WTC, September 18, 2001 by Slagheap
We’ve just entered the second week of the UN Climate Change Conference, in which nearly 200 nations are hoping to reach a “short, simple agreement” to limit the amount of carbon dioxide that humanity releases into the atmosphere. After the first week of talks, a 20-page draft agreement was completed and submitted to the French, in record time. So there’s reason to be optimistic that a deal will be reached.
If so, it will be a monumental step forward. Climate change is perhaps the most significant challenge of our age. According to scientists, its effects will be “severe,” “pervasive,” and “irreversible.” While few climatologists claim that it will bring about our extinction, virtually everyone agrees that climate change is a global catastrophe that’s unfolding before our very eyes in slow motion. Its most probable consequences include agricultural failures, mass migrations, social unrest, economic collapse, and political instability.
Such phenomena will be devastating for many reasons. One that’s often overlooked is that they’re precisely the sort of conditions in which terrorism tends to thrive. Readers may recall that during the last Democratic presidential debate Bernie Sanders said that climate change and terrorism are linked. As Sanders put it, “climate change is directly related to the growth of terrorism.” It turns out the this was a bit of an overstatement. Consequently, the Washington Post described Sanders’ claim as a “stretch,” and Politifact rated it “Mostly False.”
But the problem was merely linguistic: “directly related” is too strong a phrase. The fact is that the best science to date substantiates the notion that climate change could exacerbate the growing threat of terrorism. A recent study published in the Proceedings of the National Academies of Science, for example, concludes that “Century-long observed trends in precipitation, temperature, and sea-level pressure, supported by climate model results, strongly suggest that anthropogenic forcing [that is, climate change] has increased the probability of severe and persistent droughts in this region,” namely Syria.
This is significant because a record-breaking drought in Syria lasting from 2007 to 2010 initiated a mass migration of farmers from the countryside into the cities. And this demographic shift has been linked to the outbreak of the 2011 Syrian civil war. The clincher is that without the Syrian civil war, the Islamic State almost certainly wouldn’t have grown into the juggernaut of terror that it now is. Thus, there’s a fairly robust chain of causes from anthropogenic climate change to the rise of the richest and most powerful terrorist organization in human history.
The US government itself recognizes that climate change poses a national security threat. Earlier this year, the Department of Defense stated in an official report that climate change “will aggravate problems such as poverty, social tensions, environmental degradation, ineffectual leadership and weak political institutions that threaten stability in a number of countries.” Consequently, by “[degrading] living conditions, human security and the ability of governments to meet the basic needs of their populations,” it will pose an increasingly significant risk to America in the future.
Then, last month, the Director of the CIA, John Brennan, said at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington DC that “When CIA analysts look for deeper causes of this rising instability,” referring to places like Syria, Iraq, Ukraine, Yemen, and Libya, “they find nationalistic, sectarian, and technological factors that are eroding the structure of the international system. They also see socioeconomic trends, the impact of climate change, and other elements that are cause for concern.”
Brennan added that “Mankind’s relationship with the natural world is aggravating these problems and is a potential source of crisis itself. Last year was the warmest on record, and this year is on track to be even warmer.” According to the best current data, Brennan is correct: 2015 will likely be the warmest year ever, surpassing the previous record set by 2014. In fact, of the hottest 11 years on record, all but one has occurred since 2000.
As Brennan’s comments suggest, there are multiple causal factors that converge to produce new terrorist movements. The Islamic State, for example, is explicitly motivated by an apocalyptic narrative in which it sees itself as an active participant. It genuinely believes that the end of the world is right around the corner, and according to Will McCants this belief has had a notable impact on the group’s strategic decisions over the years. Furthermore, the economist Thomas Piketty has recently suggested that the Islamic State's rise to prominence was fueled by wealth inequality in the Middle East.
Climate change is, therefore, just another factor in the causal equation, but the evidence suggests that it’s a nontrivial one. It follows that the Climate Conference in Paris — where a horrific terrorist attack resulting 130 deaths occurred just last month — could have a major effect on the future of terrorism. One doesn’t need a PhD in terrorism studies to recognize that a world marked by extreme weather events, megadroughts, desertification, coastal flooding, sea level rise, biodiversity loss, ecological collapse, the spread of infectious disease, major food supply disruptions, mass migrations, social upheaval, and political instability — to name just a few consequences — is far more likely to breed extremism than one marked by peace and abundance.
While Sanders may have used overly strong language, he managed to identify a very real issue: terrorism and climate change are connected. Let’s hope that the world’s leaders can finally come to a meaningful agreement about how to limit greenhouse emissions in the future. If not, the result could be the rise of groups even more radical than the Islamic State.
Phil Torres is an author, Affiliate Scholar at the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies, and founder of the X-Risks Institute for the Study of Extremism (www.risksandreligion.org). His forthcoming book is called The End: What Science and Religion Tell Us About the Apocalypse (Pitchstone Publishing, 2016).