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A degree of difference

The writer is a journalist.

The writer is a journalist.

THE nomad named Temujin who went on to forge one of history’s greatest empires has been called many things by many people. To the Mongols whom he united into a single tribe he was the ‘Genghis’ Khan, the khan of khans. To his enemies he was the scourge of God, and to Alauddin Juvaini, the historian of the Mongol conquests, he was the jahan kusha, the world conqueror.

Lately, there has been an addition to the titles enjoyed by this conqueror — Genghis the Green. This title has been bestowed upon him because the scale of the devastation he and his descendants caused was such that he actually managed to scrub some 700 million tons of carbon from the atmosphere. This was achieved by slaughtering some 40 million people over the course of 150 years, depopulation that (considering the Mongol empire spanned 22pc of the world) meant that entire nations returned to the wilderness and entire cities were overtaken by nature.

You could even say that this was the first major case of man-driven climate change, or you could think of it (though it’s unlikely that Genghis did) as a thank you to Mother Nature.

Genghis the Green is an additional title for the conqueror.

That’s because Genghis’ phenomenal conquests were themselves enabled by Mother Nature; Genghis’ rise to power coincided with a period of dramatic climate change. Tree ring records show that the years before Genghis’ rise saw an intense drought that likely created the political turbulence that Genghis took advantage of. This drought was followed by an unprecedented and anomalous wave of warm and wet weather, known as the mediaeval warm period. This led to the blossoming of the otherwise cold and arid steppes into lush grassland from which the Mongols derived their food, their building materials and, crucially, the horses they used to such devastating effect.

The Mongol invasions would not have been logistically possible without the resources that this period of climate change made available to them.

What the steppes were to the Mongols, the seas were to the Vikings, and climate change in the form of the mediaeval warm period played a part in their sudden spread as well. The seas became warmer, de-icing natural harbours and making sailing a less hazardous task. The icebergs that menaced the North Atlantic melted away, letting these seafarers ply their longboats as far afield as Greenland and North America. Ironically, climate change also played its part in the demise of these colonies.

This isn’t to say that climate change created Genghis Khan or the Vikings, but it certainly helped create the conditions for their rise. In the case of the once thriving Mayan civilisation, climate change was both boon and bane.

For centuries, historians and archaeologists have been puzzled by entire cities found in the Honduran rainforest that show no signs of disease and disaster but which were simply abandoned by their residents. Now it seems that climate change was the culprit here as well. The Mayan civilisation flourished due to a 200-year wet spell, and when that ended and was followed by at times extreme drought, the system could not survive the shock.

Understanding the past is the key to unlocking the future, and understanding the role of even seemingly minute climatic changes in the complex web of events that forms the fabric of human history has never been more important. This is no idle academic exercise either; imagine if you will what effect a prolonged drought would have on Pakistan: food resources would dwindle, the rural economy would collapse and tens of thousands of impoverished and desperate farmers would flock to urban centres in an effort to find sustenance and opportunities that are already in short supply.
Once there, they would form an army of the disaffected and disenfranchised.

That’s exactly what happened in Syria; in the years preceding the first protests against the despotic Assad regime there was a six-year period of prolonged drought, starting in 2006, that forced countless farmers to migrate to the cities in order to find sustenance and employment. This meant that, when the Arab Spring came there was a ready mass of disenfranchised and desperate people ready to take to the streets and, later, to be recruited by any of the myriad rebel factions that fight in Syria today. This is not to say that climate change caused the Syrian civil war, but it did indeed help set the conditions for it, much like it did for Genghis all those centuries ago.

A 2014 report by the USA’s department of defence, titled National Security Implications of Climate-Related Risks and a Changing Climate, identified climate change as a threat multiplier and concluded that climate change was a present security threat and not strictly a long-term risk. It concludes that “although climate-related stress will disproportionately affect fragile and conflict-affected states, even resilient, well-developed countries are subject to the effects of climate change in significant and consequential ways”. Guess which category we fall under?

The writer is a journalist.

Twitter: @zarrarkhuhro

Published in Dawn, February 8th, 2016