Skip to main content

Sign up for our newsletter.

Quality journalism. Progressive values. Direct to your inbox.

Displaced people from the minority Yazidi sect, fleeing violence from forces loyal to the Islamic State in Sinjar town, walk toward the Syrian border, on the outskirts of Sinjar mountain, near the Syrian border town of Elierbeh of Al-Hasakah Governorate, August 10, 2014. (Photo: Reuters/Rodi Said)

Time to Drop the Climate War Talk

Betsy HartmannJan Selby

Only one day after the deadly Islamic State attacks in Paris, Democratic presidential hopeful, Senator Bernie Sanders, told a national TV audience that “climate change is directly related to the growth of terrorism.” Citing the CIA as his source, he went on to say that climate change was likely to cause international conflict because of struggles over “limited amounts of water, limited amounts of land…to grow crops.”

Pushback came fast. Veteran political commentator Peggy Noonan called the Senator’s remarks “daffy.” But it’s not just Sanders making such claims. In a May graduation address to the U.S. Coast Guard Academy, President Obama implicated climate change in the rise of Boko Haram in Nigeria and the civil war in Syria.  In late August he warned that the political disruptions caused by climate change “could trigger multiple conflicts around the globe.” Secretary of State John Kerry has raised the specter of millions of “climate refugees” leaving their countries. “You think migration is a challenge to Europe today because of extremism,” he said, “wait until you see what happens when there’s an absence of water, an absence of food, or one tribe fighting against another for mere survival.”  

No doubt climate change is a serious challenge to human well-being and environmental sustainability, but is it really a cause of terrorism, war and mass migration across international borders?

In U.S. national security circles, the idea that climate change is a “threat-multiplier” is now conventional wisdom. You can find it in reports by the Pentagon, intelligence agencies, and foreign policy think tanks.  Conventional wisdom isn’t always wise, however. The idea is based on slim evidence and ethnic stereotypes, like Kerry’s primitive tribes fighting each other over scarce resources.  That poor people can and do cooperate and adapt in times of resource stress and natural disaster is just not part of the picture.  Political behavior is not dictated by the weather.

Environmentalists too have proved all too eager to turn climate change into a national security threat. Many unquestioningly accept the defense industry’s bleak scenarios of bloody battles over scarce resources.  Others make the more pragmatic calculation that stoking fears of impending climate wars will help get global warming more attention at the highest levels of government and persuade conservatives to get on board with legislation to reduce carbon emissions. 

The climate war drums first started beating loudly in 2007. An article in the Atlantic Monthly proclaimed the war in Darfur as “a harbinger of climate-driven political chaos,” and the matter went all the way to the U.N. Security Council. The story was simple: herders and farmers in Western Sudan were fighting against each other because of declining rainfall due to climate change. There was little evidence to substantiate the claim. Rainfall hadn’t declined significantly before the war broke out in 2003 -- in fact, it had increased. The authoritarian regime in Khartoum was the main instigator of the conflict. Academic studies have roundly dismissed the notion that Darfur was a climate war.

Syria is now the climate war du jour. This time the seminal article appeared in March in the U.S. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.  It was quickly picked up by popular media outlets. The article argues that the three-year long drought that preceded the start of Syria’s civil war was made two to three times more likely by human-induced climate change. It also asserts that this drought caused a mass exodus of peasants from rural to overcrowded urban areas, and that these migrants helped to trigger the civil war. But it provides nothing more than a single farmer’s testimony in support of this latter claim. Like the Darfur story, the case for Syria as a climate war will likely unravel as its facts and figures are scrutinized. But the damage has already been done.

If Syria is a climate war, then it’s only one small step to seeing those displaced by the conflict – 7.6 million within the country, over 4 million outside – as climate refugees. “How Climate Change is Behind the Surge of Migrants to Europe” is the title of a September 7 Time magazine article. That same month the Canadian National Observer carried the iconic photograph of a drowned Syrian boy on a Turkish beach with the headline, “This is what a climate refugee looks like.”  Secretary of State Kerry has likened the challenge to World War II when “all of Europe was overrun with evil and civilization itself seemed to be in peril.”

Linking the current refugee crisis with climate change creates the impression that such a mass migration is a new normal which will continue in one form or another even after the Syrian war ends.  Rather than seeing the current crisis as politically rooted and limited in time, it gives the impression that we are entering a world of “permanent emergency” in which nations need to retreat from their commitments to harbor refugees and instead beef up their borders and surveillance.  It strengthens the military’s hand by providing yet another rationale – the threat of climate conflicts – for devoting ever more resources to national security.

The scientific arguments for urgent action on climate change are strong enough without playing to this politics of fear. The 2014 report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) provides compelling evidence of how the warming of oceans and the atmosphere, the melting of glaciers and Artic sea ice, rising sea levels, and changes in weather patterns threaten the health of people and the environment. At the same time the report notes that “confident statements about the effects of future changes in climate on armed conflict are not possible,” and that the use of the term climate refugee is “scientifically and legally problematic.”

As political leaders and environmental activists gather in Paris to carve out a new climate agreement, they should drop the climate war rhetoric. Instead the focus should be on how climate policy can be a road to the international cooperation required for a rapid transition from fossil fuels to alternative energy systems.

Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.
Betsy Hartmann

Betsy Hartmann

Betsy Hartmann is the author of "The America Syndrome: Apocalypse, War and Our Call to Greatness" (Seven Stories Press/NY) and "Reproductive Rights and Wrongs: The Global Politics of Population Control" (third edition, Haymarket Books). She is a professor emerita of Development Studies at Hampshire College in Amherst, MA. Visit her website


Jan Selby

Jan Selby is Professor of International Relations at the University of Sussex, UK, and Director of the Sussex Centre for Conflict and Security Research.

We've had enough. The 1% own and operate the corporate media. They are doing everything they can to defend the status quo, squash dissent and protect the wealthy and the powerful. The Common Dreams media model is different. We cover the news that matters to the 99%. Our mission? To inform. To inspire. To ignite change for the common good. How? Nonprofit. Independent. Reader-supported. Free to read. Free to republish. Free to share. With no advertising. No paywalls. No selling of your data. Thousands of small donations fund our newsroom and allow us to continue publishing. Can you chip in? We can't do it without you. Thank you.

Oxfam Warns World Bank 'Could Be Significantly Overstating' Climate Spending

"It is alarming―at a time when climate change is driving such damage and poverty and hunger around the world―that we could find so little clarity about the quality and quantity of these financial flows."

Jessica Corbett ·

Brazilians Elect Three Transgender Progressives to Congress

"The struggle does not stop here, but continues and grows from that moment," said one victorious candidate. "Now my commitment is to elect Lula president at the end of October and I call on all my voters to do the same!"

Brett Wilkins ·

Supreme Court Gives Biden DOJ a Chance to Prove Its Commitment to Climate Justice

"Doubling down on the department's Trump-era support of Big Oil would constitute a betrayal," said one climate organization.

Jake Johnson ·

New Reporting Exposes Dr. Oz as 'Malicious Scam Artist,' Says Fetterman

"Everything he says has been a scam to help himself—not the viewers, not the voters," the Democratic Senate candidate said of his opponent.

Julia Conley ·

UK's Truss Drops Tax Break for Wealthy, But Austerity Threat Remains Amid 'Tory Class War'

The reversal follows 10 days of financial turmoil and pushback from within the Tory Party as well as from the left, which held massive anti-austerity protests.

Kenny Stancil ·

Common Dreams Logo