Global warming and terrorism

As we continually seek to understand terrorism and what makes a terrorist, we hear many reasons brought forward and defended as THE answer or cause.  I have already, on several occasions, discussed and dismissed the perennial disenfranchisement/alienation/poverty…. myth and will not return to it here.

Now another “soupe du jour” has arisen, probably not coincidentally timed with the climate summit in Paris (although to be fair some have been speaking of it for years): global warming or climate change.  So now here we have it: climate change leads to terrorism (see story here).

Does it?

As usual, the answer to a complex problem has a complex answer and citing climate change as the primary driver falls woefully short.

Climate change can lead to environmental degradation which can lead to economic upheaval and social unrest.  It can also lead to unwanted migration as people are forced to find areas to live, work and find food and shelter.  Large groups of people on the move or in search of basic necessities can result in protests and violence.  All of this is true.

But does this inextricably lead to terrorism?  No.

Yes, groups like IS can take advantage of situations where governance is absent or inadequate.  Failed states are ripe for some kind of order, even if that order is brought by extremists (a la Afghanistan and the Taliban in the early 1990s).  And yet the history of terrorism shows unequivocally that it can arise in multiple environments.  Did climate change lead to the creation of the Baader Meinhof Gang in West Germany in the 1970s? Did it give rise more recently to Al Qaeda?  Boko Haram?  Al Qaeda in Iraq?  No it did not.

Terrorism springs out of particular conditions – social, economic, political, cultural – that happen to coalesce into a perfect storm of drivers.  Each case is different.

When we talk about the rise of IS itself, it is quite clear that it did NOT spring from climate change (although some claim that the Arab Spring did – again, too simplistic).  It grew out of Al Qaeda in Iraq, which came into being directly from the US decision to invade and occupy Iraq in 2003.

Climate change is real and serious (are you listening US Republican Presidential candidates?) and we have to act now before it snowballs (will there be any snowballs in a future warmer world?) into irrevocable global damage.  Of that there is no doubt.  So let’s stop dithering and get moving.

It is also possible that climate change can create the conditions under which some forms of violent extremism may grow.  But this is correlation, not causation.  And violent extremism will also continue to grow in the absence of climate change.  Climate change – terrorism.  No climate change – terrorism.

As I have stated many, many times, we cannot afford to mis-analyse this stuff.  If we erroneously settle on a particular driver for terrorism and seek to address that particular driver as a solution, we will fail.  We also need to stop asking Why (which in any event is probably not answerable) and start asking How and Where.  If we can put measures into place that help deal with the latter two, the first question is not important.

Climate change constitutes an existential threat to our planet.  Terrorism does not.  Let’s not conflate the two.


By Phil Gurski

Phil Gurski is the President and CEO of Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting Ltd. Phil is a 32-year veteran of CSE and CSIS and the author of six books on terrorism.

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