Monsoons and Tipping Points - AFRICA - Tropic of Chaos: Climate Change and the New Geography of Violence - Christian Parenti

Tropic of Chaos: Climate Change and the New Geography of Violence - Christian Parenti (2011)


Chapter 5. Monsoons and Tipping Points

Now I am become death the destroyer of worlds.

—Vishnu in the Bhagavad Gita, as quoted by Robert J. Oppenheimer

EAST AFRICA‚ KENYA in particular, has complicated weather. To learn how it works, I visited the headquarters of the Meteorological Department. The place is deceptively calm—here, they are concerned with the clouds. But in agriculturally dependent Kenya, clouds rule the lives of people, sometimes with devastating consequence. At the end of a long hall in a forecasting room flanked by rows of humming old PCs, I met Chief Meteorologist James Muhindi. Like Muhindi’s flared blazer and hint of sideburns, the machines seem a decade or so out-of-date. With more that thirty years on the job, Muhindi knows the quirky details of Kenyan weather like he knows his family. “We have so many microclimates,” he said with a mix of exasperation and national pride. “Climate plays a key role in socioeconomic activity—our economy is very weather dependent. Most Kenyan farmers rely on the two rainy seasons, one in the spring, the other in autumn.”

Over 70 percent of Kenya’s working population is employed in agriculture or closely related sectors. The primary products are tea, coffee, corn, wheat, sugarcane, fruit, vegetables, dairy products, beef, pork, poultry, and eggs, and the big cash export, cut flowers. Most of this agriculture is rain fed rather than irrigated, and as Muhindi put it in the Rainfall Atlas for Kenya‚ “Failure of rains and occurrence of drought during any growing season often lead to severe food shortages and loss of animals if there is lack of strategic planning.” 1 Though there is an acute shortage of long-term economic and social planning in Kenya, the country does have a fairly good famine-response-system, linking government, business, and the international aid industry.

Delivering emergency food can take up to six months. If famine is not anticipated well in advance, even a rapid and robust response will come too late, and thousands may die. The Meteorological Office’s most important mission is to detect early warning signs so that the famine-response system—including local administrators, the aid agencies, and transport companies—can prepare. Even subtle indications of late rains or sudden floods can trigger food-security early-warning and mitigation procedures. The gears of the mighty international aid industry will begin to turn—as fast as they can, but still rather slowly.

Life, Death, and Clouds

When Kenya’s climate follows a normal pattern, most of the country has two rainy seasons, or bimodal rainfall. The first season running from March to May is known as the “Long Rains”; then, from October to December come the “Short Rains.”

The planet’s climate system is extremely complex and interconnected, but if a single force could be said to rule East Africa’s weather patterns, it would be the Intertropical Convergence Zone (ITCZ). In simple terms the ITCZ is a belt of high humidity, low pressure, and calm winds that girds the equatorial latitudes of the planet. It is produced by the collision of the northeast and southeast trade winds—masses of warm, moist tropical air—both of which move toward the equator. When they collide, the horizontal airflows give way to vertical rising air.2 The wet, warm air rises to form a belt of clouds that varies from about twenty to two hundred miles in width: it tends to move more over the landmass of Africa and narrow in the Americas and across the Pacific. These clouds produce rain.3

The point of maximum condensation and precipitation within the ITCZ—the zone’s core cloud belt—follows the path of the overhead sun. When directly overhead, the sun produces the maximum amount of heat on the ground below. That means more warm air rising, carrying more evaporated water and thus producing more condensation and precipitation.

That core belt of clouds oscillates north and south across the equator, following the sun’s annual transit from the Tropic of Cancer—which lies at 23.5 degrees north and is the northernmost latitude at which the sun appears directly overhead—down across the equator, to the Tropic of Capricorn—lying at 23.5 degrees south, which is, conversely, the southernmost latitude at which the sun appears directly overhead. As the sun moves, it pulls the ITCZ’s center of precipitation with it.4 On the ground in Kenya, this oscillation produces the two rainy seasons. But as average global surface temperatures rise, the ITCZ is falling out of rhythm.

