Climate scientists tend to think in decades; national security experts in days or years at best. This difference helps explain why climate change is rarely considered a national security challenge. Yet the links are inescapable. One that is even less frequently discussed is the connection of global change to the threat of terrorism.
We are not talking about terrorists targeting the United States for its contributions to climate change or its failure to come up with a global solution. Nor are we referring to the fact that the Middle East stands to become even more volatile in the years ahead due to water shortages. Climate change will exacerbate global terrorism by increasing both migration and the likelihood of state failures - two factors that have been known to have a major impact on the threat of radicalization.
Simply put, hotter temperatures mean that more water will evaporate into the air, increasing droughts, while at the same time potentially causing floods when it descends back to earth in the form of severe rain storms, only to evaporate again. This increasingly violent hydrological cycle will force people to move from afflicted areas.
While climate-induced migration could lead to instability in any corner of the globe, the impact will be most pronounced in the developing world. As Northern Africa, South Asia, and possibly the Middle East become increasingly unpleasant or unbearable environments, some of these refugees will flee northward along existing migration routes to Europe.
Europe’s longstanding challenge to integrate Muslim immigrants and the resulting impact it has on radicalization could easily worsen. Home to over 20 million Muslims, Europe has struggled in recent years to find ways to incorporate growing groups of foreign nationals into society at large.
Despite a number of innovative integration initiatives, many immigrants in Europe continue to live in parallel societies that breed alienation, sometimes making them more susceptible to radical Islamist ideology. In a small but troubling number of cases, radicalized individuals have turned to violence to express a long list of grievances, ranging from the U.S.-led war on terror to personal experiences of discrimination.
As the number of climate-induced migrants increases, tensions between a shrinking yet fiercely protective European public and a rising immigrant community could soar, triggering violence and a surge in radicalization.
Climate change also could contribute to terrorism by increasing the number of weak and failing states, which in turn often come to serve as a base for global terrorism. The increasing severity and frequency of storms, diseases, and resource shortages can challenge the ability of any government to provide for its people.
In areas that experience significant additional rainfall, water-borne and vector-borne diseases, such as malaria and dengue fever, will be more prevalent. In those areas that will become more arid due to drought, air-borne diseases will thrive.
Climate change will likely create large fluctuations in the amount of rainfall in East Africa, for example, during the next 30 years - a decrease in rainfall in the summer will cause severe droughts while an increase during the winter will lead to flooding.
The Horn of Africa particularly continues to be plagued by a failed Somalia and other weak states. Al Qaeda cells are active in the region, and there is a danger that it could become a central breeding ground and safe haven for jihadists as climate change pushes more states toward the brink of collapse.
The risk is also high in South Asia, particularly Bangladesh, which was devastated in mid-November by Tropical Cyclone Sidr, the deadliest storm to hit the country in a decade. Hundreds of Taliban and jihadists have already found safe haven in this region in the wake of the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan. The combination of deteriorating socioeconomic conditions, radical Islamic political groups, and environmental insecurity brought on by climate change could prove volatile.
As negotiators and leaders convene in Bali, this does not mean that solving climate change will solve the challenge of radical Islamist terrorism. What it does mean is that we can no longer afford to think of climate change either as a unidimensional challenge, reserved for climatologists, or as a problem in the distant future. Well before glaciers melt or sea levels rise, global climate change will spur instability on a global scale, which will exacerbate many of the traditional national security challenges with which we are grappling today, including terrorism.
Alexander T. J. Lennon, editor in chief of The Washington Quarterly at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, and Julianne Smith, director of the CSIS Europe program, are directors of the CSIS-Center for a New American Security project, “The Age of Consequences: The Foreign Policy and National Security Implications of Global Climate Change.”
This article originally appeared in The International Herald Tribune on December 3, 2007, and is published here by kind permission of the authors.
Related Materials on Atlantic Community:
- Alexandros Petersen on The False Choice between Cold War and Warm Gaslines
- Josh Busby on Addressing the Security Consequences of Climate Change
- Margarita Mathiopoulos demands Come Together, Right Now