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Is There Really a Link Between Climate Change and National Security?

It would appear so, going by current research.
Rebel fighters fire a machine gun during clashes with Syrian pro-government forces on the frontline facing Deir al-Zoghb, a government-held area in the northwestern Idlib province, on August 31, 2015. (Photo: Omar Haj Kadour/AFP/Getty Images)

Rebel fighters fire a machine gun during clashes with Syrian pro-government forces on the frontline facing Deir al-Zoghb, a government-held area in the northwestern Idlib province, on August 31, 2015. (Photo: Omar Haj Kadour/AFP/Getty Images)

Following the terrorist attacks in Paris that claimed 130 lives, and in anticipation of the COP21 climate summit, Prince Charles spoke candidly last week of the ties between one of the worst droughts in Syria's history, the country's civil war, and the rise of the Islamic State.

"We're seeing a classic case of not dealing with the problem, because ... some of us were saying 20 years ago that if we didn't tackle these issues, you would see ever greater conflict over scarce resources and ever greater difficulties over drought, and the accumulating effect of climate change, which means that people have to move," the Prince of Wales told Sky News. "And, in fact, there's very good evidence indeed that one of the major reasons for this horror in Syria, funnily enough, was a drought that lasted for about five or six years, which meant that huge numbers of people in the end had to leave the land."

Prince Charles isn't the first to point out the rise of climate change-related violence and global conflict. Presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders even went as far as to deem climate change one of the biggest threats to national security during the last two Democratic debates. In January, President Obama announced during his State of the Union address that "no challenge poses a greater threat to future generations" than climate change. Both Gina McCarthy, administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, and Secretary of State John Kerry have similarly named climate change a threat to national security. Climate change isn't just an environmental concern anymore; it's a national security issue too.

And there's a growing body of research supports their claims:


Recent research suggests Syria's civil war, which began in 2011, is tied directly to the 2007–10 drought that plagued the Fertile Crescent, a region where agriculture has been an established industry for nearly 12,000 years. "For Syria, a country marked by poor governance and unsustainable agricultural and environmental policies, the drought had a catalytic effect, contributing to political unrest," researchers from the University of California–Santa Barbara and Columbia University write.

As drought escalated, the country's breadbasket—responsible for about two-thirds of the country's crop yields—collapsed. At the same time, the prices of wheat, rice, and feed doubled across the country, which coincided with the collapse of livestock herds. School enrollment fell by nearly 80 percent as farming families fled the countryside. In total, as many as 1.5 million Syrians were internally displaced by the drought, and many of them flocked from rural regions to urban centers as a result. By 2010, according to the study, Iraqi refugees and internally displaced Syrians comprised 20 percent of the country's urban population—adding a further strain on resources.

"The rapidly growing urban peripheries of Syria, marked by illegal settlements, overcrowding, poor infrastructure, unemployment, and crime, were neglected by the Assad government and became the heart of the developing unrest," the authors write. "Thus, the migration in response to the severe and prolonged drought exacerbated a number of the factors often cited as contributing to the unrest, which include unemployment, corruption, and rampant inequality."


In a 2013 study of human conflict from 10,000 B.C.E. to present, researchers from Princeton University, the University of California–Berkeley, and the National Bureau of Economic Research found that, as temperatures rise and precipitation becomes more extreme, violence also becomes more commonplace. For each standard deviation change away from a local norm, interpersonal violence—like rape, murder, and assault—was raised by four percent, while intergroup violence—riots, civil wars, or ethnic conflicts—increased by 14 percent.

"Because locations throughout the inhabited world are expected to warm 2 degrees to 4 degrees by 2050, amplified rates of human conflict could represent a large and critical impact of anthropogenic climate change," the researchers write.


According to a 2015 report by Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, the United States will most likely need to respond to international humanitarian crises spurred by climate change. This includes the spread of infectious diseases like Ebola, as well as threatened food and water supplies. "Many states and international institutions will look to the United States in 2015 for leadership to address human security issues, particularly environment and global health, as well as those caused by poor or abusive governance," the report states.

Additionally, regions whose freshwater supplies are threatened by climate change could lose their abilities to produce food or generate energy, which has the potential to undermine global food markets. "Lack of adequate water might be a destabilizing factor in countries that lack the management mechanisms, financial resources, political will, or technical ability to solve their internal water problems," according to the same report. "Over the longer term, wealthier developing countries will also probably face increasing water-related social disruptions. Terrorist organizations might also increasingly seek to control or degrade water infrastructure to gain revenue or influence populations."


Climate change could considerably impact the U.S. military, as outlined by the Department of Defense 2014 Climate Change Adaptation Roadmap. Rising seas, for instance, could affect approaches to amphibious warfare. Extreme temperatures and erratic weather could also impact the timing of operations and the effectiveness of intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance missions. The types of weapons and other equipment used by the military, and where they are stored, bought, and stockpiled could be impacted by climate change, too, according to the report.

"Our coastal installations are vulnerable to rising sea levels and increased flooding, while droughts, wildfires, and more extreme temperatures could threaten many of our training activities," writes former Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel. "Our supply chains could be impacted, and we will need to ensure our critical equipment works under more extreme weather conditions."

In addition to the likelihood that the military will be more heavily relied on for humanitarian relief, competition between countries for limited resources, or extreme weather events like famine and drought among unstable governments, can foster extremist ideologies and terrorism, the report states.

Hopefully COP21 is a start to more promising solutions. We need them now more than ever.


"Catastrophic Consequences of Climate Change" is Pacific Standard's year-long investigation into the devastating effects of climate change—and how scholars, legislators, and citizen-activists can help stave off its most dire consequences.