What is to be said when the secretary general of the United Nations cannot locate an area of conflict infamous to the world; misidentifies that conflict’s cause; betrays a fantastic ignorance of science and geography; and declares that from this welter of misunderstanding, policy must be made? In short, what may be said when South Korea’s Ban Ki Moon writes in the pages of the Washington Post — as he did last month — that climate change is the cause of genocide in Darfur? This spurious claim received wide media attention, and so deserves a closer look.
The post of U.N. secretary general was, at its inception, an august office held by men who were, if not great, at least good, and partisans of freedom’s cause. But we are a long way from Dag Hammarskjöld, who died in the course of his own U.N. mission in the Congo. Today the office is a sinecure for mostly third-world bureaucrats who represent the interests of the U.N. itself, rather than that organization’s putative ideals. The past decade in particular has seen the quality of secretaries general sink to a nadir, with famously corrupt and ineffective executives holding office in succession. Boutros Boutros Ghali and Kofi Annan will not be remembered for any substantive accomplishments beyond their faithful adherence to a literalist perversion of François Guizot’s dictum: “Enrich yourselves.”
Whether Ban Ki Moon will improve upon his predecessors’ record is yet to be seen. Certainly the bar is set low — and certainly, his recent pronouncement on Darfur aims even lower. Secretary General Moon’s declaration of the cause of the genocide came as part of an 800-word op-ed, but it boils down a mere 45 words: “Two decades ago, the rains in southern Sudan began to fail … [S]ubsequent investigation found that it coincided with a rise in temperatures of the Indian Ocean, disrupting seasonal monsoons. This suggests that the drying of sub-Saharan Africa derives, to some degree, from man-made global warming.” The reduction in water resources and cropland therefore created the conflict between the Fur people and the Arabs that drives the Darfur conflict now.
Secretary General Moon’s thesis is nonsense through and through. For starters, Darfur is not in “southern Sudan,” but in the country’s west. Southern Sudan may indeed be drying out, but its war with the Khartoum government — wholly distinct from the war in Darfur — recently ended with a powersharing agreement that brings a semblance of peace to that region for the first time in decades. If climate change creates the conditions for war, assuming that the secretary general’s description of the region is correct, southern Sudan is the standing counterexample.
Compounding the problems with his argument, the secretary general’s linkage of the Indian Ocean monsoons with rainfall in the African interior is profoundly tenuous. The Indian Ocean does affect rainfall in the Sahara and the Sahel to some extent, but the models explaining this linkage are so underdeveloped as to be nearly useless — certainly they are not authoritative enough to justify the secretary general’s pronouncement. Darfur, to the north and west of southern Sudan, has an abbreviated and spare rainy season: the jet stream pushes weather patterns in the northern hemisphere from west to east, and what rain Darfur receives is mostly moisture from the African interior and the far-away Atlantic. To assert that alterations in the Indian Ocean monsoons directly and meaningfully affect rainfall in the near-desert African interior is to engage in a highly tendentious interpretation of existing science.
That interior is near-desert because of a process, still not wholly understood, that has been underway for some time longer than Ban Ki Moon’s historical memory. If Darfur is dry, and getting moreso, it is because the entire northern half of the African continent has been yielding to desert for nearly two thousand years. We know this from modern experience and from the historical record: Roman sources mention elephants and tall trees on the coasts of what are now the arid, Saharan nations of Tunisia and Libya. The Carthaginians, operating from what is now the northern edge of the Sahara, built mighty seagoing fleets from the abundant forests of north Africa. The civilization of the Kush, far below the Egyptian Nile, thrived for half a millennium in what is now desert Sudan. The relentless process of regional desertification has been underway ever since. This is climate change of a sort, but it is hardly man-made — unless, perhaps, Roman carbon emissions kicked it all off? — and it is therefore irresponsible to describe it thus.
Ban Ki Moon’s monumental incomprehension of science and geography are bad enough in themselves, but far worse is his lack of moral and historical understanding. The secretary general argues that the genocide in Darfur results directly from insufficient resources, pitting peoples against one another in an existential struggle for land and soil. As it happens, we’ve heard that rationale within living memory: and the result then was millions of Germans in a drang nach Osten against millions of Slavs, slaughtering one another from Warsaw to Stalingrad to Berlin. Rationales are just that — neither inherently truthful nor moral in themselves — and so we must look to what’s real in Darfur, and not to the narrative that satisfies the prejudices of the United Nations secretary general.
There is a genocide in Darfur because, as with all genocides, there is a political reason for one. The Fur people had their own sultanate until barely a century ago, when British colonial officials married it to the Anglo-Egyptian condominium in the Sudan. Historically unused to Arab rule, the Fur chafed under alien repression until the most recent revolt broke out. The government in Khartoum, with a savage track record ranging from collaboration with al Qaeda to support for the misnomered Lord’s Resistance Army, did what came naturally to it, and set about killing all the Fur in retribution for the rebellion of a few. This is not the fault of the rains.
The secretary general of the United Nations ought to have the basic courage to state basic facts. Instead, he blames climate change for one of the most urgent and compelling horrors of our era. In doing so, he exposes his lack of knowledge of science and geography. These are forgivable lapses, at least. What is unforgivable is the exposure of his lack of integrity in his implicit whitewash of genocide.
– Joshua Treviño is the vice president for public policy at the Pacific Research Institute. He has extensive professional experience in Africa.