“Key to it all,” explained Muhindi, hunched in front of one of the bulky old PCs, “is the Pacific. The Pacific is the mother of all oceans, and the other oceans, the children, obey her signals. When the Pacific warms and there is an El Niño effect off Peru, the monsoon and trade winds in the Indian Ocean increase, and there is strong wind, more rain, and flooding here in East Africa. With La Niña, the ocean off Peru cools, the winds weaken, and less water reaches East Africa, and we tend to have drought.”

Though Kenya is suffering more droughts in recent decades, it is actually receiving greater amounts of precipitation. But the rainfall is arriving in sudden bursts, massive shocks in which the rain falls hard and all at once rather than gradually over a season. This brings flooding that strips away topsoil, followed by drought. “We see it here from the weather station reports,” explained Muhindi. “Extreme weather events are more frequent, like the severe 1997-1998 floods and the 1999-2000 drought.”5 In short, the clockwork rains upon which Kenyan society depends are out of sync.

A bevy of local factors also shape Kenyan weather, among them deforestation. Logging of forests in the Congo Basin and across East Africa minimizes water storage, evaporation, condensation, and regionally generated precipitation. Higher local temperatures mean less snow on Mounts Kilimanjaro, Kenya, and Elgon, thus more sudden runoff, more flooding, and then lower dry-season river levels. “The best we can do to adapt to climate change is maintain our forest cover,” concluded Muhindi.

Feedback Loops and Tipping Points

I was in Kenya in 2008, and when the Short Rains of that year finally arrived, they hit with tremendous force: flash floods left 300,000 people in need of relief aid. Landslides and floods displaced hundreds. Flooded pit latrines fouled many shallow wells, and typhoid was soon killing people. That year packed a one-two punch: drought chased down with violent flooding. By January 2009, 10 million people needed food aid to fend off starvation.6 According to the Kenya Meteorological Department, “aboveaverage temperatures in the Indian Ocean” had caused the heavy rains.7

Were the Kenyan calamities of that year definitively linked to climate change? No. The climate system is too complicated to blame any one weather event on anthropogenic climate change. But the trend lines all head in the same direction: as atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) rises, average temperatures increase and weather patterns become less stable.

Many civilizations have lived in the shadow of their own end-time narratives, and it is tempting to describe climate change as just such a vision, only played out in a secularized aesthetic. But climate change is real, and our understanding of how it is happening is based on very serious and reliable science. And the unraveling of the current climate system seems to be happening faster than scientists had predicted.

It is worth reviewing the facts once more. Researchers from a variety of disciplines—meteorologists, oceanographers, paleontologists, biologists, and so forth—are together arriving at fairly firm conclusions about how our climate works, what its history has been, and where it is probably headed due to our massive emissions of greenhouse gases. They note that Earth’s climate is warming, and this will have consequences soon—for most of us, within our lifetimes.

The outline of the scientific consensus runs as follows: For the last 650,000 years atmospheric levels of CO2—the primary heat-trapping gas in Earth’s environment—have hovered between 180 and 300 parts per million (ppm). At no point in the preindustrial era did CO2 concentrations go above 300 ppm. By 1959 they had reached 316 ppm and are now at 390 ppm. At current rates, CO2 levels will double by mid-century.

Climate scientists believe that any increase in average global temperatures beyond 2°C (35.6°F) above preindustrial levels will lead to dangerous climate change, causing large-scale desertification, crop failure, inundation of coastal cities, widespread extinctions, proliferating disease, and possible social collapse. They fear that beyond the 2°C threshold, climate change could become self-reinforcing due to positive-feedback loops.

