Climate change and terrorism: understanding the political narrative

Several prominent commentators have drawn connections between climate change and the rise of ISIS. US Democrat hopeful Martin O’Malley claimed that climate change has lead to the “extreme poverty that has led now to the rise of ISIL and this extreme violence”. John Kerry also argued that climate change would exacerbate Europe’s migration “crisis” and lead to the spread of extremism.

Climate change sceptics and Republicans were quick to respond.

This argument is interesting for several reasons reasons. O’Malley and others who have made the connection are partly correct. There are connections between climate change and armed violence. They are only partly right, and their assertions are simplistic. But by presenting this (simplistic) case they have enraged the climate change sceptics on the US Right. But the narrative linking climate change and terrorism is mainly designed by Democrats to convince the sceptical US right wing of the need for action on climate change.

So, is there a link between climate change and ISIS?

The short answer is somewhere between “sort of” and “maybe”. Here is how the argument goes. Climate change has lead to more drought. Syria encountered a prolonged drought over the last decade. And there is good evidence that the severity of the Syrian drought was increased by human caused climate change. Rural agricultural livelihood were degraded and people could no longer support themselves. Many moved into Syria’s cities in the hope of finding work. This is a common pattern of internal migration linked to climate change.

Many of the new arrivals found themselves living in appalling slum-like conditions. Anger grew at the regime’s many failings and human rights abuses. Including the failure to deal properly with the drought. Anger and a larger number of people living in urban poverty provided the conditions for the start of an uprising against the regime.

It seems fair to link climate change, the Syrian drought and the initial uprising.


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