Climate Change Will Create More Violent Extremism, If We Let It

Climate change, political instability, and extremist violence are all linked–and all getting worse.

Climate Change Will Create More Violent Extremism, If We Let It
[Top Photo: Hindustan Times/Contributor]

The protests and violent conflict in Syria that began in 2011 originally took U.S. security analysts by surprise. Early in the Arab Spring, the State Department had ranked Syria near the bottom of a list of Middle East and North African nations most likely to experience upheaval. Five years later, we have a hopelessly war-torn country, land occupied by ISIS, and the biggest refugee crisis since World War II.


They shouldn’t have been surprised. Three years earlier, a Syrian bureaucrat had issued a stark briefing to U.S. and U.N. officials warning of a “perfect storm” of conditions that could undermine his country’s stability.

Syria’s President Bashar Assad had stifled human rights, democracy, and economic opportunity for many years (with the complicit support western goverments)–but that’s not what was worrisome. The truly destabilizing factor was drought. Beginning in 2006, northern Syria plunged into the worst drought in its modern history–its unusual length and severity likely caused by the planet’s changing climate. Exacerbating the drought’s effects, the government had for years grossly mismanaged the country’s aquifer resources, encouraging water-hungry cash crops and allowing groundwater levels to deplete. Poor farmers were left with nothing after crops failed. Agriculture collapsed.

Volodymyr Borodin via Shutterstock

At the time, Abdullah Bin Yehia, Syria’s representative to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (UNFAO), begged for more aid to assist farmers in the northeast. In a classified cable on Wikileaks, a U.S. State Department official in Damascus wrote to the CIA and U.S. Defense Department: “If UNFAO efforts fail, Yehia predicts mass migration from the northeast, which could act as a multiplier on social and economic pressures already at play.” Yehia predicted such “social destruction” would lead to political instability in Syria’s major western cities, Damascus and Aleppo, the cable said.

Hindsight is 20/20, but Yehia was prescient. No, neither climate change nor drought caused Syria’s war (or ISIS, as Senator Bernie Sanders tried to claim, saying, “climate change is directly related to the growth of terrorism”)–corruption, human rights abuses, and poverty did that. But the drought in Syria took tensions that had been simmering for decades and ramped them up very quickly.

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The coincidental timing of the recent Paris terrorist attacks and the international climate treaty negotiations there have placed a sharp focus on the link between climate change and extremist violence. At the Paris climate talks, President Obama said both problems–climate change and terrorism–require a similar, long-term response: “What greater rejection of those who would tear down our world than marshaling our best efforts to save it?”


That’s lovely rhetoric. But climate and security experts, including the U.S. military, have long held that climate change and violence are much more than metaphorically entangled. Environmental disasters present clear escalating opportunities for conflict, violence, and instability. The Defense Department calls climate change a “threat multiplier.”

Syria is now Exhibit A for this concept. Whatever insufficient aid did come to Syrian farmers came too late. The 1.5 million displaced people who flooded into Syria’s cities became one contributing factor to the unrest that exploded in 2011 and devolved into bitter war.

“Syria was a wakeup call,” says Francesco Femia, director of the Center for Climate and Security in Washington, D.C. “Governments needed to ask themselves why exactly Syria was unstable as it was and what they missed–the missing issue was water and food security.”

Water is currently a concern and potential source of instability throughout the region. Jordan was already water-stressed, largely due to inefficient management and infrastructure, and now it is absorbing millions refugees from Syria. In the Sahel region of Northern Africa, drought and conflict have displaced millions of farmers and herders over the last few years. Yemen’s capital city Sana’a may be the first city in the world to run out of water (and it might happen as soon as 2017), a situation that has played a part in its ongoing civil war and power of extremist groups there.

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“Water is one of those things that gets swept under the carpet, and no one is talking about it because it’s not a sectarian thing,” says Middle East human rights researcher Mahmood Monshipouri, referring to Yemen. “There’s no question: The lack of water in the Middle East has empowered extremists.” This happens in several ways: When people are desperate to meet their basic needs, there is greater competition for scarce resources, which can exacerbate existing ethnic, tribal, or religious tensions between competing groups. People are also more vulnerable to those who offer easy answers to their problems. More directly, terrorist groups have made it a strategy to control water resources as a tactic to exert control over populations. ISIS, for example, has taken over dams and drained marshlands to control the flow.


Conflict related to water-stress is not new. But, says Femia, there’s growing evidence that climate change will increase the likelihood of state failure and conflict, given other political and economic conditions.

One study projects that temperatures in the region could be physically too hot for human inhabitants by 2100, if climate change goes unchecked. In 1950, per capita renewable water resources were four times greater than today. By mid-century, according to the World Bank, they will drop even further–possibly to 11 times less than the global average. Out of 33 countries predicted to experience “extreme water stress” by 2040, 14 of them are in the Middle East.