Scientists now understand that ecosystems, and Earth’s climate as a whole, do not always operate according to a smooth linear logic. Instead, natural systems are prone to rapid and sudden shifts. The population of a species can decline slowly or collapse rapidly, almost at once. Witness the near total disappearance of bat colonies in the northeastern United States due to the white nose fungus or the sudden decline of honeybee populations in recent years. Both problems can hopefully be reversed, but they illustrate how quickly natural systems can break down.

Throughout the climate system there exist dangerous positive-feedback loops and tipping points. A positive-feedback loop is a dynamic in which effects compound, accelerate, or amplify the original cause. Tipping points in the climate system reflect the fact that causes can build up while effects lag. Then, when the effects kick in, they do so all at once, causing the relatively sudden shift from one climate regime to another. The worst-case scenario, though not the most unlikely, would see positive-feedback loops accelerate climate change to a tipping point beyond which the process would be self-propelling and impossible to reverse, no matter what we do.8

Two Degrees Celsius

Around 125,000 years ago, average global temperature was only about 1°C higher than it is today, but the sea level was fully four to six meters higher. Any heating beyond 2°C will likely cause catastrophic changes, transformations too sudden and radical for civilization to cope with. The 2°C threshold runs throughout the most recent reports from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), and it is the official stabilization target of numerous governments and the European Union.9

The question then becomes, What is the corresponding limit on atmospheric concentrations of CO2? For years it was assumed to be around 450 ppm. To meet this goal, the IPCC recommends that developed countries reduce their greenhouse gas emissions to about 40 to 90 percent below 1990 levels by 2050. This would require global targets of at least 10 percent reductions in emissions per decade—starting now. Those sorts of emissions reductions have only been associated with economic depressions. Russia’s near total economic collapse in the early 1990s saw a 5 percent per annum decline in CO2 emissions.10

Calculations by the United Kingdom’s Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research demonstrate that, without radical mitigation efforts, we are almost inevitably on course to reach atmospheric CO2 levels of 450 ppm. Even with drastic emissions reductions over the next 20 years, cumulative atmospheric CO2 could easily surpass 450 ppm.11 If that’s not grim enough, James Hansen of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies at Columbia University now believes the tipping point at which climate change becomes a runaway, self-fueling process is closer to 350 ppm. We are already at 390 ppm.12 In terms of adaptation, that would mean we must prepare to deal with a 4°C increase in average global temperatures and the massive social dislocations that will bring.

Bone-Eating Storks

Across northern Kenya there are various responses to drought and flooding—some more violent than others. In the Turkana, people live amidst the gun culture and raiding cycle. But further east, near the desert outpost of Garissa, despite devastated herds and brutal drought, violence is relatively uncommon.13 To find out more about that equation, I drove the 375 kilometers out to Garissa with an American photojournalist, Dan McCabe, and a Kenyan friend of his named Tim. We reached Garissa as the sun was setting. The town begins at a checkpoint and a narrow bridge over the wide, shallow waters of the river Tana. Its waters rise hundreds of miles away, among the snows, rains, and mist of Mount Kenya. By the time it drains to Garissa, it is the desert’s main lifeline.

Guarding the bridge were huge, blue and white, buzzard-like creatures called marabou storks; massive flocks of them perched everywhere. They look like pelicans, have ten-foot wingspans, and do not sing or squawk. The only sound they make comes from the occasional clacking of their huge beaks.

Marabous are “colony breeders,” and they like to live near people. The storks scavenge carrion from the drought-felled cattle and are known to carry bones high into the sky, then drop them onto rocks to break them open and scrape out the marrow. In town, perched on the bare, desiccated acacia trees, the birds seemed to be the mascots of drought. As if to highlight the theme of scarcity even further, it was Ramadan, the month of fasting and nicotine withdrawal; in Garissa most people are ethnic Somali Muslims. Not only was it hard to find beer, but there was no food or coffee available by day.

The next morning we pushed out past the town into the desert. The road soon turned soft and sandy. Again, the flattop acacia trees were all dead and bleached, like standing driftwood, and cast an eerie blue sheen, the empty sky reflecting off the pale wood. Shepherd boys waved us down with their empty plastic jugs hoping we were from an NGO with water.

