Why Global Warming Imperils Global Security

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Photo by Live Once Live Wild via Flickr

Global warming haunts the imagination of most critically aware people on the planet.  Signs of climate change are everywhere: in rising sea levels, melting ice caps, more violent storms, and spreading deserts in sub-Saharan Africa.

Despite the bold efforts in some areas to develop alternative sources of energy, the radical change, if not collapse, of civilization as we know it seems imminent.  Whole economies could well be disrupted with implications for massive transfers of populations.

In the United States, we are comparatively numb to the consequences of severe climate change.

Those on Cape Cod could see the value of their real estate erode; much of South Florida may have to be given up for waste; and the heat and fires in the Southwest could erode the health of everyone from Los Angeles to Austin.

But as Pope Francis has pointed out in his majestic encyclical, Laudato Si of 2015, the world’s poor—those in the global south and least responsible for climate change—are the ones already most at risk and certain in the future to bear the brunt of the changes.

The deaths could be in the hundreds of millions; the suffering unimaginable.

One underappreciated dimension of global warming is its relationship to security.  Environmentalists in general work diligently to awaken Americans to the dangers of climate change and to develop ways of mitigating the disasters we face.

But for the most part the worlds of climatology and security diverge sharply.

Only the military has been reflecting on issues of security in relationship to global warming for the last 15 years, but even their focus is on what they fear is the potential of wars over resources that could spill over into larger conflicts.

I have been studying climate change and terrorism seriously now for the last four years.  One example of my concerns was the war in Syria.  A drought there from 2006 to 2011 pushed some 800,000 people from their land in rural northeastern Syria.

The climate refugees inundated the cities, especially Aleppo, putting great stress on available resources.

The social and economic disruptions caused by the drought, against the backdrop of the Arab Spring, in a small country led by a brutal dictator, brought on a civil war that began in March of 2011.

We cannot understand ISIS except in the context of global warming.

Within two years, Syria became a failed state, which in turn attracted hundreds of Jihadi groups.  Out of that chaos, the leader of the violent pack turned out to be the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).  The drought didn’t create ISIS, which surged forth in June, 2014 to wreak havoc; but we cannot understand that uniquely apocalyptic group except in the context of global warming.

Another example is Bangladesh.  This country of 160 million people lies perilously close to sea levels that are themselves on the rise.  The country also possesses a fragile democracy with many Jihadi political entities and an unknown number of individuals and groups waiting for their moment to emerge.

Bangladesh itself was created from East Pakistan in the wake of the 1971 Bhola Cyclone and the civil war and genocide that followed.  Global warming, by all accounts, unsettles weather patterns and tends to intensify storms.  A newly violent cyclone in the future could kill tens of millions in a heartbeat.

Social and political chaos would result.  Millions of climate refugees would flock toward India, which, anticipating just such an eventuality, has constructed a vast wall along its border (some 750 kilometers is complete).

It won’t keep people out.

New violence, even genocide, could well arise between India’s billion Hindus and its minority Muslim population of about 150 million people.   Such ethnic war could well bring Pakistan into the fray.  And both India and Pakistan bristle with nuclear weapons.

With a colleague, I recently conducted some opinion research on American attitudes about climate change and security.  Working with GfK custom Research and LLC (GfK), we asked some focused questions on this issue to a statistically significant group of Americans.

Our recent report, produced by the John Jay College Center on Terrorism  suggests that the public—even those who believe that climate change is happening and that human actions are causing or contributing to it—remains largely unfamiliar with the idea of a connection between climate change and security.

Just 38 percent of all respondents, and 42 percent of those who think human-caused climate change is occurring, acknowledged that climate change may multiply global threats such as political violence or mass migrations, or act as a catalyst for conflict.

Even fewer, only about 14 percent of all respondents, had ever heard or read that a severe drought in Syria, likely caused or worsened by climate change, was one of the factors that helped spark (and continue to fuel) the conflict.

But there was one encouraging note we learned from our survey. Respondents indicated they were open to change their behavior if they came to believe that climate change and security were causally interrelated.  Participants reported the greatest willingness to take action if U.S. national security, rather than global security, were at stake.

What kind of “action”?

Taking an inclusive approach to “openness,” encompassing “definitely,” “probably,” and “maybe” responses, we found that 90 percent of those who think human climate change is occurring  were open to modifying their voting priorities, and 93 percent were open to seriously considering lifestyle changes, if they perceived a threat to national security.

When excluding “maybe” responses, willingness to “probably” or “definitely” adapt behavior along the same lines measured at 66 percent and 67 percent respectively among those who think that human-caused climate change is occurring.

Charles B. Strozier. Photo by Donnelly Marks.

These are cautiously hopeful findings.  They suggest most Americans are open to the idea of climate change while at the same time uninformed about what is happening.

Greater knowledge of the imminent dangers could bring actual personal and political change.  The moral here is clear.  Inform the public.

Charles B. Strozier is professor of history and founding director of the Center on Terrorism at John Jay College. Readers’ comments are welcome.

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