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.