About fifty kilometers north of Garissa, on the road toward the lawless border with Somalia, we reached Shambary, a Somali village—or, really, a nomadic pastoralist camp that was turning into a village as the herds died and were replaced by aid. The village consisted of little more than a collection of stick-and-burlap huts clustered around a big tree and two small adobe buildings: a one-room schoolhouse and a clinic, both empty for lack of staff. Not far away was the water pan, a football-field-sized pit of dust that was supposed to catch rainwater. The only things keeping these people alive were the occasional relief handouts and a barely functioning borehole well. In the pounding heat, one felt as if the sun itself hated Shambary.

The headman said the rains had not come for two years. His herd had dropped from fifty cows to three. Twenty men had, as he put it, “gone mad and just walked away,” abandoning their families. Some of the other men listening to the interview laughed nervously when he said this.

Interestingly, there had been no violence here. When I asked about this, people attributed the relative peace to Islam. A combination of other factors is, I believe, more important: Proximity to a mostly paved road linking Nairobi and the port of Mombasa allowed aid to reach them and offered avenues of escape for men seeking waged work. Proximity to the Tana River and its thin border of flood plain allowed some to farm. Also, the village had organized a water committee to manage the borehole and hash out who got water, when, and in what amounts, and to raise money to buy diesel for the pump. Perhaps this collective organization helped prevent violence by keeping the community united rather than allowing young men to peel off in small groups to raid.

But the most powerful factor limiting violence, I suspect, is simply the physical barrier of the desert. The dying savanna around Shambary is vast and so dry that transiting stolen cattle across it would be very difficult. Trapped by the pounding heat and sandy wastes, rival clans are essentially quarantined to their boreholes, the banks of the Tana, and the roadside “aid camps” that have formed around food-relief distribution points. These pastoralists were peaceful because they were essentially dropouts, in the process of giving up the cattle-centered nomadic life—raiding and everything else.

Evidence that peace is a by-product of ecological and economic collapse (rather than the pacific teachings of Islam) is found seven hundred kilometers further north, in the small city of Mandera on the Somalia-Kenya border. There, Kenyan Somali pastoralists, also Muslims, are engaged in all-out cattle raiding and a bloody little resource war. Every day brings new reports of clans fighting pitched battles and burning down each other’s villages: the Garre clan against the Murulle. Both are attempting to control the overstretched Lulis Dam. The violence has been intense since 2005, punctuated only by occasional punitive military operations and failed peace talks. Over one thousand families have fled the area.14

Sifting for Causality

A central question in understanding climate change and conflict is whether violence is a response primarily to scarcity or to opportunity. Do the Turkana raid because they lack cattle or because their neighbors have cattle to steal?

Two anthropologists who studied Marsabit District in north-central Kenya found that drought and scarcity were actually associated with a decline in raiding. The authors, Adanoo Roba and Karen Witsenburg, found “no evidence that violence is increasing in relative terms, nor that ethnic violence is related to environmental scarcity.”15 Instead of scarcity causing conflict among Samburu pastoralists, it led to greater cooperation, as communities came together both physically, congregating at the boreholes for water, and politically, in the organizations demanded by formal water management. Roba and Witsenburg emphasize history, human agency, complexity, and specificity and are careful not to generalize beyond the district where they did their research. That said, the village of Shambary would support their thesis.

Not even Thomas Homer-Dixon, the scholar most associated with the argument that scarcity drives violence, argues a simple one-to-one causal relationship. Instead he attempts to tease out the attenuated links between climate, economic scarcity, state policy, and violent social conflict. Here is a good encapsulation of his thinking: “Falling agricultural production, migration to urban areas, and economic contraction in regions severely affected by scarcity often produce hardship, and this hardship increases demands on the state. At the same time, scarcity can interfere with state revenue streams by reducing economic productivity and therefore taxes; it can also increase the power and activity of ‘rent-seekers,’ who become more able to deny tax revenues on their increased wealth and to influence state policy in their favour. Environmental scarcity therefore increases society’s demands on the state while decreasing [the state’s] ability to meet those demands.”16 Thus, in Homer-Dixon’s formulation, environmental crisis is displacedthrough time and space: rural resource crises are often expressed as urban ethnic, religious, or political struggles over state revenues and services.

