Where geopolitical interests and climate crisis overlap, experts are discussing the attitude to adopt in the face of impending crises.
Rabat – “Is Climate Change the New Economic Warfare?” posed the question used to convey the theme of a recent panel on current ecological disasters.
The question posed the terms of the debate in the self-important kind of verbal acuity commonplace in intellectual circles. Its dramatic rhetoric and serious connotations seemed enough to predict what the ensuing discussions would be like. The question also implied the type of panel that could best tackle it.
There was apprehension in the air when, as visibly excited participants began filling the airy conference room at the irrepressibly elegant View Hotel in upstate Rabat, the moderator, Moroccan journalist Rachid Hallaouy, said, “I’m sure tonight’s panel will be enlightening, informative. But I mostly hope it’ll be entertaining, fun for you guys who have made it.”
Enlightening is what a conference of this kind is supposed to be. But both entertaining and enlightening is a lot to ask from an academic-styled conference meant to discuss weighty, complex issues which require technical, sometimes esoteric language that no normal person would use in day-to-day conversation. The event took place on Wednesday, September 18, and started an hour away from the much-anticipated PSG vs. Real Madrid game in the European Champions League.
It was clear the conference would take more than an hour. So the moderator’s point about hoping the event to be fun was self-explanatory: With many participants having potentially ditched that kind of match for this kind of exercise in intellectual pronouncements and painstaking policy recommendations, they deserved something beyond the usual tedium that most academic conferences turn out to be.
But this was no usual academic conference.
Human-induced ecological degradation makes for exciting, urgency-filled discussions. Inviting geopolitics in the debate elevates the feat even further, far beyond the typically anticipated stakes. So the Wednesday event was, at least so hoped the organizers, the soon-to-be established Rabat School of Economic Warfare, worth the attention-grabbing question that announced it. But would the audience be satisfied; would they not end up feeling rueful about missing some crucial minutes of an actually entertaining evening for a possibly fun one?
No ordinary conference
“There is no certain starting point when discussing an issue as vast and far-reaching as climate change. In the scientific community, there is an overwhelming consensus over the fact that human-induced climate change will be the defining battle of our century,” began Christian Harbulot, one of the evening’s three speakers.
As a founding member and current president of the Paris School of Economic Warfare, Harbulot’s wary introductory remarks stressed the merit of asking experts’ opinions on an issue as convoluted as the geopolitics of climate change.
He began by admitting to the complexity of the journey he was about to embark on with the audience. He reassured, however, as if sensing the rising heats his introductory words had brought about, that the end result—his conclusions and recommendations—would be worth the wait.
“So I suppose what I will be arguing today will be something that has to do with the necessity of changing our windows of perceptions and apprehension as we face an unprecedented set of challenges with unprecedented potential of dictating the terms of our future.” Harbulot had won his bet; the audience, hooked up by the faux humility lurking beneath the admission of complexity, was ready to bear with him, to sympathetically nod along as he navigated the perilous waters of the ecological dimensions of geopolitical divergences.
Harbulot had built a good rapport with the audience: They would cooperate by listening with attention, and he would keep his end of the bargain by actually simplifying the intricate geopolitical implications of human-induced climate change.
“The entire planet is concerned,” he went on, subtly swiping at the climate denier-in chief, US President Donald Trump, whose refusal to sign the Paris Agreement he had referenced somewhere in between his promising introduction and his warily enthusiastic recital in defense of it.
“Human history has been marked by our documented tendency to dismiss unmistakable, overwhelming evidence when the facts do not align with how we feel, when the figures are somber. We describe as aberrations evidence that do not fit with our expectations, our worldview; we chose resignation instead of changing our relation to the world.”
Even as he spoke spontaneously, the French academic’s words seemed to have been carefully chosen in advance to fulfill their purpose: delivering a frontal assault on climate deniers, on those “who still look at the new realities through worn-out, old conceptual lenses.”
At an ordinary panel, this would sound like a good moment for the public to chime in by applauding, suggesting that they—at least the prevailing mood suggested that most of them—seemed to be feeling the indescribable kind of joy that comes from external validation, especially an expert’s validation of one’s underlying assumptions. But this was no ordinary panel; the evening was barely starting.
Geopolitics’s ‘invisible hand’
The second speaker, Lahcen Haddad, picked up from where his predecessor had left. Slightly different in his approach, Haddad, an “expert in strategies of development” and Vice-president of the Moroccan Parliamentary Network on the World Bank and IMF, nonetheless maintained the same rapport with the audience. Where Harbulot had spoken from the faux modesty of an expert striving to connect with the audience, Haddad spoke with the assured authority that comes with a sense of social mission.
Where his predecessor had begged for attention, Haddad demanded it. He came with dense data, detailed specifics of not only the far-reaching, future implications of the climate crisis, but mostly the “enormous, visible consequences it is already carrying in the crises in Africa and most of the conflicts in the Middle East.”
The Moroccan politician spoke with great panache, and the poetic fervor of his data-driven analysis soon transformed his apparent self-indulgence into what it was all actually about: A genuine, earnest commitment to making sense of the sea of geopolitical events by pointing to their hidden patterns, to the “invisible hand” moving it all.
For Haddad, climate-linked challenges are set to define the type of wars and conflicts to emerge in the coming decades. Climate, then, he appeared to suggest, will be the “invisible hand” behind most, if not all, of “the conflicts to come.”
He spoke about the “weaponization of water,” the “militarization of borders,” as well as “the instrumentalization of conflicts” meant to give ethnic and religious dimensions to hostilities that are fundamentally climate-driven.
