Media Coverage: Climate Change Acting as A Threat to Terrorism
How climate change is acting as a threat to terrorism around the world
“As the planet warms, there will be many significant global impacts, from the dwindling of fresh water supplies as glaciers melt, to the collapse of fisheries as reefs die. But the droughts and famines induced by this will also lead to the uprising of more incredibly serious global security concerns.” ~ Josh Davis
In 2015, the debate in Iowa started with a moment of silence to honour the victims of the Paris terror attacks and later, then shifted to the issue of discussing terrorism around the world. Bernie Sanders, who promised to eradicate a big terror group from this world, also mentioned at a previous debate that the greatest threat to national security is climate change, states Linda Qiu, in her report – ‘The Connection Between Climate Change and Terrorism in Paris.’ Post the Paris terror attack on Nov 14, 2015, Sanders was again asked if he still believed his statement was true, to which he responded – “Absolutely. In fact, climate change is directly related to the growth of terrorism. If we do not get our act together and listen to what the scientists say, you’re going to see countries all over the world — this is what the CIA says — they are going to be struggling over limited amounts of water, limited amounts of land to grow their crops, and you’re going to see all kinds of international conflict.”
Climate change has been a matter of discussion for the past 50 years; however, what happens when climate change is used as leverage by terrorist groups? When are the increasingly scarce natural resources used as a ‘weapon of war? Can environmental problems be dealt with within the existing socio-economic system, or has this system become a source of instability leading to rising global conflicts?
Lukas Rüttinger, from DW, argues in his report that climate change does not build terrorists or insurgents but creates an environment that lets them thrive and grow. For example, in areas of disability where the nation cannot provide security and basic needs to its citizens, these non-state armed groups function more freely. They use the weaknesses of the state to undermine it further. The world witnessed one such example a year ago when a fundamentalist group returned to power in Afghanistan. A 2014 Department of Defence report identifies climate change as the root of government instability that leads to widespread migration, damages infrastructure and leads to the spread of disease. “These gaps in governance can create an avenue for extremist ideologies and conditions that foster terrorism,” the report adds.
As a matter of fact, last year, UN Chief António Guterres has also now spoken in detail about climate change being an ‘aggravating factor’ for terrorism’ and proposed five points of action in the “New Agenda of Peace.”
One of the examples around the world is the Syrian civil war, which led to the biggest refugee crisis since World War II, according to Wagner. “One of the things that preceded the failure of the nation-state of Syria and the rise of a non-state armed group there was the effect of climate change and the mega-drought that affected that region, wiped out farmers, drove people to cities, created a humanitarian crisis.”, argues Martin O’Malley.
Similarly, another report by Josh Davis from 2017 focuses on a major terrorist organisation which is believed to have its origin from a regional drought that engulfed a region in West Africa, i.e. northeast of Nigeria. As a result, it led to people and farmers of that region being pushed into a state of turbulence and hence, this vulnerable environment provided a perfect opportunity for the organization to exploit the population there for their own recruitment.
Post the speech of Bernie Sanders in 2015, Linda Qui also argues that experts worldwide are summarizing this issue as that climate change is acting as a “threat multiplier”. As the world is witnessing consequences of climate change, it is leading to shortages in basic amenities such as food and water, which in turn are acting as a catalyst to mass migration, poverty, and the spread of disease- in short, instability. Therefore, in nations with already unstable governments, these factors are breeding the conditions for terrorism to thrive.
Bill Nye goes to lengths to discuss global warming and climate change in his book ‘Unstoppable’. He argues that as a result of the instabilities caused by the climate change crisis in different regions, the young populations have gone out to big cities looking for work. As a result, these vulnerable youth who no longer trust their national government, who believe that the system has failed them, are more easily exploited by the terrorist groups and “they end up part way around the world in Paris shooting people.” As a matter of fact, he also states that this is just the tip of the iceberg. “The more we let (climate change) go on, the more trouble there’s going to be.”
