When Edward Lorenz gave his revolutionary speech in 1972 titled Predictability: Does the Flap of a Butterfly’s Wings in Brazil Set off a Tornado in Texas? he spoke squarely on how microscale disturbances can disrupt the frequency of occurrences of various weather events across the world. It was a simple case of here’s how action A might set off action Z even if they are miles apart. However, since the inception of this theory, this butterfly effect has served as an explanatory yardstick for a myriad of events; some even topically unrelated to weather. Did Lorenz foresee that the modified weather situations he initially hypothesized about would continue in a seemingly endless loop of consequences far beyond climate? That 35 years later, a 30% drop in rainfall could set off an ethnic conflict that claimed over 300,000 lives in Western Sudan? We’ll never know.
The Chaos Theory, the Butterfly Effect
Lorenz’s chaos theory tries to explain how supposedly random patterns in the world are often more complex than meets the eye. How, within the apparent randomness of complex systems, there are underlying patterns, interconnectedness, and constant feedback loops. In simpler terms, Lorenz’s hypothesis asserted that there are more patterns than meets the eye and that a small initial action could have colossal consequences later.
The underlying principle of this chaos theory is what is known as the butterfly effect. The butterfly effect is a non-literal concept imagined with a butterfly flapping its wing on one side of the earth while causing a hurricane on the other. Lorenz used the butterfly as a symbolic representation of how minuscule these changes that go on to yield larger outcomes can be. How, a tiny shift – however insignificant it may be perceived, can trigger alterations on an unimaginable scale.
Together, the chaos theory and butterfly effect is a powerful mental model that has explained some of the world’s most transformative events, from the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki to the infamous 1987 global stock market crash coined Black Monday. Thus, reiterating not only that the world is a complex system but also that each event plays a much larger role than can be initially deciphered.
Climate Change and Conflict
Essentially, climate change refers to fluctuations in weather patterns as a result of the natural variability of human activities. Sub-Saharan Africa is most vulnerable to these fluctuations because of our high dependence on rain-fed agriculture for food, employment, and economic production. Since the vast majority depends on rainfall for food, land dryness and prolonged water scarcity from rainfall shortage quickly leads to food insecurity.
Climate change has many unmistakable consequences: natural disasters and floods, extreme weather, and drought. But most people would not realize how climate change exacerbates conflicts around the world. The last decadal prediction, covering the five years from 2020 to 2021, shows continued warm temperatures and decreasing rainfall especially in North and Southern Africa, and increased rainfall over the Sahel. Many researchers propose that these increasingly warmer temperatures heighten the risk of civil war in Africa.
Harald Welzer, author of Climate Wars: Why People Will Be Killed in the 21st Century argued that although ideology will always be a surface-level justification for conflict, a deeper insight into the wars of the 21st century will be a basic resource conflict. The first climate-change conflict declared in 2007 by the former Secretary of the United Nations, Ban Ki-Moon foreshadowed this prediction. On a surface level, the decades-long war was depicted as a bloody ethnoreligious conflict. However, just like Welzer said, on a deeper level, the war in Darfur was a result of the combined effects of civil war and drought which left nearly 5 million people food-insecure in the country. Before the war, the Sahel region of northern Sudan had witnessed the Sahara Desert advance southward by almost a mile each year and a decrease in annual median rainfall of 15 to 30 percent. This signaled trouble for Sudan’s two predominant agricultural systems: smallholder farmers relying on rainfall for agricultural yield and nomadic pastoralists relying on rainfall for flourishing grazing areas for their livestock. Agriculturalists in Sudan are predominantly Africans, while pastoralists are mostly of Arab ethnicity so when the tensions of food insecurity began to weigh into the preexisting ethnic friction, a large-scale clash was inevitable.
Farmer-herdsmen conflicts are the most predominant form of climate-change conflicts that rage Sub-Saharan African countries. In Nigeria, the average rainfall has been decreasing by seven to 11 percent per year. As herdsmen look for water and grazing areas for their livestock, they encroach on crops in farmers’ lands, leading to conflicts. Further research suggests there is a 10- 20% increase in the risk of armed conflict associated with each 0.5°C increase in local temperatures. The increasing abductions, killings, human rights violations, and growth of terrorist organizations that have displaced over 10 million people across Nigeria, Niger, Chad, and Cameroon can be attributed to the Lake Chad’s Basin rapidly depleting water source. In the Horn of Africa region comprising Ethiopia, Somalia, Eritrea, and Kenya the impact of drought on over 13 million people has induced migration and ultimately ethnic tensions and terrorism one of which is reflected in the ongoing war in Tigray, North of Ethiopia.
But where does this all begin? What butterfly flap sets off all these drastic consequences? A decrease in rainfall is only a domino effect of the human activities that affect the water cycle. Deforestation, burning of fossil fuels, water pollution from oil spillages, and other pollutants are some of the small, supposedly insignificant changes that can result in unimaginable consequences.
The Way Forward for Africa
As a continent gearing towards sustainable growth, Africans must start prioritizing environmental concerns and recognize their individual and collective impact on global climate change. Small scale businesses and multinationals must establish eco-friendly structures that promote green living and reduce carbon footprints to mitigate the effects of climate change. Governments must also establish frameworks to educate the public on the urgency of climate change, the long-term consequences, and the need for collective action – bearing in mind the tenet of the chaos theory.
Professor Pius Yanda and Salomé Bronkhorst in their policy brief on conflict-sensitive climate change adaptation in Africa stated that “While cumulative environmental degradation and other stresses on systems and governance are not likely to trigger conflict immediately, a steady build-up of environmental problems coupled with the aforementioned weaknesses and on-going social, political, and economic challenges – or a dramatic and sudden environmental shock – may trigger instability and mobilization.” The vulnerable socio-economic landscape of Africa therefore makes it imperative that we tackle environmental concerns with the understanding that all our actions, however minuscule, matter.