By way of illustration, he explained how the Syrian conflict finds its genesis in the severe drought that hit the country between 2006 and 2011; he traced the Darfur tragedy back to the Sudanese government’s mismanagement of resource allocation between Arabs and Blacks; he pointed to the “ecological origins” of most of the “seemingly ethnicity or religion-driven conflicts in the Sahel and the Corn of Africa.”
In this, Haddad appeared to echo some of Robert David Kaplan’s analysis in “The Coming Anarchy.” In the celebrated 1994 essay, the American journalist made the point that this century would be a “bifurcated world” riddled with deep-seated ideological divergences and armed conflicts mostly caused by environmental degradation.
“To understand the events of the next fifty years, then, one must understand environmental scarcity… geographic destiny, and the transformation of war,” Kaplan wrote. Haddad simplified that warning. “Water scarcity will be the number one driver of future conflicts,” he said.
Now pointing out the interminable rivalry between pastoralists and farmers in the Sahel and the Corn of Africa, he drove home his sobering conclusions about the increased likelihood of conflicts in the coming decades. “The probability of conflicts is set to grow by 26% if we do nothing to reverse the current, dire ecological trends.”
Tragedy as hope
At this point, the audience needed to hear about hope, about survival, about what can actually be done to avoid the bleak picture Haddad had masterfully presented.
That hope did come at the end, preached by the matter-of-fact rhetoric of the third speaker. Slightly diverting from the somewhat jargon-filled academic analyses of the previous panelists, the third orator, Said Mouline, the president of the Moroccan Agency for Energy Efficiency (AMEE), brought in the policymaker’s perspective. He recounted his experience in supervising the organizing committee of the COP 22 meeting in Marrakech.
But he did not dwell on the story. His point lay elsewhere. He aimed to argue that there is a fundamental reason why, as recently witnessed with the Paris Agreement, some governments and multinational corporations are dragging their feet when it comes to committing to global actions on climate change.
The deep-seated refusal—or denial—of a scientifically proven tragedy, he argued, was proof that governments and corporations would only act when, somehow, it dawns on them that the catastrophe that climate activists have been preaching is “not for the future.” That “the catastrophe is already here;” that it has been here a long time ago; that “we cannot escape.”
It should perhaps be noted here that Mouline’s “hope” is not the sense we generally ascribe to the word. His was not hope driven by expectations that everything will be alright—faith in the future. It was hope born out of desperation, the fear that tragedy is certain rather than likely.
The point is not about salvaging the future; it is about surviving “the tragedy as if it has occurred, as if it has already hit us.” He spoke about “resilience and adaptation;” about “attenuation and adaptation;” about “salvaging our destitute present” from getting any worse than it already is; about “the human tendency to only act when there are no choices left but to act.”
Seen in this light, Mouline’s central point seemed to be that the certainty of defeat brings about the inevitability of action. An impending defeat breathes of urgency, of an opportunity to reassess, to reevaluate, and to manage the mess one has caused. Hope comforts, whereas fear galvanizes.
In moments of audacious thinking, he profusely cited Jean-Pierre Dupuy, the French environmental engineer and philosopher whose 2004 book, “Pour un catastrophisme éclairé” (On Enlightened Catastrophism), laid the intellectual, theoretical groundwork for Mouline’s action-driven analysis during the panel. Dupuy’s book speaks of “the ambivalence of catastrophes,” arguing that the only way to deal with tragedies is to embrace a kind of hopeful, pleasurable pessimism that comes with resignation to “the certainty of tragedy.”
Dupuy wrote: “Confronting a catastrophe requires projecting oneself in the after-catastrophe moment. Looking back on our present in that moment after the catastrophe has taken place, we see catastrophes as our fate ; but in this we see fate that we could have chosen to avert when it was still time.”
The point, constructive fatalism, sounds a lot similar to the thought experiment in Alan Weisman’s “The World without US.” The driving principle is that being threatened with immediate extinction is much more likely to make us active than all the combined “this is what will happen if” arguments offered by the dispiriting catalogue climate activists have been putting forward for decades.
An enlivening experience
On the whole, the entire performance was an enlivening experience, a fun foray into a usually tedious—academic—terrain. The event’s only gray minutes came when the moderator, appearing to reference Greta Thunberg, made a sincere but misplaced joke about “some Swedish teenage girl traveling the world to raise awareness about the climate.”
Rachid Hallaouy, the moderator, was swiftly called out for the tasteless joke, and he immediately retracted. What he had meant to say is not what he had said, he fumbled. The apology was rickety, but the audience sympathized anyway. They—we—forgave him. They understood there was nothing particularly inexcusable about getting momentarily carried away by an immersive discussion on geopolitics and climate change.
There were “great questions” asked at the end. To these, even greater, thought-provoking answers were provided.
Harbulot, the French academic, talked about “changing our analytical and discursive paradigms in order to be pertinent in our analysis of mounting, surging challenges.” Haddad, the Moroccan MP and sustainable development specialist, mentioned “sustainability and responsibility;” he emphasized the “need to successfully complete the transitions ahead,” from fuel to green, environment-friendly energy. Mouline, for his part, stood by his belief in “the inevitability of tragedy” as the surest coping mechanism in the face of impending ecological chaos.
But what should such an oxymoronic attitude to the climate crisis entail in practical terms? “The assessment is pessimistic, but the solutions should be borne out of basic optimism in the possibility of change,” asserted Mouline.
This story has been updated to correct a mistake in locating Darfur. An earlier version wrongly located Darfur in Somalia rather than in Sudan. We apologize for the inconvenience.