03/13/2013 08:14 EDT | Updated 05/13/2013 05:12 EDT

What the Butterfly Effect Means For Canada's Foreign Aid

monarch butterfly on a plant...

They say a butterfly flapping its wings can cause a tornado on the other side of the world. Can a drought in China cause a revolution in Egypt? And can that connection answer the question: why should Canada spend valuable tax dollars on foreign aid when we have people in need right here?

A fascinating new study, "The Arab Spring and Climate Change", essentially applies the "Butterfly Effect" to global current affairs, examining how climate change may have influenced the revolutions that rocked the Middle East.

The Butterfly Effect is one of those scientific ideas, like "E=mc2", that everyone loves to quote, but most people don't really understand. Simply explained the butterfly, by flapping its wings, creates a microscopic change in the atmosphere, which in turn causes other minute changes, and so on. The butterfly doesn't actually cause the tornado -- it was probably going to happen anyway -- but it sets off a chain of micro-changes in weather conditions so the tornado happens today instead of tomorrow, and strikes in Manitoba instead of Saskatchewan.

Now we can imagine the sceptics' eyes rolling. Climate change is blamed for everything these days, from the common cold to male pattern baldness. But just as the butterfly doesn't cause the tornado, the academics behind this study -- scholars from respected institutions like Princeton and Oxford -- don't say that climate change caused the uprisings of the Arab Spring.

Rather, they examine how the effects of climate change affected variables like global food prices, and how those factors then played into the complex mix of social, economic, and political conditions that ultimately led to massive protests and regime-changing revolutions throughout the Arab world.

Troy Sternberg, from Oxford University, points out that China -- one of the world's main producers of wheat -- suffered a "once-in-a-century" drought in 2010. Through 2010 and 2011 most of the world's other major wheat producers -- Canada, Russia, the Ukraine, and Australia -- also experienced droughts or floods. These climate events created a global wheat shortage. The researchers found that in just six months, from June 2010 to February 2011, the global price of wheat doubled from $157 to $326 permetric tonne.

Sternberg points out that Egyptians get one third of their daily calories from bread and spend 38 per cent of their income on food. So in early 2011, as political tensions were rising, food prices in Egypt hit historic highs and many Egyptians could barely afford basic staples.

The researchers note the top nine wheat-importing countries in the world are all located in the Middle East, and seven of them experienced social unrest during the 2010-2011 global wheat shortage.

Syria, which is still in the throes of civil war, has experienced ongoing droughts in up to 60 per cent of the country since 2006 according to the study, and in 2009 the drought cost 800,000 Syrian farmers and rural families their livelihoods, resulting in a mass migration from rural areas to cities.

Events like food shortages and forced migration are "stressors" -- which Princeton academic Anne-Marie Slaughter says is a "sudden change in circumstances or environment that interacts with a complicated psychological profile in a way that leads a previously quiescent person to become violent."

Countries like Egypt and Syria were already grappling with challenges like income inequality and political oppression. Add stressors like food shortages to the mixture and suddenly bubbling discontent becomes open revolt.

But how does all this relate to Canada's foreign aid?

Canada was directly impacted by the Arab Spring. The conflict in Libya alone produced more than one million refugees. While many fled to neighbouring countries, others have sought sanctuary here. The unrest in the Middle East drove up global oil prices, and the economic loss in the region -- estimated by the International Monetary Fund at around $20.56 billion in 2011 -- added to the global economic downturn. And while the initial political impact was positive with the removal of some dictators, we are now seeing a rise in the power of radical groups like Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood.

Just as a Chinese drought affects revolution in Egypt, revolution in Egypt affects the economic and security environment for Canada.

International development is all about addressing the kinds of stressors that influenced the Arab Spring. We assist communities in adapting to climate change, improving agriculture so they are less affected by drought and food shocks. Through education and economic programs we improve incomes, reduce economic inequality, and empower disadvantaged groups like women and girls.

Through positive change we contribute in a small but significant way to preventing storms in other countries that will affect us here.

We don't do what we do out of self-interest. But we do sincerely believe that making a better life for others creates a better world for us all.

Craig and Marc Kielburger are founders of international charity and educational partner, Free The Children. Its youth empowerment event, We Day, is in eight cities across Canada this year, inspiring more than 100,000 attendees. For more information, visit or follow Craig on Twitter at @craigkielburger

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