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Was the Arab Spring Caused By Global Warming?

May 14, 2012

As these ancient whale bones in Wadi al-Hitan demonstrate, climate change has played a significant role in North Africa, and continues to, especially through desertification. But was it a contributing factor to the Egyptian uprisings?

When I first read the title of this article by Sarah Johnstone and Jeffrey Mazo “Global Warming and the Arab Spring” I thought it was going to be a bit of clever word play–“warming” alluding to democratic change after the frigidity of authoritarianism.

Nope. They mean global warming the way Al Gore means global warming. Climate change, caused by human activity, leading to environmental catastrophe.

Most of the article is a brisk and superficial analysis of the significant, albeit not determinant, role food prices played in the protests in Egypt and elsewhere. The authors argues that changes in climate are producing food shortages.

In wealthier countries these are expressed in minor rises in prices: tomatoes cost a nickel a pound more, wheat a little more per pound, increasing the price of that loaf of bread.

But in poor countries, the situation is a disaster, since the global capitalist system forces all countries to offer their food on a global market and World Bank and similar institutions keep countries from practicing such “socialistic” practices as feeding themselves first. Egypt’s 2008 bread crisis never really ended, the authors point out, so this helped many support the revolution.

The main problem with the piece is that it doesn’t really hold together. Most of the leaders of the revolution were middle and upper middle class people who were not starving, or even (yet) tightening their belts significantly.

While it’s true that nearly half of the Egyptians (40 million  of 83 million) rely on ration cards and are furious at the corruption in the bread-subsidy system, is riddled with corruption.But such folk were as likely to sit out, or oppose the uprisings out of fear it would make their precarious situation even worse (a prediction that has come true for many) as to head out into the streets.

The authors of this paper recognize that they haven’t really made the causal connections they want to, so they say:

Climate change and its impact on weather are, of course, insufficient on their own to cause conflict or unrest, let alone on the scale now occurring in the Arab world. But it has been a threat multiplier, in the sense that it was a necessary component of any number of possible scenarios, each of them sufficient to have led to the sort of unrest we are witnessing.

In other words, it offers a plausible scenario but no smoking gun, no bullet, and only some smudged fingerprints.

I think a paper that carefully describes and analyzes the role of food prices and food scarcity in Egypt in the uprisings would be fascinating. Similarly I would be very interested in a detailed assessment of the role climate change is having on such “agflation” in the global food market. But this paper tries to make far to sweeping an argument with far too little data to suit me.


Johnstone, Sarah and Jeffrey Mazo. 2011. Global Warming and the Arab Spring. Survival: Global Politics and Strategy 53(2): 11-17

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