As the Obama administration undertakes a highly public, multilateral campaign to degrade and destroy the militant jihadists known as ISIS, ISIL and the Islamic State, many in the West remain unaware that climate played a significant role in the rise of Syria's extremists. A historic drought afflicted the country from 2006 through 2010, setting off a dire humanitarian crisis for millions of Syrians. Yet the four-year drought evoked little response from Bashar al-Assad's government. Rage at the regime's callousness boiled over in 2011, helping to fuel the popular uprising. In the ensuing chaos, ISIS stole onto the scene, proclaimed a caliphate in late June and accelerated its rampage of atrocities including the recent beheadings of three Western civilians.
While ISIS threatens brutal violence against all who dissent from its harsh ideology, climate change menaces communities (less maliciously) with increasingly extreme weather. Most of us perceive these threats as unrelated. We recycle water bottles and buy local produce to keep the earth livable for our children -- not to ward off terrorists. Yet environmental stressors and political violence are connected in surprising ways, sparking questions about collective behavior. If more Americans knew how glacial melt contributes to catastrophic weather in Afghanistan -- potentially strengthening the Taliban and imperiling Afghan girls who want to attend school -- would we drive more hybrids and use millions fewer plastic bags? How would elections and legislation be influenced?
The drought that preceded the current conflict in Syria fits into a pattern of increased dryness in the Mediterranean and Middle East, for which scientists hold climate change partly responsible. Affecting 60 percent of Syria's land, drought ravaged the country's northeastern breadbasket region; devastated the livelihoods of 800,000 farmers and herders; and knocked two to three million people into extreme poverty. Many became climate refugees, abandoning their homes and migrating to already overcrowded cities. They forged temporary settlements on the outskirts of areas like Aleppo, Damascus, Hama and Homs. Some of the displaced settled in Daraa, where protests in early 2011 fanned out and eventually ignited a full-fledged war.
Drought did not singlehandedly spawn the Syrian uprising, but it stoked simmering anger at Assad's dictatorship. This frustration further destabilized Syria and carved out a space in which ISIS would thrive.
The connection between climate change and conflict continues to evade mainstream recognition, despite reports by think tanks, academics and even military experts. A leading panel of retired generals and admirals, the CNA Corporation Military Advisory Board, recently labeled the impacts of climate change "catalysts for conflict" in vulnerable regions. The Pentagon concluded similarly in this year's Quadrennial Defense Review that the effects of climate change are "threat multipliers," enabling terrorism and other violence by aggravating underlying societal problems.
There is no shortage of nations whose political stability and climate are both vulnerable.
Bangladesh, a country of 160 million people that lies just above sea level, is perhaps the nation most threatened by climate change. In the coming decades, Bangladesh stands to lose up to 17 percent of its land to flooding, displacing 18 million people to overcrowded cities and neighboring states in a region that has seen a recent upsurge in Islamist militarism. One major typhoon could lead to political chaos in the subcontinent, which bristles with nuclear weapons. The Bhola Cyclone of 1970, which killed up to half a million people and led to Bangladesh's war of independence against Pakistan, exemplifies the complex chain of events through which climate may spark regional conflict.
Images of black-clad ISIS fighters brandishing weapons from atop tanks are easy to recognize, but the link between Syria's drought and its current conflict seems generally unknown or forgotten. Our own weather calamity, Superstorm Sandy, fades to memory after two years and costs approximating $65 billion. Calls to reduce our carbon footprint have heralded modest improvements in daily routines. We recycle containers and reuse shopping bags -- perhaps we even compost -- while shifting collectively toward energy efficiency. We approve when businesses, schools and cities "go green." But our understanding of big picture issues like international carbon emissions and diverse energy sources remains clouded in a political quagmire of competing claims.
Toting a metal water bottle is good, but it's time for ordinary people to consider the bigger picture. When we fail to get the facts right about greenhouse gas emissions, we may unwittingly enable ISIS, Al Qaeda, Boko Haram, Al Shabaab and other extremist groups to flourish. As we consider our personal positions on climate change, it is important to understand all that is at stake in our interconnected world.