Looking more specifically at pastoralist violence in Kenya, Kennedy Agade Mkutu focuses in his fine book Guns and Governance on the role of small-arms availability in driving conflict; at the same time, he places environmental factors front and center. Mkutu argues that “when drought and famine and disease reduce the herds, the people must get more through raiding.”17

Historians of Kenya find the same. David Anderson, one of the most famous scholars of colonial East Africa, noted an increase in cattle theft during droughts. The pattern of violence seemed to be driven by a combination of need and opportunity. During drought, in decades past as well as today, herds became more concentrated around the few available water holes. With that, the opportunity to steal the neighbors’ stock increased. “Opportunist theft from other Africans required no planning or organization beyond the ability of members of a family or a group of herders to seize cattle belonging to others carelessly herded near their own stock. Such thefts were most common in the vicinity of watering places, salt licks, and dry-season grazing areas shared with other herders. Drought tended to afford greater opportunities for this type of theft, when pastoralist resources were scarce and livestock belonging to different peoples more likely to be temporarily congested together.”18


“Traditional” Rift Valley cattle raiding does not exist in a vacuum. From as early as the 1920s, raiding has had links to the cash economy, the economic life of towns and cities, national markets and even international trade. Very often the facilitating groups are organized-crime networks or political bosses. “By the 1930s,” writes Anderson, “theft was being committed not just as a means of wealth accumulation for the individuals involved, but as part of a wider system of trade to supply livestock to parts of East Africa where demand was high.”19 So it is to this day.

In the high, misty mountain town of Kapenguria, the capital of West Pokot, I met Edward Koech, a journalist for the Kenyan daily, the Nation. We lunched on thick greasy meat stew and blocks of soft ugali, the heavy corn mash that is the East African staple. The restaurant was full of quiet, hard-looking Pokots. After lunch, we decamped to my small 4x4 and parked on a side road to talk.

Though of the Nandi tribe, Koech has deep links to the Pokot power structure and knows the political economy of West Pokot. He confirmed that powerful businessmen and politicians fund cattle raids, commissioning seasoned warriors to organize and train groups of young men from the countryside, who then set out on extended two- and three-week missions into the Turkana or Uganda. The captured livestock are resold in Kampala and Nairobi.

Koech said that the last five years had been very dry in Pokot territory. (Remember, Kenya has notoriously localized weather patterns that can vary almost from district to district.) Compared to normal times, West Pokot is lately either dry or getting pounded with heavy rains and flooding. This erratic weather makes farming, already difficult on these thin soils, even more challenging. And so, for West Pokot, raiding is good business.

The police, NGO personnel, and Turkana pastoralists themselves all told me that when they tracked stolen herds into the Karasuk Hills it was not uncommon to find the animals’ trails ending at informal corrals away from which led the tire tracks of big transport trucks. The implication was that some Pokot raiders delivered the herds, prearranged, to professional resellers. Anecdotal evidence also suggests that Ugandan military officers keep prize Turkana bulls, confiscating them as a tax from Pokot rustlers who have crossed illegally into Uganda.

Thus, trade circuits and social networks link the myriad local conflicts across the pastoralist corridor to organized-crime structures, political bosses, regional military groups, and legitimate markets. The influence of urban-based sub-rosa economics upon raiding reveals not merely a oneway displacement (pace Homer-Dixon), from the countryside to the city, but a continual back-and-forth exchange of crises, from the rural economy to the urban, then back to the rural. Within this conflict system, climate change is beginning to act as a radical accelerant, like gasoline on a smoldering fire.