Does Climate Change Really Cause Terrorism?

Senior Contributor
12.02.15 16 Comments
terrorist silhouette


Bill Nye is in the news again about climate change, this time for remarks he’s made that climate change is “not that indirectly related” to terrorism. There’s a lot of skepticism to the idea… but that’s only because people aren’t looking at the cause and effect.

It’s worth noting that Nye isn’t alone here; there’s a strong belief that climate change is at the very least an indirect factor in terrorism and the outbreak of war. It’s a controversial view of conflict and terrorism that some argue is reductive, and not even Nye is arguing it’s a direct cause. That said, at root, Nye has a point, and it’s really just a matter of how much of a point you want to argue he has.

Let’s start at the beginning, with Syria’s water shortage. Well before the Syrian civil war broke out, alarms were being sounded about the country’s terrible water infrastructure. Unsurprisingly, this is a problem across the Middle East, and in turn, this is driving up food prices, especially as the region struggles with drought. So, as farms struggle and collapse, the families have to go somewhere.

Usually, that means moving to major cities to find a job or at least better access to support. It’s not a secret that any terrorist group exploits angry young men, and a hungry population is an angry one in the first place. In Syria’s case, most of its food is imported and that’s more or less impossible these days. There’s a reason ISIS hands out bread; people may hate ISIS, but they fear starving more.

That said, this isn’t a one-to-one correlation. Food stress and a lack of water certainly can make a bad geopolitical situation even worse, but the Syrian civil war broke out in large part because Bashar al-Assad’s government began murdering the population it’s supposed to represent. Would the protests have been quite so populated or quite so angry if the farms had been turning out food? Perhaps not, but in Syria, the supposed “legitimate” government is the leading cause of death. Sooner or later, the populace was going to snap.

So, no, driving a Prius won’t directly help end war in our time. But it might make it a little more possible for people around the world to eat, and at least eliminate that cause of tension.

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