Warming Up to Future Drivers of Terrorism: Climate Change and its Impact on Militant Extremism

03/04/2014 02:45 pm ET | Updated May 04, 2014

Perhaps more than any two contemporary issues, climate change and terrorism have captured the attention of global audiences. High profile attacks, including coordinated bombings in Mumbai in 2008 and against the World Trade Center in 2001, have redefined the priorities and strategic calculus of the world's strongest militaries. At the same time, the findings of the IPCC have left little doubt that human-induced climate change will pose one of the foremost challenges to future generations. Though the two issues have traditionally occupied separate spheres of analysis, a strong connection exists. Changing environments exacerbate the social and economic conditions that provoke violence and provide fertile ground for militant recruitment. Appreciation of this nexus can help forestall a potential wave of climate-fueled terror.

A Threat Multiplier
The connection between climate change and terrorism is indirect, and requires an examination of second and third-order linkages between environmental changes, social and demographic stability, and sub-state violence. Like conflict in general, terrorism is motivated by multiple causes, none of which exists in a vacuum. Religious fundamentalism, political grievances, and a myriad of other issues factor into the equation, perhaps more directly than environmental conditions. It is therefore useful to think of climate change as a 'threat multiplier,' rather than a direct driver of terrorism. But, as a warming world shifts environmental, demographic, and social landscapes, that threat is multiplying quickly, and thus is deserving of our attention.

Food or Fervor
Perhaps the most widely understood threat posed by climate change is its capacity to diminish a population's access to food. With global food demand expected to increase 70 percent by 2050, and changing environmental conditions such as flooding and drought disrupting crop yields, food security is a growing concern throughout the world.

The resurgence of the Tuareg rebellion in northern Mali last year illustrates the linkages between intensifying drought, subsequent food insecurity, and insurgency. Plagued with two major droughts since 2010, the nomadic Tuaregs have witnessed accelerating desertification and the collapse of their pastoral way of life. In response to the growing risk of starvation and the inability of the Malian government to provide famine relief, the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad has gained widespread support for its bloody campaign to achieve the political autonomy Tuaregs believe is necessary to increase food security.

Faced with food shortages inside the besieged Syrian city of Aleppo last winter, desperate inhabitants flocked to Jabhat al-Nusra for food supplies - a group designated a terror organization by the United States. "The so-called terrorists are the ones who have been giving us bread and distributing it fairly," Tamam Hazem told the New York Times. Though the Syrian war itself is not a result of climate change, this case illustrates the potential for future food shortages to persuade communities to accept extremist viewpoints they ordinarily would oppose.

Migration and Urbanization
Human migration threatens to disrupt demographic equilibriums and create ethnocentric environments where militant movements can take root. As climate change makes rural livelihoods more difficult and coastlines less habitable, the United Nations projects millions to be forced from their homes. The emergence of Jihadi organizations within the Indonesian provinces of Maluku in 1999 illustrates the risks associated with human displacement. As a result of the Muslim migration to the Maluku Islands, the ethnic balance was tipped away from native Christians - eroding many of the social privileges Christians had long associated with demographic dominance. In response to the ensuing anti-Muslim violence, Islamic cells such as Laskar Jihad were born, thus contributing to sectarian conflict throughout Maluku over the next three years.

Mass urbanization, another trend associated with climate change, also threatens to nourish the seeds of militancy. A report sponsored by the RAND National Defense Research Institute links the bloody insurgency in Turkey between 1976 and 1980 to the "explosive population growth in and around cities" in that time period. The report concludes that a key contributor to the rise in terrorism was the relocation of rural migrants to low-income urban settlements, where their economically perilous condition became the cause of social unrest, and ultimately created recruitment pools for terrorism.

Evolving Narratives
Climate change also provides a new narrative with which to stimulate militant recruitment. Though it is unlikely that climatic conditions would cause a shift in the core messaging espoused by militant groups - namely that of Islamic Jihad - the exploitation of climate change as a complementary cause célèbre for violence may already be underway.

The essence of this narrative lies in the disparity between the developed world, the chief contributor to greenhouse gas emissions, and the developing world, considered the most vulnerable to climate change. At the UN climate conference in Poland this winter, developing countries demanded billions in reparations from the industrialized world to mitigate the impacts of climate change. Growing realizations of this imbalance are also fueling temptations to lash out against unequal power structures beyond the peaceful confines of the UN. In 2010, Osama bin Laden condemned America's contribution to climate change:

"The effects of global warming have touched every continent. Drought and desserts are spreading, while floods and hurricanes unseen before the previous decades have now become frequent," bin Laden said in the tape, aired by Al-Jazeera. "In fact, the 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 the major corporations, yet despite that, the representative of these corporations in the White House insists on not observing the Kyoto accord."

The change in rhetoric is a "bridge issue," said Evan Kohlmann of Flashpoint Partners, a U.S.-based intelligence firm. "They are looking to appeal to people who don't necessarily love Al Qaeda, but who are angry at the U.S. and the West."

State Capacity: Opportunities and Risks
State capacity (or lack thereof) is the common thread linking terrorism to food security, human migration, and urbanization. As climate events impact vulnerable populations, the abilities of governments to provide relief aid and maintain the delivery of social services will determine the role climate change plays in the proliferation of terrorism.

If state institutions are firmly in place to support the growing needs of their populations, the aggravating effect of climate change on terrorism will be minimal. A responsive state means terrorists' recruitment appeals will increasingly fall on deaf ears.

But if history is our guide, the natural response to the social and political instability threatened by climate change may be to protect the resources of privileged groups and maintain the status quo of the "haves," rather than to invest in social programs for the "have nots." Should governments fail to provide "systems of getting people what they need, that presents an excellent opportunity for terrorist militant groups to step in and fill that void," Dr. Fred Wehling told me over the phone from the Monterey Institute's Center for Nonproliferation Studies. Governments would do well to take heed.