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Climate Terror: Global Warming, Failed States, and the Rise of Terrorism

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"Evidence is fast accumulating that, within our children's lifetimes, severe droughts, storms and heat waves caused by climate change could rip apart societies from one side of our planet to the other. Climate stress may well represent a challenge to international security just as dangerous - and more intractable - than the arms race between the United States and the Soviet Union during the cold war or the proliferation of nuclear weapons among rogue states today." ~ Professor Thomas Homer-Dixon, Leading Scholar on Environment and Conflict

"It is time to understand The Environment for what it is: the national-security issue of the early twenty-first century." ~ Robert D. Kaplan, Atlantic National Correspondent

The End of a Hopeful Solution

It's hard for even the most optimistic to be hopeful. Copenhagen, understood by many as the world's last chance to stop global warming was, in the words of Sweden's Environment Minister Andreas Carlgren, a "great failure." What the world needed was a legally binding commitment to bring the level of carbon dioxide down to 350 parts per million - a number NASA climatologist James Hansen determined to be the minimum to support human civilization. What the world got was a toothless, non-binding agreement which recognizes the seriousness of climate change, but does nothing to address it.

This means that, barring some international diplomatic miracle, every apocalyptic prediction of the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) will come true. More simply: it's coming. The biblical floods. The crippling famines. The mad chaos. But that's not all.

If America's leading military think tanks are correct, climate change will, in addition to wreaking havoc through environmental disaster, become one of the greatest national security threats of the 21st Century. Uncontrolled global warming, military experts argue, will overwhelm weak governments, leading to a global surge in failed states, creating masses of desperate people furious at the West for a catastrophe they created.

The Breakdown of States

On September 22, 2009, Dr. R. K. Pachauri, Chairman of the IPCC, warned that if the world did nothing, climate change would lead to an "increase in frequency of hot extremes," "heat waves and heavy precipitation," an "increase in tropical cyclone intensity," "decrease in water resources," and the "[p]ossible elimination of the Greenland ice sheet and a resulting contribution to sea level rise of about 7 metres."

These hot extremes and heatwaves will, in turn, severely disrupt global food production. According to the widely read report "National Security and the Threat of Climate Change," written by the military think-tank Center for Naval Analysis (CNA), "for every 1.8F rise temperature above historical norms, grain production will drop 10 percent." Moreover, the greatest drops in food production will be in places already facing shortages - namely the Indian subcontinent and sub-Saharan Africa.

The drop in food production, devastating enough by itself, will be joined by massive flooding. In his book Climatic Cataclysm, editor and writer Kurt Campbell (along with contributing writer Christine Parthemore) note that "one-third of the world's population live within 60 kilometres (about 37 miles) of a coastline." Subsequently, "the sheer numbers of potentially displaced people are staggering." Citing a recent World Bank report, Campbell and Parthemore explain that rising sea levels could displace "hundreds of millions of people in developing countries." According to "Christian Aid and other nongovernmental organizations... climate change could deprive as many as a billion people of their homes between now and 2050."

And while cities will be overrun by floods, they'll have even less access to clean water. The CNA report claims that "[c]hanges in rainfall, snowfall, snowmelt, and glacial melt," all consequences of climate change, will have "significant effects on fresh water supplies." This will only exacerbate the problem in already water-scarce countries in the Middle East and northern Africa. Moreover, "the International Water resources Management Institute projects that by 2025, Pakistan, South Africa, and large parts of India and China will also be water scarce."

The rise in temperature, mass displacement, and lack of clean water will, according to the CNA report, all combine to create a massive spike in "vector-borne diseases, such as dengue fever and malaria, and food-borne diseases, such as salmonellosis."

According to West Point Professor LTC. Luis Rios, environmental problems like water scarcity and crop failure can, in turn, become "tipping points," moving already vulnerable states towards state failure. Many states are already barely able to govern and maintain legitimacy. The added pressure that climate change forces on these governments, can make them collapse, leaving lawlessness and chaos in its absence.

In Climatic Cataclysm, Sharon Burke, the Vice President at the Center for a New American Security, uses an example with which all Americans are familiar: Hurricane Katrina. She writes,

Two years after Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans is still not a fully functioning city, despite the expenditure of billions of dollars and the attention of a nation. As of November 2007, population levels were only 70 percent of the pre-hurricane levels and nearly 47,000 families continued to live in FEMA trailers. Sixty-two percent of the schools and 38 percent of the day care facilities had reopened, and only 19 percent of public buses were running. Only 36 percent of the people who had applied for "Road Home" grants to help them rehabilitate their properties had received funding. With social, public, and criminal justice systems in disarray, long-standing criminal and corruption problems have exploded, making New Orleans the murder capital of America.

