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A closer look at the link between climate change and violence

(John Cantlie/AFP/Getty Images)

During the Democratic presidential debate on Saturday night, CBS moderator John Dickerson brought up the recent terrorist attacks in Paris and then asked Bernie Sanders if he still believes climate change is our greatest national security threat. (Sanders had said as much in a previous debate.)

Sanders didn't back down:

Absolutely. In fact, climate change is directly related to the growth of terrorism. And 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're 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.

Much snickering ensued on Twitter, especially over that bolded sentence, with the prevailing sentiment that Sanders's argument was self-evidently silly.

I'd say Sanders' reply was a little oversimplified but the outraged reaction to it was absurd. The truth about climate change and conflict is more complex and nuanced than a short sound bite can allow, but it's foolish to dismiss the entire topic out of hand.

Sanders was arguably going too far when he said that climate change is "directly related" to the growth of terrorism. It's hard to find any climate or security experts who would make that strong a claim. The linkages tend to be more indirect, as we'll see in the case of Syria.

But he's perfectly right to call climate change a security issue. What experts will often say — and what the Pentagon has been saying — is that global warming has the potential to aggravate existing tensions and security problems, by, for instance, making droughts or water shortages more likely in some areas. That doesn't mean war or terrorism will be inevitable in a hotter world; climate will typically be just one of many factors involved. But global warming could very well increase the risk of violence, which is why many military officials take it so seriously.

The complex, indirect links between climate change and Syria's war

Syrian Kurds Battle IS To Retain Control Of Kobani
An explosion rocks the Syrian city of Kobani on October 20 during a reported suicide car bomb attack by ISIS.
(Gokhan Sahin/Getty Images)

One place to see this dynamic at work is in Syria's ongoing civil war. Few experts would argue that climate change "caused" the horrific violence in Syria (much less the rise of ISIS). That's too simplistic. But environmental factors arguably do figure into the story here.

The short version goes like this:

  • The Fertile Crescent region (which includes Syria and Iraq) has experienced periodic droughts for many centuries.
  • In recent decades, global warming appears to have increased the odds of more severe, persistent dry spells in the region. (See this recent study, led by Colin Kelley of the University of California Santa Barbara.)
  • From 2007 to 2010, Syria suffered an especially brutal drought that, when combined with other social and political factors, helped foster civil unrest — unrest that later became the war that's still raging today.

For the slightly longer version, I'll quote from this 2013 interview I did with Francesco Femia and Caitlin Werrell of the Center for Climate and Security. Here's how Femia described the chain of events:

We looked at the period between 2006 and 2011 that preceded the outbreak of the revolt that started in Daraa. During that time, up to 60 percent of Syria's land experienced one of the worst long-term droughts in modern history.

This drought — combined with the mismanagement of natural resources by [Syrian President Bashar] Assad, who subsidized water-intensive crops like wheat and cotton farming and promoted bad irrigation techniques — led to significant devastation. According to updated numbers, the drought displaced 1.5 million people within Syria.

Around 75 percent of farmers suffered total crop failure, so they moved into the cities. Farmers in the northeast lost 80 percent of their livestock, so they had to leave and find livelihoods elsewhere. They all moved into urban areas — urban areas that were already experiencing economic insecurity due to an influx of Iraqi and Palestinian refugees.

Notice how many moving parts there are here. Climate change likely raised the odds of a severe drought occurring in Syria. But even without global warming, a drought might still have occurred — if perhaps less severe. So climate change wasn't strictly necessary for disruptions to occur. At best we might say it made the situation worse.

It also wasn't sufficient for conflict. A severe drought, by itself, simply isn't enough to trigger a bloody civil war. (Note that California hasn't descended into armed frenzy.) You also have to mix in poverty, the Syrian government's squandering of water resources, the influx of Iraqi and Palestinian refugees, and a whole web of political and social factors. Syria is an autocratic regime with a long history of human rights abuses. Then you have the fact that Assad responded to the unrest in Daraa and elsewhere with extreme violence. There was a lot of tinder in this tinderbox.

"We can't say that climate change caused the civil war," Femia emphasized to me. At best, it might be one factor among many that deserves careful study. "It would be hubris to say that we can precisely disentangle those factors right now, particularly in Syria, where there's an ongoing conflict."

That said, it'd be equally rash to dismiss climate change and environmental stressors entirely. Before the Syrian civil war broke out, Femia explained, a lot of security analysts wrongly believed that the country was stable and immune from Arab Spring unrest — precisely because they were overlooking the effects of the drought. "What [those analysts] had missed," he said, "was that a massive internal migration was happening, mainly on the periphery, from farmers and herders who had lost their livelihoods completely."

Climate change can be a security threat — but it doesn't make conflict inevitable

Command Ship Blue Ridge Of The U.S. Navy Visits China Photo by China Photos/Getty Images

Over the past decade, a growing number of analysts and policymakers, including the Obama administration, have started to look more closely at the ways in which climate change could contribute to conflicts and security problems around the world.

They typically acknowledge that the linkages are complex, multifaceted, and often difficult to tease out precisely. Here, for instance, is how the White House describes the relationship between climate change and conflict/terrorism:

Many governments will face challenges to meet even the basic needs of their people as they confront demographic change, resource constraints, effects of climate change, and risks of global infectious disease outbreaks. These effects are threat multipliers that will aggravate stressors abroad such as poverty, environmental degradation, political instability, and social tensions — conditions that can enable terrorist activity and other forms of violence. The risk of conflict may increase.

On this account, climate change is a "threat multiplier," and one of many things that can lay the groundwork for conflict. That doesn't mean more war is guaranteed in a hotter world: Consider that the 2000s were the warmest decade on record, but they also managed to be "the least conflict-ridden decade since the 1970s." In many places, geographic or political or economic factors will end up mattering far more. Still, climate is one potential driver to take into account.

As both Femia and Werrell pointed out in our interview, there are quite a few places around the world where climate change has the potential to make already volatile situations even more volatile. Here's one example, picked at random: "The South China Sea is a traditional choke point for shipping," Femia noted. "But now the warming ocean is changing the dynamics of fishing in that area. So beyond the food security issues, it’s also a disputed area. And climate change could exacerbate that."

That helps explain why more and more military officials are coming out and saying it'd be a good idea to figure out how we're going to deal with global warming, how we can make sure that the inevitable stresses and dislocations caused by climate change foster cooperation rather than conflict and violence. It's why the CIA has tried to study climate change and its potential impacts. (Republicans in Congress are trying to prevent both agencies from doing this.)

It's also strange to continually obsess over whether climate change or terrorism is a "bigger" security threat. They're two very different things, working in very different ways, and not strictly comparable. It's a bit like asking whether the floor or the sink is the most important part of the house. There's no reason we can't pay attention to both.

Further reading:

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