By Selin Calik Muhasilovic
World leaders have gathered in New York for the United Nations General Assembly and one of the main agenda items has been to take urgent action to combat climate change.
With a recent study by the Pew Research Center establishing the threat of climate change to be as nearly great as the terrorism of Daesh, both the understanding and awareness of the links between climate change and security have increased tremendously.
That creates grounds for questioning the relationship between climate change and terrorism.
The United Nations, the EU, the G7 countries as well as an increasing number of states classify climate change as a threat to global and/or national security.
Many academics and national security experts also agree that climate change contributes to an uncertain world where terrorism can thrive.
However, the links between climate change, conflict and fragility are not simple and linear. The increasing impacts of climate change do not automatically lead to more fragility and conflict. Rather, climate change acts as a threat multiplier.
It interacts and converges with other existing risks and pressures in a given context and can increase the likelihood of fragility or violent conflict.
States experiencing fragility or conflict are particularly affected but also seemingly stable states can be overburdened by the combined pressures of climate change, population growth, urbanization, environmental degradation and rising socio-economic inequalities.
Since such terrorist organizations as Daesh and Boko Haram have been simultaneously occupying the agenda of the world along with climate change issues, we can observe a considerable increase in the understanding and awareness of the link between climate change and security in recent years.
In the latest report by the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (ICCP), it is stated that climate change is an increasingly greater threat to human security.
The German Foreign Office has also been discussing how the effects of climate change have contributed to the rise of terrorist groups such as Daesh, Boko Haram, and al-Shabaab.
According to its report, climate change nourishes terrorist acts and strengthens the efforts of terrorist groups such as Daesh and Boko Haram.
It is inevitable that some people are involved in terrorist organizations in an unstable environment where their governments cannot protect their citizens who have to leave behind their lands and their lives due to the changing climate.
In other words, poverty, inequality, and marginalization resulting from climate change constitute a more fertile ground in terms of human resources for the development and strengthening of terror groups.
“Terrorist groups are increasingly using natural resources -- such as water -- as a weapon of war, controlling access to it, and further compounding, and exacerbating resource scarcities,” Lukas Ruttinger writes in a German government-funded report, Insurgency, Terrorism and Organised Crime in a Warming World.
Resources as a strategy of violence
As the negative impacts of climate change increase and contribute to fragility, this benefits terrorist groups, ultimately leading to further destabilization and fragility, and increasing vulnerability to the negative impacts of climate change.
These dynamics can be further exacerbated by using increasingly scarce natural resources as a weapon. Livelihood insecurity and water scarcity are important factors in creating a fertile ground for terrorist groups’ recruitment in the conflict zones.
According to recent reports from the Nigerian military, Boko Haram has resorted to using natural resources as a weapon and part of their strategy of violence.
They have poisoned water sources, such as wells and streams, in areas where they were dislodged by state troops, making water use dangerous for both humans and livestock.
While it remains unclear whether this strategy is being systematically used as a weapon against civilians, it underlines the strategic importance of natural resources in the conflict.
In Syria, scarcity of water played a key role contributing to the outbreak of civil war and continues to impact the strategic choices of parties to the conflict.
Violence, devastation and the descent into state fragility provided a perfect breeding ground for the extremists, who both benefit from livelihood insecurity and water shortages, to mobilize combatants and systematically use water as a weapon of war.
In 2014, a number of reports stated that the Syrian regime used deliberate water and electricity supply cuts to weaken their opponents in the divided city of Aleppo.
In other cases, it diverted the water supply only to those neighborhoods under its control, inflicting severe harm on civilians and farmers dependent on irrigation.
Although different actors instrumentalize water, Daesh is responsible for by far the largest number of incidents. Apart from ideological reasons, deprivation resulting from policy failure and drought made it much easier for Daesh to recruit as high as 60 to 70 percent of its fighters locally.
According to Prof. Oktay Tanrisever, who has specialized in regional security as well as energy and environmental diplomacy issues of Turkey and its neighbors at the Middle East University (METU), the reduction of energy sources for terror organizations, such as Daesh, creates some advantages.
When energy sources decrease, the high prices naturally cater to dissatisfaction among energy consumers and the larger public and this provides grounds for terrorist organizations to provoke the masses against states.
“Terrorist organizations can gain functionality in the struggle to control energy sources among the states by playing a subcontractor role,” he added.
Climate change vs. human culpability
The effects of global climate change are already dramatic enough and will be more dramatic in the future. There will also be a number of security implications.
However, according to some academics, climate change played a role in the past conflicts but was not the most important factor leading up to the conflict.
They think that climate change alone would never result in a conflict: the political and economic contexts of a country are more important.
Therefore, some overdramatized predictions pose problems, because they’re based either on quantitative research only, counting the numbers of security incidences, thereby missing the specific, historically grown dynamics of conflicts in particular regions.
Dr. Clemens Hoffman from Stirling University currently works on a project exploring the “Geo-Political Ecology of the Middle East.”
He said: “Some academics are assuming a relation between weather events and global climate change and warming, which is sometimes difficult to verify scientifically.
“The Earth’s climate is warming and there are more weather extremes, but the relationship between weather extremes such as droughts, conflicts and global climate change needs to be researched and verified on a case-by-case basis.
“Sometimes this may prove difficult to do. Third, and probably most problematic, are the political implications.”
He stated that if global climate change is to blame for conflict and terrorism, then there is no ‘human culprit’ for any crimes or conflicts.
In the case of Syria, it would mean we discount the culpability of the Assad regime for the civil war and, instead, blame global climate change.
So, climate change is a big worry and the world should do more about it, but that does not mean that all problems in the world are related to climate change, nor does it mean that we need those alarming arguments to take action against global climate change.
Climate change does not create terrorists or criminals. But in a changing climate, the context these groups operate in changes significantly. So, what we are seeing is that climate change creates a context within which these groups can proliferate, grow and rise.