Where Security Experts Stand On The Claim Climate Change Causes Terrorism

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Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) may have been mocked for his claim during Saturday’s Democratic debate that “climate change is directly related to the growth of terrorism.” But his comment touched upon what has become a focus of research and planning in the defense and intelligence worlds.

For years, those in the national security community has considered climate change threat to American interests here and abroad, and are now exploring how climate change is exacerbating the conditions that lead to civil unrest.

Experts tell TPM that the national security community is taking seriously the idea that climate change, primarily by causing resource scarcity, is leading to more instability in regions vulnerable to unrest. That in turn, some believe, is helping to create the breeding grounds for terrorism, among other types of human conflict.

“You can really see how in lots of parts of the world, that can really undermine government or really create the kinds of sentiments that would foster the emergence and the existence of terrorist groups there,” said Dan Chiu, the deputy director of the Atlantic Council’s Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security. He previously served in the Department of Defense, where he worked on the sort of logistical plans now taking climate change into account.

The defense community’s interest in the effects climate change spans a variety of issues: from how rising sea levels and other environmental changes will affect military installations to what regions of the world will be more prone to disaster, and thus in need of humanitarian assistance and coordination.


Bernie Sanders was mocked for claiming that “climate change is directly related to the growth of terrorism.”

But there is also a school of thought that views climate change as a “threat multiplier.” As U.S. National Security Advisor Susan Rice has explained: “[E]ven if climate change isn’t the spark that directly ignites conflict, it increases the size of the powder keg.”

“As the Earth heats up, many countries will experience growing competition for reduced food and water resources. Rather than stay and starve, people will fight for their survival,” Rice said in a speech last month, pointing to a study that showed that strong causal evidence linking climate changes violent conflicts around the world.

A number of papers have also been released by government agencies and their partners examining how to plan for climate change in their operations. The research has been underway since the early years of the George W. Bush administration. In 2003 the Department of Defense released a paper examining the national security implications for abrupt climate change.

“There’s nothing political about it all,” said Francesco Femia, co-founder and director of the Center for Climate and Security. “This spans administrations and doesn’t necessarily have to do with a particular party.”

The specific connection between political unrest and climate change is still a murky one, and there is a debate among experts how strong the connection is to terrorism.

“At this point, it’s a bit of an operating assumption of our national security community with respect to how they look to the future and how they plan for the future and where they see the faultline appearing in and between populations and governments and their people,” said Nate Freier, a research professor in national security studies at Navy War College. “But I don’t think there’s necessarily yet a hard link between climate change, and that causing clear and present national security threat by itself.”

Chui suggested that the strong rhetoric used by Sanders and Rice was “mostly for effect — to really say that you cannot discount climate insecurity.”

“From a purely descriptive and analytic standpoint, I probably wouldn’t call [the link between climate change and terrorism] ‘direct,’” Chiu said. “I would call it more environmental and contextual. The effect of climate change can really create conditions that promote terrorism.”


Undated file photo from the Islamic State taken in Homs area of Syria in 2015.

Take the argument made about the current Syrian unrest: Climate change may have increased the chances of the recent severe drought in Syria, the effects of which the Assad regime worsened through mismanagement of crops and irrigation priorities. The widespread devastation of livestock and farmland led to a mass displacement of millions of people, raising discontent toward the Assad government, the theory goes.

“All of these things came together to create this massive displacement,” Femia said. “What we don’t fully know is to what degrees that that massive internal displacement contributed to social unrest.“

Other are more skeptical of that argument: “There is a water problem in the Middle East,” Freier said. “The Middle East’s political problems predate the heightened water problem.”

But, the specifics of Syria aside, the effect of climate change on national security is something the United States and other countries are not dismissing.

“As both from a research perspective, and as from a strategic development perspective, the Department of Defense, State Department and all the national security departments — just wrapping their arms for what this means for security is the first and primary step that is being taken and needs to be taken.” Freier said.