Reality is starting to set in. Bush fires have become a veritable facet of summer in parts of Australia, and storms are getting wilder. Globally, the World Meteorological Organization has acknowledged that extreme weather events are on the rise as a result of human actions. Abbott, however, has repealed a carbon tax and taken no steps to regulate carbon emissions. He has practically dismantled every environmental body in the country while continuing to export coal at an exponential rate. Abbott even went to great lengths to keep climate change off the agenda of the G20 conference last year.

At the same time, since again embroiling the Australian militarily in Iraq, more terrorist attacks have occurred locally. Would it be happening if governments like the Abbott government spent more time and energy addressing the environment?

Regional accord

Addressing carbon emissions and resource management can lead to progressive political accord at the regional level. Regional cooperation is vital to dispelling the radicalized war machine of ISIS and addressing terrorism generally in the Middle East. A political framework transcending sectarian rivalries would be the only means to this end. This is where dealing with the environment could potentially advance this necessary regional accord, because the issue transcends the rivalries, warfare and political vacuums that have led to ISIS and terrorism. Regional bodies are also powerful regulatory bulwarks. They embody the systemic strength for regulating the black-market sale of oil and weapons, such as Turkey’s ability to regulate the sale of oil by ISIS. Not to mention WMDs.

"To defeat terrorism at its sources in the Middle East, the West will need to invest deeply in regional development," wrote the editor of the Weekend Australian last weekend. A system of political accord attuned to the environmental factors of the Middle East is hardly emerging in Iraq, however, courtesy of Australia. Foreign intervention by Australia in the region has largely involved military training and military assistance. What is generally referred to as "humanitarian assistance," by Australia, in conjunction with the United States, basically comes down to the military.

ISIS has evolved despite these very measures taken by the West. In fact, Western military intervention in the Middle East has contributed to the environment from which the world's number-one terrorist force has emerged. For all intents and purposes, fighting terrorism could be manifesting greater terrorism. And if the Islamic State is indeed a product of warfare, no amount of military will eradicate it, regional or otherwise. U.S. President Barack Obama has said that ISIS can only be reduced to a "manageable problem" rather than completely eradicated.

Fortunately, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi is taking the regional initiative in dealing with ISIS. Having been to Iran, Jordan, Kuwait and the UAE, and with the aid of his Foreign Affairs Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari, Iraq now has the support of Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Bahrain and several other Arab countries in dealing with the Islamic State. Security agreements are now in place with the Arabic Gulf countries, Lebanon, Jordan, Iran and Turkey, a senior intelligence officer of counter-terrorism told Al Jazeera.

Climate change and the Middle East

Despite the overriding presence of terrorism and ISIS in the Middle East, states of the region are gradually coalescing on issues of common environmental security. Water is at the top of the list. Communities relying on the world's longest river, the Nile, are now addressing resource management. "Climate change is a serious threat, with potentially very adverse impacts on the socio-economic conditions in the Nile Basin, on its environment and on the ongoing efforts to establish a mutually agreed-upon mechanism to manage the shared Nile water resources," noted a research paper by Marisa Goulden for the Cooperation and Adaptation to Climate Change in the River Nile Basin. Without taking key measures now, diminishing Nile flows could lead to resource conflict and regional insecurity. The Nile, after all, is central to resource management in the Middle East. From hydro-powered electricity to food and farming, the Nile and its basin represent a central life force for a rapidly growing ethnic cross-range of cultures and communities.

On the down side, communities of the Nile have yet to develop the necessary infrastructure to handle lower precipitation and flooding. They have low water-storage capacity and few water-control systems, and the transport, energy, information and communication systems are all inadequate. On the up side, the Nile River Basin Initiative, led by all the riparian states of the Nile, has formed an association to deal with it, regardless of religion or race. Still, this is just a glimmer of cohesion in a region stratified with war zones of intractable religious and territorial conflicts. Not to mention a Western thirst for oil.

Closer to the war zones, Storm Zina has been sweeping across Lebanon, bringing an onslaught of snow and rain to more than a million Syrian refugees. Many are digging their own way out of massive snowdrifts. "We are slowly dying here, no one is coming to help us, and we have nothing," Um Abdo, a Syrian refugee in Arsal, told Al Jazeera. But "help" for him and the millions like him more than likely amounts to nothing more than Western bombing campaigns, foreign military advisers and caches of Kalashnikovs.

Geopolitical initiatives and Australia

This is where government policies, such as those of Australia, may be having a detrimental, albeit indirect, effect in the Middle East with regard to terrorism and the environment. In Australia, the economy remains heavily geared toward coal, and Abbott is not about to give it up. According to the Bureau of Resources and Energy Economics, Australian export volumes of coal will rise to 438 metric tons and $49 billion in 2018-19. Which does not augur well for carbon outputs. Given that Australia accounts for 54 percent of world trade in metallurgical coal and 24 percent of world trade in thermal coal, is it any wonder Abbott is poised to double down on fossil fuels?

Australia's presence in multilateral bodies generally focuses on terrorism and free trade agreements, which does little to advance regional accord or resource management. Imagine how much more globally beneficial Australia's actions would be if they were focused more on clean energy, advancing the interests of Australians and people in the Middle East alike. The climate is a profound avenue between Western societies and the Middle East. It is the one issue where progress for one advances progress for all.

View the Worldpress Desk’s profile for Laurelle Atkinson.