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Polarized Politics or Climate Conflict? Why Branding Matters for the Malheur Occupation, Post-Paris

What does an armed occupation of a federally owned wetland in Harney County, Oregon, have in common with the recently concluded Paris climate talks? More than you might think. A closer look at the circumstances points toward common ground between angry ranchers and the freshly mobilized climate change adaptation regime.

Capturing headlines and dividing opinion, the conflict that continues to unfold at Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in the U.S. state of Oregon shows little sign of subsiding. Depending who you ask, the standoff has been billed as a confrontation between overzealous federal regulators grabbing land to protect threatened local biodiversity and armed domestic terrorists asserting their right to a traditional ranching lifestyle.

The evolving timeline of this confrontation began in 2012 with the conviction of Dwight and Steven Hammond, ranchers from southeast Oregon’s Harney County, for unlawfully setting fire to federal land  in the Malheur Refuge to allegedly clear land for cattle grazing. A series of standoffs between the Hammonds’ supporters and law enforcement over the severity of their punishment, including a five-year prison sentence, reached a climax with the armed invasion and occupation of the Malheur Refuge in early 2016. Led by Ammon and Ryan Bundy, Nevadan ranchers with a history of similar disputes with federal regulators, the occupiers have released a list of grievances, documenting their opposition to federal acquisition of land in the county and demanding redress for the Hammonds.

In many ways, such grievances are nothing new. Cattle ranching in Harney County—and in much of the American west—dates to the mid-19th century. Initially, nearly all of this ranching was “open-range,” with livestock owners allowed to graze their animals at will without regard to land ownership. Along with the steady densification of the west, federal law and the advent of new technologies, such as barbed wire, gradually restricted these practices—sporadically leading to conflict. The establishment of wildlife refuges like Malheur at the turn of the 20th century, authorized by President Teddy Roosevelt’s National Park Service, was only one facet of this broader trend.

Clearly, the recent intensification of conflict and polarization of opinion seen at Malheur and elsewhere cannot be explained entirely by new fencing technology or regulation. One vector that remains surprisingly absent from the mainstream narrative is the intensifying impacts of climate change.

The Climate Culprit

Globally, semi-arid grasslands used for ranching and livestock agriculture are front lines for the impacts of climate change. Increasingly, communities that are dependent on these ways of life are being pushed off their land by extreme heat, prolonged drought events, unpredictable precipitation patterns, and soil erosion. All of these impacts are linked to the increased severity and frequency of extreme weather outcomes like wildfires and flash floods. For ranchers of America’s semi-arid grasslands, such as those in Harney County, these impacts are closely linked to the declining quality of forage available to their livestock. Reduced forage quality means, in essence, that more acreage is needed to provide animals with the same nutritional value, resulting in decreased livestock productivity and profitability.

Beyond these immediate risk factors, the cascading effects of unpredictable weather patterns can have tremendous impacts on the long-term stability of societies that depend on livestock agriculture. In the U.S. state of Colorado, prolonged drought has killed much of the natural forage that normally is available for cattle on ranch land, forcing ranchers to buy alternative and expensive feed and water supplies. Unable to afford these alternatives, many ranchers are forced to sell off or cull their herds. For many, restocking when conditions improve—as they finally are now—may not be viable, as the new cattle often lack the genetically inherited immunities to local poisonous fauna that would enable them to thrive in the region.

Since March 2015, Oregon Governor Kate Brown has declared Harney County, along with 22 more of Oregon’s 36 counties, to be in a state of drought emergency. Citing record-breaking low snowpack levels, high temperatures, and significantly low stream flows over the past five years, the governor issued an executive order directing state agencies to implement a comprehensive suite of drought resiliency and relief measures.

In a broader sense, ranching in the United States has been living on borrowed time since the early 1970s. The practice of leasing federal land to ranchers for grazing at below-free market costs—as has taken place in Malheur—is, in effect, a targeted relief measure for an industry that increasingly is incapable of turning a profit.

The situation unfolding at Malheur can and should be seen as a symptom of the growing and existential threat faced by ranchers globally. Working with ever-shrinking grazing land, water supplies, and profit margins, conflict over scarce resources is inevitable. The World Bank explicitly lists such conflict as a symptom of climate change. These situations will only become more frequent as climate change intensifies—and will be compounded further in developing countries where affected communities lack the resources to properly respond and adapt.

Catalyzing Action at the Paris Talks

These insights, among others, formed the baseline guiding negotiations at the climate change conference held in Paris last December. Arguably the most important product of these negotiations, the Green Climate Fund (GCF) was officially mobilized as the leading funder of global climate change response initiatives—joining a constellation of other funding mechanisms. Already, the GCF has committed to distributing $2.5 billion in financing for low-carbon projects in 2016. Aware that only 16 percent of global sustainability financing was targeted toward climate change adaptation as of 2014, the GCF has committed half of its financing target of $100 billion by 2020 specifically for adaptation initiatives.

How, then, can the GCF affect communities facing problems similar to Harney County?

Likely not directly. Embedded in the mission of organizations like the GCF is the recognition that the cost of climate change adaptation as a share of GDP will be the highest by far in less-developed countries. To have the greatest socioeconomic and environmental impact, the lion’s share of this funding will go toward countries that lack the resources to properly respond. What the GCF can do, and already is doing, for communities like Harney County is to demonstrate how climate adaption finance can reduce friction and conflict in the transition to sustainable economies.

Even before the launch of the climate negotiations in Paris, the GCF had approved and is moving forward on financing $168 million in projects, including improving the productive and sustainable use of wetlands in Peru and better managing climate change-induced water shortages in the Maldives. Having achieved an initial capitalization of $10 billion by the beginning of the Paris talks, and with a target of $100 billion by 2020, the GCF will be scaling up these investments significantly in the coming years.

With these vast financial resources in mind, it becomes much clearer why it is so important to be precise about how we describe conflict over scarce resources. Already, U.S. policymakers, including the State Department, the Department of Defense, and the authors of the 2015 National Security Strategy, are citing discussions about the implications of climate-induced conflict with greater frequency. Ignoring the complex motivations behind these conflicts not only promotes polarization for political expediency, but also draws attention away from understanding how climate change disproportionately affects those in the more rural areas of society.


Philip Killeen is a Research Assistant for the Climate and Energy Team at Worldwatch Institute.

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