Planet earth is getting hotter with each passing year, and it is giving birth to new challenges. The exponential rise in earth temperature over the years has led to the loss of fragile ecosystems, premature demise of plant and animal species and destruction of close-knit habitats in the environment. Does climate change in any manner affect the occurrence of crimes? Does climate change lead to the disruption of social life and conflict for resources and causes violent crimes in the process? Let us explore.
There has been a noticeable spurt of natural disasters, and scientists confirm that the culprit is climate change. It is now understood that ecological disasters like flash floods, tsunami or a hurricane not only results in loss of human settlements but also unleash potential crimes and conflict in society. Criminals in 17th and 18th century England, who stood watching a public hanging, were also reported to indulge in pick-pocketing. This gives us a peek into human psychology and curious spin of crime causation. What does this say about criminals?
It can be fairly inferred that trouble mongers and criminals of every hue and character are always on the lookout for an opportunity to commit crimes. Public hangings were quite common and audience used to be large in England. Pickpockets worked at crowded places like theatres, fairs, markets, public hangings and even funerals. In the recent past, we noticed that Tsunami of 2004 orphaned hundreds of children. These children became easy prey for child traffickers.
Victims of a natural disaster become vulnerable and attract the attention of trouble mongers. It can be safely assumed that at times, they are targeted for whatever is left of them. They may be targeted for money, leftover belongings, or even for sex. Post the tsunami of 2004; it was reported that tsunami victims in Sri Lanka were raped in refugee camps.
Sri Lanka also reportedly sentenced two persons to death by hanging for murdering a woman after looting her of jewels. Such crimes are individualized in nature, but climate change and more specifically, natural disasters prove to be fertile ground for armed conflicts and upsetting of societal peace and the rule of law.
Recent research on the subject gives credence to the argument that there is a causal link between climate change and the occurrence of violent crimes and conflicts among societies. Notably, South Africa (SA) recorded a homicide rate of 35.8 per 100 000 people in 2017/18, which is the second-highest rate in sub-Saharan Africa and among the top 10 in the world, including among countries at war. Does this lead to an inference that hot weather leads to an increased frequency in crimes? Well, research studies do point towards this emerging reality.
World Bank report points out that severe change in the environment may lead to irreversible damages. It has been highlighted by researchers like Parry, working on Fourth Assessment report for World Bank in the year 2007 that changing temperatures and an overall reduction in rainfall world over might just precipitate a crisis of resources and we are going to fool ourselves if we think we can out survive the scarcity of subsistence resources.
For example, it has been projected that warmer temperatures shall melt glaciers in Himalayas and Andes, and this may lead to increased precipitation, which could further lead to erosion of topsoil and give rise to desertification process. The changes are already underway.
Climatic changes and the effects these bring, populate the problem bucket list for world leaders and nations. To make things worse, a causal link is now traced between climate change and armed conflict. Valerie Percival and Thomas Homer Dixon argue in a paper titled “Environmental Scarcity and Violent Conflict: The Case of South Africa ” published in Journal of Peace Research in May 1998 that there is a direct causal link between environmental scarcity and outbreak of violent conflict. The relationship is, however, complex.
Significantly, it is argued that environmental scarcity (of resources) in a way threatens the delicate give-and-take relationship between state and society. This theorization is reminiscent of social contract theorists, John Locke and Thomas Hobbes. To put it simply, the authors argue that falling agricultural production, depleting subsistence resources and forced migration to greener pastures induces a dissatisfaction among people who may carry grievances against the state. Prolonged exposure to living only on bare minimum survival resources may also lead them to pick up arms against the state. World Bank report informs us that in such an atmosphere state may play one community against another.
We are witnessing curious climate change phenomenon across the globe. The alarm bell has gone off long ago. The time to contain the ill effects of climate change has never been more prescient. Oliver Leighton Barrett, a retired Navy lieutenant, who has worked with the Pentagon on efforts to assess the security implications of climate change in Latin America and the Caribbean, opines that there is a general breakdown of governmental institutions in case of an environmental disaster and gives room for bad guys to play foul. He cites the ensuing scenario post, Hurricane Irma.
He opines, “A very recent example of this came in the wake of Hurricane Irma. Saint Martin, a small island state that’s divided into two with a Dutch and a French side, was decimated by the storm. When the winds subsided, looters started robbing stores and homes, and there was impunity. The security forces had been ordered not to focus on the looters, but on saving lives.”
The raging bushfires in New South Wales, Australia need urgent attention of the government and concerned people. Disaster situations also give rise to rumours. Climate change bodes ill for every living being, and we can qualitatively respond to its challenges—only if we understand them correctly.
At the international level, whilst women have been key players in climate policymaking as seen in Christiana Figueres’ pivotal role in negotiating the Paris Agreement, women’s overall participation remains limited, especially in areas like climate finance.
Ultimately, in the words of Elinor Ostrom, the first woman to win the Nobel Prize in Economics, a polycentric approach is needed. This includes women and men, of all ages, countries and walks of life, coming together to take climate action. Be it planting a tree or marching on the streets, we all have a role to play in protecting Mother Earth.