Climate Change Brews Conflict
BY RYAN MAIA, MAY 21st, 2018
What are the world’s two top security threats? You could likely guess the first: ISIS. And, since you’re reading an article on the Climate Action Business Association website, surely you could make an educated guess as to what takes second place. That’s correct—globally, climate change is considered the second greatest threat to national security, according to a 2017 poll by Pew Research Center.
What makes climate change such an alarming security concern? Four characteristics make it a unique global threat.
- First, it impacts everyone. Between freak snow storms in Europe, melting ice in the Arctic, deadly dust storms in India, disappearing water basins in Africa, an encroaching sea level in the Pacific, and monstrous hurricanes in the North Atlantic, climate change is being felt virtually everywhere.
- Second, it is a direct threat. Deadlier natural disasters, higher tides, hotter heat waves, colder cold snaps, and devastating precipitation patterns, simply make life harder to live. This often causes forced migration, which creates both humanitarian and security concerns.
- Third, climate change is a threat multiplier. In other words, it catalyzes conflict, making existing threats worse (more on that to come).
- Finally, climate change is immaterial. Though caused by humans, we can’t sit down and negotiate with the climate. Bombs and rockets won’t deter its destruction.
The intersection of these four characteristics makes climate change a terrifying and challenging problem for international security.
Climate Change Creates Hot Zones
Let’s spend a few moments focusing on climate change’s most complex security concern: its role as a threat multiplier. It’s easy to assume that terrorist groups arise from religious radicalization, political upheaval, economic estrangement, or some combination of these factors. While these are undoubtedly significant factors, the inception of many terrorist groups can also be described as a bloody manifestation of climate change.
Take ISIS, for example. As with any militia group, ISIS’s strategy has relied largely on recruitment, especially in Iraq. In recent years, Iraq has really been feeling the consequences of global warming. In 2010, a vicious drought struck—the fifth in seven years–– and in 2012, winds destroyed crops, depriving Kirkuk’s communities of both food and cash. Starvation and unemployment ensued. Those struggling families were exactly who ISIS recruiters targeted. Knowing that agricultural workers were being impacted the most, recruiters circled fertilizer markets like vultures. They gifted food baskets, distributed cash, and promised those who joined that their families would never go hungry. Desperate farmers joined ISIS’s ranks in droves. By 2014, the terrorist group had gained control of most of Iraq’s west and north.
Climate change didn’t single handedly create ISIS. Radical terrorist groups existed in Iraq before the drought of 2010. However, inconsistent rainfall—caused by a changing climate—was undoubtedly a boon to ISIS’s recruitment efforts during the group’s rise to power.
Syria’s current conflict is another harrowing example of climate change acting as a threat multiplier. According to a 2015 report published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, climate change caused extreme droughts in Syria’s primary agricultural region between 2006 and 2009 (much like in Iraq). Food prices shot up and families went hungry, spreading nutrition related disease in the countryside. 1.5 million Syrians fled their farms and flooded into cities, many of which were already saturated with Iraqi refugees. This led to unemployment, corruption, and frustration with the Assad Regime. With the 2011 Syrian Uprising, the powder keg ignited—the Syrian Civil War began.
An estimated 400,000 Syrians have since died, and more than 11.6 million have been forced to flee their homes. Yes, Syria had been a breeding ground of violence and discontent for decades prior to 2011, and Arab Spring certainly played a role in pushing the country to the brink. But in Syria, much like in Iraq, climate change exacerbated and served as a catalyst for an already vulnerable security landscape.
Climate change’s tendency to stoke conflict isn’t reserved to the Middle East. Lake Chad, the largest lake in western Africa’s Chad Basin, supplies water to roughly 30 million people across four countries: Chad, Nigeria, Niger, and Cameroon. Between 1963 and 2013, the lake has shrunk by 90%, a sobering figure that experts have attributed to climate change and overuse.
A drying Lake Chad drove high unemployment rates and forced water-dependent fishermen, farmers, and pastoralists to come into direct competition with one another over water use. The result? Ethnic and religious tension coupled with dire prospects—in other words, fertile breeding grounds for Boko Haram’s rise to power. The group has since established itself as yet another terrifying religious extremist group within the MENA region. By the numbers, it has caused more hardship and destruction than ISIS.
Looking at security concerns in Iraq, Syria, and Chad Basin, a clear link presents itself. When seeds won’t grow, climate change sows conflict.
Refugee crises are on the rise worldwide. We see dire news from Syria every day, where 11 million civilians have already been displaced. The term “refugee” often brings to mind images of people abandoning their homes due to violent crises, be it war, coups, or political persecution.
But today, there are more climate refugees—persons abandoning their households due to climate change—than there are refugees fleeing from violence. Intensifying environmental conditions resultant of climate change are causing climate refugee numbers to rise exponentially. Just this year, two consecutive category five storms—Hurricanes Irma and Maria—battered the Caribbean. Over 10,000 people were displaced over the span of a single week.
Every second, someone has to flee their home due to environmental disaster. By 2050, climate change will displace between 150 and 300 million people worldwide. For reference, there are just over 65 million displaced persons in the world today.. Rising sea levels and flooding alone may create as many as 2 billion climate-displaced persons by 2100.
In addition to being an enormous humanitarian crisis, climate-induced migration poses an international security concern. Currently, there is little legal remedy for the millions of families and individuals who have thus far been displaced as a result of the Earth’s changing climate. Environmental refugees are not granted special rights under the United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees. Without proper assistance, forced migration causes resource scarcity and sociopolitical disenfranchisement, and those conditions create conflict. Given that approximately 600 million people living in low-lying and coastal areas worldwide will be negatively impacted by climate change over the course of this century, it remains to be seen whether international migration policy regarding climate refugees will adapt.
Global Threat Recognition
Luckily, climate change isn’t just seen as a threat by a few hundred randomly selected poll respondents. Worldwide, governments are publicly declaring climate change as a direct, pressing threat to their security. In the United States, climate change was referenced as a threat by the White House’s National Security Strategy until it was dropped by the Trump Administration last December. Despite this, Secretary of Defense James Mattis has cited climate change as “impacting stability in areas of the world where our troops are operating today,” and US Director of National Intelligence Dan Coates has affirmed climate change as a cause of “economic and social discontent,” The UK references climate change in its top national security strategy document. NATO has discerned climate change as a threat in the MENA region. Even the United Nations Security Council, the world’s top security body, has discussed climate change’s security implications.
Climate change is recognized as a security threat worldwide because it affects everyone. Unlike violent conflict, which is usually localized to a country or region, the climate is an interconnected, global system that we all experience in the form of weather.
It would be misguided to name climate change as the primary driver of violence and conflict. But even if climate change isn’t forcing every country to fight extremism and adopt evacuation plans (yet), we’ve seen more and more instances of climate change sparking conflicts worldwide. Climate change affects precipitation patterns, creating food shortages and stirring civil unrest. Rising tides inundate villages and freshwater supplies, displacing communities (and, in the near future, entire countries). What’s more, the effects of climate change are only expected to intensify over the decades to come—unless we take immediate, effective action. If we want to maintain national and global security, we must first fight climate change.
RYAN MAIA Communications Fellow