How Tackling Climate Change Could Help The World Fight Terrorism

Studies have linked rising global temperatures to some of the root causes of terrorism.

More than 100 global leaders are set to negotiate a binding, universal agreement to reduce greenhouse gas emissions at the United Nations' Climate Change Conference next week in Paris. With the Nov. 13 terror attacks on the city looming large over the proceedings, leaders have an opportunity to address two major security threats at once, as a robust plan to combat climate change could also help neutralize some of the root causes of terrorism.

In recent years, studies have found rising global temperatures have contributed to political unrest, creating the conditions for groups like the self-described Islamic State to emerge.

A paper published in March in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences concluded that global warming contributed to Syria's conflict by exacerbating the country's drought, which began in 2006. The lack of rainfall worsened the country's already unstable water and agricultural resources, forcing 1.5 million rural inhabitants to move closer to urban centers.

"You had this pretty stable, functioning agrarian society, and everybody left, went to the outskirts of the cities where there was nothing for them, and a government that did nothing," study co-author and Columbia University professor Mark Cane told The Huffington Post when the report was released.

The report also found that the drought made food more expensive and worsened nutrition-related diseases in children, further contributing to the instability that has culminated in Syria's civil war. A 2012 study released by the Center for Climate and Security similarly linked rising temperatures to Syria's unrest, as did a 2014 paper published in Weather, Climate and Society.

Paper windmills are on display in Paris ahead of next week's climate talks.
Paper windmills are on display in Paris ahead of next week's climate talks.
JOEL SAGET via Getty Images

A Pentagon report released last year referred to climate change as a "threat-multiplier," meaning it worsens the conditions already contributing to problems like terrorism, famine and infectious disease.

"The impacts of climate change may cause instability in other countries by impairing access to food and water, damaging infrastructure, spreading disease, uprooting and displacing large numbers of people, compelling mass migration, interrupting commercial activity, or restricting electricity availability," the report read.

"These developments could undermine already-fragile governments that are unable to respond effectively or challenge currently-stable governments, as well as increasing competition and tension between countries vying for limited resources," it continued. "These gaps in governance can create an avenue for extremist ideologies and conditions that foster terrorism."

The Pentagon's paper also highlighted how climate change will likely have near- and long-term effects on U.S. military operations, as issues like rising sea levels threaten military bases and other infrastructure.

An Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report also released last year detailed how global warming worsens conditions like drought and famine, which in turn contribute to conflict.

In February, President Barack Obama's administration listed climate change as one of the "top strategic threats" to the country, stating that global warming is "contributing to increased natural disasters, refugee flows, and conflicts over basic resources like food and water."

Some politicians have pointed out the ties between climate change and political conflict in the wake of the attacks on Paris.

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) warned during the Nov. 14 primary debate that "climate change is directly related to the growth of terrorism." (He also called climate change a national security threat during the Democratic debate in October.) Fellow Democratic candidate Martin O'Malley, the former governor of Maryland, has made similar assertions.

Britain's Prince Charles also linked climate change to Syria's war in an interview with Sky News taped before the Paris attacks.

"We're seeing a classic case of not dealing with the problem, because, I mean, it sounds awful to say, but some of us were saying 20 years ago that if we didn't tackle these issues, you would see ever greater conflict over scarce resources and ever greater difficulties over drought, and the accumulating effect of climate change, which means that people have to move," he said.

Meanwhile, Obama has pressed his fellow leaders to attend the climate summit despite fears of terrorism in the wake of the Paris attacks.

"I think it's absolutely vital for every country, every leader, to send a signal that the viciousness of a handful of killers does not stop the world from doing vital business," he said.

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