Katrina was an isolated disaster in the world's wealthiest nation. Multiply the intensity and frequency of Katrina-style disasters, place them in the developing world, and you can begin to see how grim the future could be. Perhaps the best portrait of such a planet comes from Robert Kaplan's apocalyptic vision of West Africa in his 1994 article for the Atlantic, "The Coming Anarchy." Kaplan warned that, as environmental scarcity increases (he wasn't even seriously thinking about global warming at this point), states will become marked by, "the withering away of central governments, the rise of tribal and regional domains, the unchecked spread of disease, and the growing pervasiveness of war." States will crumble, while lawlessness, warlordism, and "criminal anarchy" reign supreme.

Sharon Burke's vision of the future is no less bleak. Citing International Alert, she writes, "Over the next hundred years, in a catastrophic future [the worst-case scenario], ...there are likely to be at least 102 failing and failed states, consumed by internal conflict, spewing desperate refugees, and harboring and spawning extremist movements."

The Rise of Terrorism

The CNA report warns that "When a government can no longer deliver services to its people, ensure domestic order, and protect the nation's borders from invasion, conditions are ripe for turmoil, extremism, and terrorism to fill the vacuum." Failed states become "breeding grounds for instability," and "Petri dishes for extremism and for terrorist networks."

Dr. Kent Butts, the Director of the National Security Issues Group at the U.S. Army War College, explained it in simpler terms. If you're a peasant, and you have food on the table, fresh water, and a reasonable chance to educate your children, when extremists come into your village and say the government is no good, they won't really get a response, Butts said. But, if say, these basic securities aren't met, and the you are losing people every week because of dysentaria, then the extremists' argument is far more compelling.

According to Butts, the effects of climate change create the underlying conditions that terrorists seek to exploit and may lead to state failure. But Butts and other military experts acknowledge that the rise of terrorism and extremism won't be so easily contained in the developing wold.

Those who will suffer the most from climate change are the ones least responsible for it. In her article "Climate Rage" for Rolling Stone, Naomi Klein argues that this injustice has the potential to create a plague of seething anger. Quoting Justin Lin, a chief economist at the World Bank, Klein writes that " 'About 75 to 80 percent' of the damages caused by global warming 'will be suffered by developing countries, although they only contribute about one-third of greenhouse gases.'" As National War College Professor Dr. Theresa Sabonis-Helf admits, "there is really good reason to see us as the problem." As Klein reported, even Senator John Kerry has noted how this fury can "crystallize into a virulent, dangerous, public anti-Americanism. " In fact, it's already begun.

In a video from 2007, Osama bin Laden condemned the West for its pollution and indifference to human suffering:

"[T]he life of all of mankind is in danger because of the global warming resulting to a large degree from the emissions of the factories of major corporations, yet despite that, the representative of these corporations in the White House insists on not observing the Kyoto accord, with the knowledge that the statistic speaks of the death and displacement of the millions of human beings because of that, especially in Africa."


As Professor Noam Chomsky has argued repeatedly, terrorists "draw from a reservoir of anger, fear and desperation." If nothing serious is done to stop climate change, there will be an overwhelming abundance of all three.

The Future is Somalia

Near the end of her chapter in Climate Cataclysm, Burke warns that, "If New Orleans is one harbinger of the future, Somalia is another." It's a ghastly prediction considering that Somalia has become, as New York Times Jeffery Gettleman reported last year, "a raging battle zone... with jihadists pouring in from overseas" with no "effective central government." Burke explains that "the mutually reinforcing cycle of drought, famine, and conflict has left some 750,000 Somalis internally displaced and about 1.5 million people - 17 percent of the population - in dire need of humanitarian relief."

Amidst this chaos, rival clan violence has emerged as the norm, and the militant Islamic group Al-Shabab, which has ties to Al-Qaeda, has grown tremendously in power. According to an article written by The Economist on Dec 10th, 2009, "The Shabab controls most of south and central Somalia," and, "[i]f anything, its area of operations is widening."

A week after the attempted Christmas-Day airline bombing, Mohammed Ibrahim of the New York Times reported that Sheik Muktar Robow, a senior rebel official in Al-Shabab, "said the group would 'send fighters to Yemen to assist our brothers.'" Ibrahim also reported that Sheik Ali Mohamoud Rageh, a Shabab spokesman, claimed that "the fighters... would fight in every corner of the world that is ready for jihad, or holy war."

According to Burke's worst-case prediction, if nothing is done to slow climate change, "situations like Somalia will be commonplace."

The Changing Tide

The notion of climate change as a severe threat to national security is no longer a fringe idea. The Director of National Intelligence Adm. Dennis Blair recently called climate change "a top threat to the national security of the country," and, on April 19th of this year, Under Secretary of Defense for Policy Michele A. Flournoy warned that climate change would "accelerate state failure," "mass migration," and the "spread of disease." On September 25th, the CIA announced it was launching a Center on Climate Change and National Security "as the focal point for its work on the subject."
Sadly, the threat of untold misery enveloping the developing world didn't force the West to take climate change seriously. Perhaps the threat of terrorism will.

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