Presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders voiced concerns at a Democratic debate in Iowa, saying that “climate change is directly related to the growth of terrorism”. Now while this claim may sound exaggerated, President Obama has also discussed the importance of climate change in influencing worldwide trends like terrorism. In fact, the idea of climate change significantly contributing to regional instability is well understood. As the Syrian Civil War continues to fuel the spread of the Islamic State in the Middle East, we wanted to know: did climate change cause ISIS? Well, a report by the National Academy of Sciences examined the effects of climate change in the Fertile Crescent, which includes Iraq and Syria. The Syrian conflict, and subsequent rise of ISIS, began around 2011, but climate problems in the region actually started in the winter of 2007. The Fertile Crescent is named for its rich agriculture, dating back to the birth of civilization. This is only possible due to rain and rivers originating in the Turkish mountains. But from October to December of 2007, hardly any rain fell in the Crescent. This began what is considered the worst drought in the area’s recorded history.
It especially hit eastern Syria and northern Iraq, which is where a huge majority of those countries grain crops are produced. According to the NAS report, the lack of rain followed a long-term drying trend, for which no apparent natural cause could be found. Researchers believe that similar droughts in the area are now twice as likely, and that it is all due to human interference in the climate system. The intense drought destroyed much of the agricultural industry, creating significant water insecurity and killing huge populations of livestock. Up to one and a half million people were forced to leave sparse agricultural areas for urban cities. In Syria, this drought and mass migration created intense societal stress between 2008 and 2011. Senator Bernie Sanders explained that people migrating into cities without jobs creates instability, and high rates of unemployment. This leads to widespread dissatisfaction and humanitarian crisis, which has been pointed to as one of the leading factors behind Syria’s March 2011 uprising. In the wake of the Syrian Civil War, terrorist groups like ISIS were able to exploit the Middle East’s power vacuum, appealing to many of those same people displaced by drought.
It is important to understand that climate change is a major contributor to food and water shortages, which lead to poverty, disease and as we’ve seen: mass migration. Although strong, effective governments could potentially manage these conditions, the instability of Syria’s government only exacerbated those problems. US Secretary of State, John Kerry phrased it more directly, and perhaps more correctly than Senator Sanders. He didn’t suggest that “the crisis in Syria was caused by climate change, but the devastating drought clearly made a bad situation a lot worse.” Other factors, such as religious, ethnic, and political tension, coupled with historically induced poverty, corrupt governments, and foreign intervention are also thought to be responsible for the rise of terrorism. However, in the case of ISIS, the record breaking drought caused by climate change set the stage for their effective and devastating insurrection.
The effects of climate change go well beyond geopolitical conflicts — but there are way we can reduce these consequences. One town in Japan is recycling absolutely everything to help. Learn more in this video by Seeker Stories.