The examples mentioned above in this article highlight various reports all over the world which indicate a rise of many armed groups as a result of climate change instabilities – from the Arab Spring in the Middle East to the Syrian civil war and the shrinking of lake Chad resulting into crisis in West Africa. In the next section, we will dissect different factors in which climate change is acting as a “threat multiplier”.
Terrorist groups using climate change as leverage for ‘recruitment’
“The scarcer resources become, the more power is given to those who control them,” according to the report by Ben Doherty from The Guardian.
The article by Tousignant from The New York Post, “Climate change could fuel the global rise of terrorism”, also begins with an illustration of how climate change acts in similar ways by creating fragility and undermining livelihood. These factors create an environment in which very different armed groups can thrive and grow. The article further goes on to mention that this is particularly important in local populations that feel excluded or marginalized by the government. Terrorist groups offer, for instance, potential possibilities for youth who have no jobs and believe that the state does not help them.
The journalist further goes on to say that climate change stunts the farmers and makes the population more vulnerable. In the areas affected by severe drought and famine, terrorist groups exploit the people and “wield diminishing natural resources such as water to exert control over people.”
Climate change acting as a national ‘security threat’
The link between terrorism and climate change was also made by former US president Barack Obama in 2015, where he called climate change “a serious threat to global security” and “an immediate risk to our national security”. He further added that one needs to comprehend that climate change has not resulted in the conflicts that we are witnessing around the globe. Yet we need to take into account that a severe drought which had caused a grand crisis in Nigeria was also exploited by a terrorist group there. Similarly, it is now believed that the crop failure, drought and high food prices acted as a catalyst for the early unrest situation in Syria, which then descended into civil war in the centre of the Middle East.
“What we know is that — as human beings are placed under strain, then bad things happen,” the president told co-host Norah O’Donnell, in a conversation taped in 2015. “And, you know, if you look at world history, whenever people are desperate, when people start lacking food when people — are not able to make a living or take care of their families — that’s when ideologies arise that are dangerous.”
Climate change acts as an “accelerant of instability”
“If the Arab Spring taught us something, it is that the effects of climate change can serve as stressors, contributing to regional instability and conflict, experts said.” – Perez, 2013
Social scientists around the world have indicated in their studies that the middle east drought may have accelerated the Syrian war immensely. “I’m not telling you that the crisis in Syria was caused by climate change,” Secretary of State John Kerry said in a speech in 2015. “But the devastating drought clearly made a bad situation a lot worse.” Another report by Ben Doherty argues that the civil war, which has been ongoing for nearly a decade now, did not originate but was aggravated by the worst drought in the history of the nation, which pushed millions into poverty and forced thousands to flee their land.
Finally, Lukas Rüttinger wrote in his report– ‘insurgency terrorism and organised crime in a warming climate, quoted that climate change alone did not cause terrorism, but “creates an environment where terrorism can thrive” and exacerbates existing tensions and conflicts.
Analyzing all the articles above, Nett and Rüttinger illustrate that one can observe that a good amount of research has been done over the past decade to understand the connection between climate change and security. These studies have highlighted how the linkages between climate change and conflict are not simple and linear. Climate change does not directly cause conflicts; rather, it acts as a ‘threat multiplier.’ But having said that, the Adelphi report also argues that all the research conducted so far on the connection between climate change and security only touches the surface level of the issue. There needs to be a lot more research done to comprehensively understand the linkages between climate change, fragility and non-state armed groups.
And therefore, Peter Fischer, a senior energy and climate change official at the German Federal Foreign Office, is right when he discusses tackling the issue at the root cause itself, which leads to an increase in these conflicts. Darby wrote in his article that Fischer quotes, “these reports confirm once again that is in all our interest to tackle climate change, and to invest in holistic solutions to conflict, starting now. Instability and turbulence are proliferating around the world and climate change is helping to drive them. We must pay attention to the early stages of the conflict-cycle, anticipate risks arising from climate change and take preventive measures.”