09/11/2014 04:40 pm ET Updated Nov 11, 2014

The Terrorist Connection

Experts pretty much agree that military action alone won't put an end to terrorist movements such as the Islamic State. What else can be done?

One way to shrivel terrorism's pool of embittered young recruits is to improve environmental quality in severely ecologically stressed countries. These nations tend to contain numerous hot spots of hopelessness, suffering, and discontent, often due in part to deprivation resulting from dreadful environmental conditions.

But not everyone makes the connection between environmental decay and terrorism. When former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in a recent speech declared that climate change was the major challenge of our time, Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky, with 2016 presidential politics on his mind, issued a snippy hyperbolic response.

"I don't think we really want a Commander-in-Chief who is battling climate change instead of terrorism," Paul retorted.

Maybe Senator Paul actually feels that way, but the Pentagon does not. In the Defense Department's 2014 Quadrennial Review, military analysts concluded:

"the pressure caused by climate change will influence resource competition while placing additional burdens on economies, society, and governance institutions around the world. These efforts 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."

A relatively recent National Intelligence Assessment doesn't agree with Senator Paul either: "As long as environmental degradation increases in the Middle East, conditions will remain conducive to the spread of radicalism and insurgency."

Of course, political reform that gives all citizens an equitable stake in their country must accompany environmental remediation to tamp down terrorism. And it is true that not every terrorist is a product of a despoiled environment and abject poverty (most of the 9/11 assassins, for example, came from comfortable, middle-class backgrounds). But plenty of the foot soldiers in terrorist ranks are recruited from densely populated regions where life is harsh and the future bleak. Many of these regions are plagued by desertification and attendant water shortages adversely impacting consumption, sanitation, and adequate food supplies. In an arid county like Yemen, for example, 30 percent of the people are estimated to be malnourished.

We could start by leading the world in a reduction of carbon emissions to mitigate severe climatic environmental impacts with which hard pressed developing nations are ill-equipped to cope.

In addition, we could provide assistance to bring arability to the desert in the politically volatile Middle East. This could be accomplished through aid programs to promote conservation, irrigation, and the implementation of sustainable agricultural practices. It also behooves us to assist in upgrading environmental conditions in other Third World countries that have been incubators for terrorists.

There is some logic in such a strategy from a tactical standpoint. When life becomes worth living is when it becomes much harder to ruthlessly take others' lives away.