The great distraction?

January 10, 2020   ·   0 Comments

By Laura Campbell

Word on the street is that more war might be coming to the Middle East. Certainly there could be intense escalation of ongoing conflict between Pro-U.S. and Pro-Iran factions, and whether that results in full scale war, only time will tell. After President Trump cancelled the Iran-nuclear deal in May of 2018, there was consensus among most experts and observers that the consequences of that decision would unfold quickly. And here we are. 

For those of us still in complete dismay over the fact that so many died in Iraq and Afghanistan in the years after 2001, the thought of a new war in the Middle East makes our heads spin. Consider the more recent destruction of Syria, of Yemen, of Iraq (again)… nations still engulfed in full-scale war or barely in recovery mode. And for what? What has this all been for? Stability? And for whom? And to what end? There are many possible answers to these questions, and they are important. But what I want to linger on is this: in some ways what we are witnessing in these early days of 2020 are the intersection between the crises of the ‘old world’ and the greater human struggle to save our planet. And since our leaders don’t have the willpower or the honest capacity to deal with the latter problem, on goes business as usual in other arenas. 

Donald Trump, his joint chiefs of staff, the entire political establishment of the Western world (all but Prime Minister Scott Morrison of Australia) are perhaps seeing this latest episode in tensions as an opportunity to deflect the scorn of the many millions of us who are witnessing an entire country burn in bushfire. 

Indeed, few leaders were free from sharp criticism in 2019 where it concerned environmental protection. But for Trump especially, the war-mongering and perhaps imminent conflict with Iran is an opportunity to change the ‘conversation’ away from his impeachment.  The establishment in the United States simply can’t accept ‘an attack against national interests/security’ without a retaliatory response. To advocate for cooler heads, for ‘talking,’ in the wake of an attack is blasphemous in some ways. The fact that half of the Democratic primary contestants did not rule out war with Iran (Biden, Buttigieg, for instance) in the wake of the missile strikes on U.S. military locations in Iraq on Monday should tell us that the instinctual bid for war is always at play. But Trump doesn’t even need a full-scale war to distract Americans from his crimes; musings by all of the media on the mere possibility of war is quite enough. 

The two leading international headlines of the new year, tensions with Iran and the Australian bushfires, are on the surface completely unrelated, but our responses to them tell us a lot about the times we are living in. Indeed, the mechanics of traditional international relations simply can’t deal with climate change. And climate change is truly at the heart of the story where it comes to the bushfires. Watching this catastrophe unfold allows us to witness the new reality in a time of climate chaos. There are bits of collaboration and carbon trading schemes here and there- but there is almost no likelihood of ‘enforcement’ mechanisms being put in place around carbon emissions. That’s because the strongest international powers are also the biggest polluters. 

But those very same mechanics of international relations will go on operating as they always have across the world where it comes to ‘rogue regimes’ and the Western World’s response to them. There has never been much deviation from this pattern of thinking – perhaps only briefly in the 1990s, scholars wondered whether war would be avoided for good as communism collapsed. For example, Francis Fukuyama famously declared that we were witnessing ‘the end of history’ – that nation states and the tensions between them would be eliminated by globalization and technology. Of course very quickly, this suggestion was made irrelevant by continued and even more complicated conflicts that defied conventional responses. 

But as with everything, these two issues are about perception. My instagram generation sees the bushfires as the most pressing global crisis at this very moment. There is something about watching our coveted vacation destinations burn relentlessly with untold wildlife loss that hits deeply at the core of our values. It is unlikely that Iran’s continued ‘proxy war’ with Saudi Arabia in Yemen has given any of us pause in the same way that climate change disasters have. And perhaps, for leaders like Trump and even those seemingly concerned about climate change, like Trudeau, this more traditional ‘international challenge’ must be used to show their leadership. The reporters will naturally ask, ‘what will be our response?’ and at some level, the answers will be honest. Canada and the EU will wait and see. They will in earnest attempt to smooth over tensions. And while Trump is unpredictable, I don’t believe that Iran will commit any major strategic blunders, so it might be possible to indeed smooth over tensions.

It’s not in any way possible to prevent natural disasters in the same way. Nor is it as easy to shift our entire ways of life, our entire economies into a truly sustainable direction. Leadership is nowhere to be found on climate change. A possible war with Iran provides that familiar terrain upon which important decisions can be made. 

This is the greatest distraction none of us need or want. As far as I’m concerned, all of humanity needs to unite around solutions to the climate catastrophe. 

Unfortunately, precedents show that this is wishful thinking. 

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