“What we worry about is when climate change becomes the straw that breaks the camel’s back and makes a problem so bad that violence occurs when it might not otherwise have occurred,” says Peter Gleick, president of the Pacific Institute.

Counter-terrorism and global security are not reasons to solve climate change (and there are many other, better reasons to do that). But, on the flip side, in the long-term, terrorism and extremism will be harder to build defenses against if nothing is done to improve water and food security in the Middle East and North Africa region. Basic food and water resources–and a reliable economy for farmers–are crucial to building societies in which freedom and prosperity can flourish. But what can be done?

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Some of the obvious solutions tend to be bureaucratic or technical–and require massive investments. In Jordan, water security could be hugely improved by investing to reduce water leakage and efficiency, setting more appropriate water pricing and consistent water policies for farmers, and by increasing the treatment and reuse of wastewater, according to Jordan University of Science and Technology engineer Samer Talozi. “The availability of water and energy at affordable prices are crucial for stability and economic development. This is becoming more of a challenge every day,” he says. And in 2009, during the worst of the Syrian drought, the FAO appealed for emergency aid, but it also wanted to build long-term resilience measures in the country, such as a National Early Warning System for drought.


Israel, says Gleick, is one of the best examples of the effective use of technical know-how and policy. Its agriculture sector is structured to grow more food with less water, and the nation has centralized water planning, created pricing that gives the incentive to conserve, and begun reusing substantial amounts of wastewater. Its desalination plants–an expensive investment that works alongside all of Israel’s other measures–help ensure supply. Israel can be a model (though it surely isn’t one to Palestinians in the West Bank). Still, its example is harder to follow in poorer nations or under unstable or corrupt governments.

Other projects are less wonky and more creative. Over the last decade, the Great Green Wall Initiative in Northern Africa has gone from idea to reality. It started as a quite literal idea to plant trees across the continent. But since, funded by $1.1 billion contributed by African governments and the global development community, it has evolved to a practical slate of programs–from conservation agriculture to microcredit systems to solar energy–intended to improve the livelihood of poor, migratory herders and subsistence farmers (who are often divided across ethnic or tribal lines) across 12 countries spanning the Sahel and Sahara deserts.

Elvis Paul Tangem, the coordinator for the Great Green Wall at the African Union Commission, says the initiative is in place partly to enhance stability in a region vulnerable to conflict and combat the power of groups like Boko Haram, an Islamic extremist group in northeastern Nigeria and nearby countries.

“If you look at most of the migrants who cross into Southern Europe today–the bulk of them come from… highly degraded lands. There’s not much to do in the villages. If you want to make something useful with your life, you migrate. If you cannot go, you are vulnerable to illicit activities, drug trafficking, and terrorism. This is about providing alternatives.”

One example of the program’s early success is in the Louga region of Senegal. “Multipurpose gardening” was introduced to give pastoralists or their families the economic opportunity to stay in place during a dry season, rather than migrate hundreds of miles for fresh grass and water–a safety net, essentially. Now, women are employed and more children are going to school, and there are more stable communities with enterprises linked to less drought-vulnerable natural resources, such as products made from acacia trees. Tangem describes the Great Green Wall less as a planned project and more as a “brand” or “platform” for fighting land degradation.


Other solutions can be political. In the wake of the Arab Spring, Tunisia’s new democratic government rewrote the constitution. It became only the third country in the world to include climate change in the constitution, as a legal responsibility of the government to address. And while water offers opportunities for conflict, it also offers opportunities for cooperation. Israel and Jordan have had close cooperation over water issues, working to implement projects to manage the Jordan River.

“They’ve worked hard to put in place some institutions across the border with Jordan that manage their water resources in a more transparent way–there’s still some tension, but they’ve managed to prevent conflicts over water,” says Gleick. Similarly, in India and Pakistan, there has been some cooperation on water issues–which can serve as the catalyst to greater political and economic cooperation

The connection between climate change, water and food security, and conflict and terrorism is circular. Political stability is needed to improve climate and water issues, but these issues can undermine stability and provoke violence. The future will require taking both seriously, equally.

Bernie Sanders tried to say climate change is a biggest national security threat facing the United States. That may be true: Climate change will breed more political instability, which will make it harder to respond to climate change; The dynamics are already nearly impossible to separate. Say Femia: “There are no bumper stickers about these connections. We have to embrace the complexity.”

About the author

Jessica Leber is a staff editor and writer for Fast Company's Co.Exist. Previously, she was a business reporter for MIT’s Technology Review and an environmental reporter at ClimateWire