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The New Sponsor of Terrorism: Climate Change

04/22/2015 08:56 am ET | Updated Jun 22, 2015
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For years, we have been warned that climate change would lead to a less stable world, with some very serious implications for the United States, its military, and its security. Beginning in 2010, in its Quadrennial Defense Review, the Pentagon warned that while climate change "alone does not cause conflict, it may act as an accelerant of instability or conflict, placing a burden to respond on civilian institutions and militaries around the world."

This was followed up in 2014, when the Pentagon once again warned that the effects of climate change are "threat multipliers that will aggravate stressors abroad such as poverty, environmental degradation, political instability, and social tensions - conditions that can enable terrorist activity and other forms of violence."

Finally, this year, a groundbreaking study concluded that the Zero Hour had come. Climate change, indeed, contributed to conditions that hastened the rise of extremism, in the form of ISIS, in Syria.

From the Scientific American article covering the study:

"Drying and drought in Syria from 2006 to 2011--the worst on record there--destroyed agriculture, causing many farm families to migrate to cities. The influx added to social stresses already created by refugees pouring in from the war in Iraq, explains Richard Seager, a climate scientist at Columbia University's Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory who co-authored the study. The drought also pushed up food prices, aggravating poverty. "We're not saying the drought caused the war," Seager said. "We're saying that added to all the other stressors, it helped kick things over the threshold into open conflict. And a drought of that severity was made much more likely by the ongoing human-driven drying of that region."

It isn't that tough to imagine other potential hot spots. We already have documented evidence of increased migration from Pakistanis, who are moving from ground that has become less fertile due to climate change. The 2014 QDR found that, "the pressures caused by climate change will influence resource competition while placing additional burdens on economies, societies, and governance institutions around the world." Indeed. What happens when areas of Pakistan continue to dry up? Already home to terrorist activity, resource shortages and tensions with India could hasten the growth of terror networks. Think it sounds like some environmentalist scare tactic?

"Extremist groups, of which there is no dearth in Pakistan, have also weighed in on the matter, using it as an opportunity to garner support for their movement. Hafiz Saeed, the founder of the militant group, Lakshar-e-Taiba--the organization behind the 2008 Mumbai attacks--has unequivocally blamed India for Pakistan's water crunch, accusing its government of committing "water terrorism." By evoking an issue that is sensitive to millions of Pakistanis, Saeed's rhetoric demonstrates the potential of militant groups to exploit this issue."

As someone who has served in the Iraq war, and has had to help fight terrorists there, I can tell you unequivocally, this is not a path we want to go down. We have the best military in the world, but as we saw, it became strained by fighting two wars at once. I have seen what three, four, and five deployments have done to our force structure, and readiness, and it is not good. If terror networks accelerate their growth, aided by climate change, our military may reach its breaking point, trying to contain the spread of terrorism and upheaval it causes. This doesn't even take into account all of the humanitarian aid our military would have to provide to the millions who would be suffering.

And, with every bit of terrorist growth, America would become more at risk of attack.

Still, we have another choice. To slow the pace of climate change, with an eye towards stopping it, in the long run. That will mean serious, drastic action. It will mean expanding the use of carbon-free forms of energy, from wind and solar, to better hybrid and electric vehicles, and protecting the Renewable Fuel Standard, used in our current fuel supply, which lessens the amount of money that flows to terrorist groups, who shoot at our troops. It will not be easy. And it will not be cheap.

But think of it this way. When we find out someone is sponsoring terrorism, we act. We freeze funds. We sanction them. And, rightly or wrongly, we sometimes even strike at them with drones. We act, and we act decisively. Why wouldn't we act the same way against this foe?

Today, on Earth Day, let's continue to protect ourselves, and ask our politicians to vote for policies that protect us. Included in that is a campaign to defeat the newest sponsor of terrorism -- climate change.