Climate Change Can Trigger Conflicts: Dr Malcolm Mistry

Dr Malcolm Mistry

Dr Malcolm Mistry, originally from India, is based currently at The London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine (LSHTM). He is a climatologist with training in climate modelling, econometrics and sectoral impacts assessment of climate change and variability.

Malcolm holds visiting affiliations with the Ca’ Foscari University of Venice and the Euro-Mediterranean Center on Climate Change (CMCC) – Italy where he spent 8 years before moving to London. Prior to research and academia, Malcolm sailed as a navigating officer onboard various offshore vessels such as cable-laying, geo-technical drilling and seismic survey ships.

Here’s an  interview with Dr Malcolm Mistry done by Dilnaz Boga

People often get confused between weather and climate, and between climate change and climate variability. Could you explain the differences in these terms and why is it important to distinguish between them?

To put it simply, weather is what you experience every day, be it hot or cold, a dry or a rainy day. Day-to-day temperature, rainfall or other atmospheric conditions such as wind, storms etc., are weather events.

Climate refers to the average state or the statistics of weather, usually on at least 30 years timescales. So, when we use phrases such as ‘a warm climate’, we are referring to the long-term average conditions in that region as being warm.

The difference between the two is important, especially when ‘climate change’ is a buzzword used so frequently in print media these days. For instance, you can have day-to-day fluctuations in the weather, or even on a month-to-month, or year-to-year basis (e.g., temperatures or rainfall in some summers can be above long-term average in one year, and similarly below long-term average in the very next). These are short-term weather fluctuations and are sometimes also referred to as variability in climate on shorter timescales, such as year-to-year variability. It would be incorrect to label them as ‘climate change’. The term “climate change” refers to changes in long-term patterns, such as on at least 30-year timescales.

A number of regions across the globe are experiencing record-breaking heatwaves in recent years. For instance, large parts of Southeast Asia, as well as Europe, Australia and the US are witnessing forest fires, and on the other side of the spectrum, flooding events from extreme rainfall. Firstly, are these considered normal weather events or should we link them to climate change? Could you also enlighten us on the dangers to health from such temperature-related extremes?

Recent years have seen an increase in the frequency and magnitude of heatwaves across many parts of the world. While we are currently in the so-called warm phase of an important natural climate variability, namely the El-Niño Southern Oscillation (ENSO) in the equatorial Pacific Ocean, the global average surface temperature is about 1.3 degrees C above the pre-industrial (1850-1900) average. Research studies have shown that the likelihood of extreme weather events is higher in a warming world. In other words, we have a higher probability of more erratic weather in many parts of the world, be in heatwaves, intense rainfall or prolonged droughts. So, while extreme weather events such as the current heatwaves are not unusual in our natural climate, recent preliminary analyses by researchers of the World Weather Attribution group indicates that such extreme events are made much more likely by climate change (https://www.worldweatherattribution.org/extreme-heat-in-north-america-europe-and-china-in-july-2023-made-much-more-likely-by-climate-change/). Natural wildfires (i.e., not those as a result of arson) are caused when the underlying environmental conditions are suitable for a fire to start and spread. Such conditions include warm temperatures along with dry conditions and moderate to strong winds.

Your research area of interest spans multiple countries. For instance, you have worked on climate in both low, middle and high-income regions. How do you think climate change can affect different sectors such as Agriculture, Health and Energy in developed countries like Italy or the UK, and developing countries in large parts of Africa?

Countries have varying capacities or resilience to adapt to the challenges posed by climate change. As one would expect, the richer/developed nations are better positioned to withstand the impacts of climate change largely due to the technological advancements, or what we call as adoption of new technologies to reduce the impacts of climate change. It must be noted though while climate change is expected to affect the poorer nations most, the richer nations are not insulated from extreme weather events (as we have currently seen in North America and Southern Europe with the heatwaves and wildfires).

With regards to the adaptive capacity of richer nations, take for example agriculture. Droughts and heatwaves can have devasting impacts on agriculture. Developed nations are better equipped with irrigation facilities (e.g., the USA) to mitigate the impacts of warmer temperatures and dry conditions. Similarly, a larger proportion of their population has access to air conditioning and better healthcare compared to the masses in the poorer nations where people are also often compelled to earn their livelihood by working more in harsher outdoor conditions. Developed nations are also better equipped to avoid power blackouts when the demand for cooling increases during heatwaves for instance.

 Let’s talk about climate conflict and climate migration, a relatively new buzzword often encountered in news media. What exactly are these two and what kind of danger are we talking about here?

Climate migration and conflict are quite interconnected. For instance, consider a situation first within a country that has multiple ethnic tribes and disparity in income due to heterogeneity in natural resources such as agricultural productivity. With climate change, there can be prolonged droughts or conversely frequent flooding events that put severe pressure on the resources and income of a particular ethnic tribe in that country. In search of a better pasture or necessities such as drinking water etc., these people then migrate to another region where climate change has had a lesser impact. This can give rise to tensions within a country resulting in a potential internal conflict. Similarly, two bordering nations sharing common natural resources (such as rivers/lakes) can also feel the burden of depleting resources resulting in a mass exodus of people from either side triggering cross-border conflicts. With climate change and the associated increase in the frequency and magnitude of weather extremes, both inter- and cross-boundary conflicts especially in poorer regions of Africa are possible.

 Finally, another area of concern in recent years especially for the younger generation, has been climate anxiety or mental health due to climate extremes. Are these important to address?

Research on climate change and mental health shows increasing evidence that extreme weather events — which are becoming more frequent and intense under a changing climate — can trigger post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), anxiety, depression, grief, trauma, recovery fatigue, and even substance abuse and suicidal ideation.

The younger generation in particular is quite concerned as to how climate change can impact our planet in the coming decades. Those who directly depend on sectors most affected by climate change (e.g., agriculture) are also showing anxiety (labelled as climate anxiety). Then, of course, there are people who have lost their properties for instance as a result of cyclones, floods or wildfires. Studies are also showing increase in anxiety-related hospital admissions during heatwaves. Mental health experts have highlighted these as important issues to address as we enter an era of increasing direct and indirect impacts of climate change.

Dr. Dilnaz Boga is a professor, freelance journalist, filmmaker, and researcher based in Mumbai. As a journalist, for over two decades, she has written and taken photographs for The Guardian, L’Humanite, Al Jazeera, Frai, Dawn, New Internationalist, Asia Sentinel, Himal, IndiaSpend, Hindu Business Lineand The Hindustan Times. In 2019, Dilnaz completed her Ph.D. at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences on the local, national, and international media’s coverage of Kashmir from 1990 to 2010, and has been teaching journalism.

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