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The Link Between Global Warming and Terrorism

With the U.N. hosting climate talks in Paris just last week, there has been been heated debate over whether or not world leaders should be so focused on the issue of global warming, with many other problems, such as the current Syrian refugee crisis and ISIS, appearing to be far more pressing. Many politicians have espoused such a view- most recently, Donald Trump, who questioned why Barack Obama is focusing on the environment when the threat of ISIS is growing each day. People like Donald Trump who make statements like this fail to understand what many security analysts, scientists, and government officials have known for decades: Global warming is undoubtably a factor in the rise of terrorism, and the connection between the two problems that our world is facing today means that we cannot possibly solve the resultant problem (terrorism) if we ignore the first (global warming).

When Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders used the terrorist attacks in Paris to call for action to address climate change, he attracted ridicule across the political spectrum. However, while many were quick to attack him for his statement, “many academics and national security experts agree that climate change contributes to an uncertain world where terrorism can thrive.” US military officials refer to this concept as a “threat multiplier”; climate change takes “issues like terrorism that already pose a threat to national security and exacerbates the damage they can cause.” (Worland) A 2014 Department of Defense Report further elaborates on how the damage from climate change can lead to global instability, the major factor in terrorism. Their report states that, “rising global temperatures, changing precipitation patterns, climbing sea levels and extreme weather events will intensify the challenges of global instability, hunger, poverty and conflict. They will likely lead to food and water shortages, pandemic disease, disputes over refugees and resources, and destruction by natural disasters in regions across the globe.” (DoD) With an increase in instability comes an increased risk for terrorism; So, because so much of global instability can be traced back to climate change, why are so many individuals failing to make the connection between global warming and terrorism?

No one has the answer to that. But, when you read and listen to people who actually understand the issues, like Pentagon analysts, Department of Defense experts, and even Bill Nye, it becomes apparent the real-world impact that global warming is having on our fight against terrorism right now. Let’s look at a few examples.

The first country I’m going to pinpoint is Nigeria. The country is threatened by both a devastating drought  and violence from the terrorist group Boko Haram. At first glance, it doesn’t seem credible that these two events are related. Yet, they are deeply intertwined, with Nigeria’s worsening social and political situation being directly influenced by the state of the environment. The population explosion has burdened the land to the point that 35% of the land in Nigeria that was farmable 50 years ago is no longer arable. In addition, a major river, Lake Chad, has shrunk. Food and water shortages have led to increasing social instability, which Boko Haram used to their advantage to rise to power. When the government can no longer maintain stability within their country, it creates a vacuum where terrorist groups can emerge. In Nigeria, Boko Haram grows more powerful, while the environmental situation seems to be only getting worse.


A second country that is on everyone’s minds right now is Syria. Millions of refugees are fleeing from the oppression and cruelty of ISIS, causing a strain on European resources and leading many people to question what the solution could possibly be. Furthermore, ISIS is wrecking havoc on the countries in the Middle East- Iraq, Iran, Syria- posing a massive international security threat. While the entire world is panicking about this crisis, few look to the origins of this crisis, and how some saw it brewing years ago. An article from the PNAS journal states that “there is evidence that the 2007- 2010 drought contributed to the conflict in Syria. It was the worst drought in the instrumental record, causing widespread crop failure and a mass migration of farming families to urban centers.” (Kelly) This mass migration led to widespread poverty within those urban centers, creating exactly the kind of social instability that fosters the motivation for terrorist groups to form. The drought, combined with Assad’s totalitarian, oppressive regime, was a recipe for disaster, and disaster came: ISIS emerged as a credible threat to international security, wrecking havoc in the Middle East region and gaining enough traction to launch attacks overseas.


These are just two examples of what climate change has influenced, in terms of the formation of terrorist groups. But it doesn’t end there. If sea levels continue to rise at the same rate, within a number of decades (within our lifetimes!) low-lying islands like Kiribati and Fiji will be underwater. Picture the international conflict that the Syrian refugee crisis is causing… Now multiply that with the number of people who will be international refugees if their homes go underwater. The population of Kiribati and Fiji combined is approximately 1 million. That’s 1 million people who will be looking for a new home. It’s not a hypothetical situation; Current estimates are that the islands will be uninhabitable within the next 30-60 years. If we have a second refugee crisis on our hands, that creates a breeding ground for new terrorist groups to emerge out of the inevitable social instability. These problems aren’t going to go away; they will continue to compound and get even more frightening than they are currently.

The issue is not that people don’t care. Many, many people care. However, most think that one thing is more important than the other. We have our representatives in the government shouting at each other over whether climate change or ISIS (and the larger problem of terrorism) is more important. The answer to this? You may not believe that a mere high school junior has the answer to this problem, but here it is: They are both important. They do not exist without each other. In order to solve the problem of terrorism, you cannot look at the problem of terrorism alone. Terrorism doesn’t exist in a vacuum; There are many different factors influencing it’s rise and spread, and ignoring one of those factors just because it doesn’t seem as important will have disastrous consequences. In order to solve an issue, we need to look at all sides of it. When it comes to solving the threat of terrorism, we need to analyze every aspect, and that includes the very real threat that climate change poses.

If you'd like to read more on the topic, below are some interesting articles that further expound on the connection:

Department of Defense 2014 Climate Change Adaptation Roadmap Report.

Eichelberger, Erika. "How Environmental Disaster Is Making Boko Haram Violence Worse." Mother Jones. 10 June 2014. Web. 3 Dec. 2015.

Kelly, Colin, Sharzad Mohtadi, Mark Cane, and Richard Seager. "Climate Change in the Fertile Crescent and Implications of the Recent Syrian Drought." PNAS. 30 Jan. 2015. Web. 3 Dec. 2015.

Worland, Justin. "Why Climate Change and Terrorism Are Connected." Time. Time, 15 Nov. 2015. Web. 3 Dec. 2015.


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