COVID-19 has shown that atypical, transnational security issues need to be taken seriously. Man-made threats are not the only forces that can devastate the globe and fundamentally disrupt daily life.
Experts refer to climate change as a “force multiplier,” meaning that it increases the frequency and intensity of challenges that countries face today. The U.S. military operations sphere is massive with soldiers deployed to 150 countries worldwide. Because American security interests are global in nature, the U.S. stands to lose from climate change: combat environments will be disrupted, rising sea levels will prompt mass migration, and parts of the world will become uninhabitable.
Climate change is not just a future problem—the security ramifications are clear today. A study from the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science linked the drought that catalyzed the Syrian Civil War to climate change. A 2019 Pentagon review found that the “majority of mission-critical bases” are threatened by environmental degradation. These locations include Joint Base Hickam in Hawaii, Vandenburg Air Force Base in California, and Naval Station Norfolk in Virginia. Earlier this year, NASA called the current eastern Mediterranean drought the worst that the region has seen in a millennium. And the problem is forecasted to worsen. The United Nations reported that a quarter of the world’s population will live in locations facing high water stress—floods, rising sea levels, and drought—by 2030. Water scarcity and increased desertification will lead to global food shortages, mass migration, and violent conflict.
Some groups have started to exploit the symptoms of climate change. Terrorist organizations will become more effective recruiters as the effects of climate change increase, especially in agriculture-based economies. Farmers are particularly vulnerable to severe weather events and subsequently susceptible to recruitment as an alternative way to support their families. For example, the shrinking of Lake Chad, located in Africa’s Sahel region, has directly contributed to an increase in recruitment for Boko Haram. The Islamic State has also leveraged agricultural loss due to climate change as a recruiting tactic. As a result of recurring water scarcity, thousands of Iraqi farmers have lost their livelihoods over the past decade. The group offered disenfranchised farmers “food and $400 a month.” ISIS capitalized on global inaction towards climate change and effectively recruited fresh supporters to its cause.
Additionally, some terrorist organizations have become the primary welfare provider to average citizens in weak and failed states that are facing environmental degradation. Failing states are particularly vulnerable to both climate change and terrorist organizations. Often, they are already lacking in resources, and because of a lack of centralized authority, these states are statistically more likely to involuntarily host terrorist organizations that commit transnational attacks. These two issues are cyclical against the backdrop of a weak state. Welfare services provided by terrorist organizations further “threaten to rob states of the legitimacy it derives from social contact.” And environmental stress caused by unpredictable weather sparks political violence, which further undermines the authority of failing governments. In Somalia, for example, Al-Shabaab has stepped in and provides Somalis with food, money, and law enforcement during the increasingly common droughts and floods, which decreases confidence in the government and increases reliance on the extremist group. Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula fixed water mains and wells in drought-stricken Yemen as the government is unable to maintain these services. This increases the legitimacy of the non-state group while making it the arbiter of public goods and services.
Already, terrorists are exploiting the conditions of climate change to improve the effectiveness of their tactics. In spring 2019, ISIS claimed responsibility for several wildfires that ravaged the Syrian countryside. This terror tactic requires very little planning, no skill, and wreaks havoc on already water-insecure communities. In the group’s newsletter, al Naba, the leadership “[encouraged] the use of wildfire arson in the past, [and] stressed that picking dry, hot, windy weather will intensify their efforts.” Lebanese group Hezbollah used a similar tactic during its 2006 conflict with Israel. Rockets targeted farming land, “which led to the destruction of 9,000 acres of land, including almost 3,000 acres of forest.” Though fire as a warfare tactic has been practiced since before Alexander the Great, the opportunity for groups to take advantage of conditions ripe for fires has increased. By exploiting increasingly common droughts as kindling for wildfires, terrorist groups are able to target much more than farmland. Wildfires are indiscriminate in their destruction; they are just as likely to destroy critical infrastructure, prompt mass migration, shutdown power grids, cause tremendous economic losses, or bring food production to a standstill.
Dwindling water supplies stand to be exploited for tactical gain as well. In 2014, Al-Shabaab destroyed the Somalian city of Garbaharey’s water supply “without even holding the town.” Instead, they controlled and closed the closest access point to the river that supplied Garbaharev. By controlling the flow of water, the organization controlled the town. Water is a vital component for life, and as water resources become even more scarce because of the changing climate, these tactics will become more effective.
The roles and impacts of terrorist organizations will likely change as environmental degradation worsens. Terrorists will find new ways to exploit environmental disasters—blurring the line between natural and man-made disasters. Simultaneously, a lack of environmental and tactical predictability will negatively impact American preparedness to combat the threats that these groups pose. Additionally, the battlefield will be physically altered: rising tides will drown military bases, and rising temperatures will desertify landscapes. The battle for hearts and minds will change as citizens of failed states look to terrorists to meet their basic survival needs.
Solving climate change will require a global effort. In the meantime, to meet associated challenges, the Department of Defense (DoD) should take actionable steps to enhance preparedness. First, climate change needs to be explicitly listed as a security driver in the next National Defense Strategy. To be taken seriously as a national security issue, environmental degradation has to be acknowledged as a threat in the nation’s main national security doctrine. Second, military combatant commands should revise their operation plans (OPLANs) and contingency plans for humanitarian crises to meet the potential challenges associated with climate change on a regional basis. Additionally, there needs to be an improvement in DoD climate prediction capacity—the military would benefit from developing and investing in technologies that will better forecast climate change’s effects on areas of operations. Last, the government should assess the role and utility of the military in a climate-stressed world. How might U.S. forces confront ecoterrorism? If Al-Shabaab seizes water access points across Chad, should the United States intervene?
Beyond protecting the planet, our ability to combat climate change correlates to our ability to protect national security interests. Ignoring this growing crisis will not make it go away.
The views expressed in this article are those of the authors alone and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a non-partisan organization that seeks to publish well-argued, policy-oriented articles on American foreign policy and national security priorities.