Climate Change's Role in ISIS's Rise to Power


By Clare Varellas Scientists determine how global warming can position “failed countries” for rebellion

Aside from a few days of milder temperatures in the 50s, most weather during December’s Paris Climate Accord seemed completely ordinary for the season and place: with temperatures hovering around 40 degrees and the occasional, wintry rain.

More notable than the weather was the forlorn recollection of what had happened in the same city only weeks before representatives from the 195 countries convened. A set of violent attacks organized by the Islamic State militant group (ISIS) in a concert hall, a large stadium, restaurants, and bars left 130 people dead, and hundreds others wounded.

So when a March 2015 study published by scientists from Columbia University and the University of California, Santa Barbara in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the U.S. resurfaced that linked climate change issues with ISIS’s violent rise to power in the Middle East, there were many skeptics. Researcher Colin Kelley said he received a lot of criticism throughout 2015 about the findings, but especially after the Paris attacks.

Readers wondered how long-term trends in increasing amounts of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere could be the cause of ISIS’s brash seizures of power in Syria and violence abroad when so many other problems in the country existed: a corrupt government, over-urbanization and dissatisfaction with the current political system, a dramatic and deadly religious mission.

The answer is, Kelley said, that climate change was not the only cause. Instead, it created an environment in Syria in which these other causes could lead to rebellion, civil war, and an eventual takeover by ISIS. Research from the study shows that long-term drying trends caused by carbon dioxide and aerosols in the atmosphere contributed to the onset of a major drought in Syria that lasted from 2007 through 2010, its most severe drought on instrumental record. And this drought, which killed thousands of agricultural crops and sent thousands moving to the cities for survival, pushed too many dissatisfied people (especially youth) together at once. Rebellion ensued, bringing chaos and the perfect opportunity for ISIS to increase its control over land and people.

It’s a process George Mason University Hazel Professor of Public Policy Jack Goldstone documented long before in a 2001 paper: mass migration can destabilize the network of relationships between national elites, local elites, and ordinary people by moving large numbers of people to places that cannot absorb them.

“The drought sent hundreds of thousands of people into the cities, the cities did not have the economic or social organization to absorb those hundreds of thousands and incorporate them into existing institutions and social relationships,” said Goldstone. “Certainly the spread of political crisis in Syria was an ideal opportunity for ISIS to expand into Syria and become a threat there.”

Terrorists, in general, are opportunists, Goldstone says. In order for them to cause harm in a situation, there needs to be present the political, economic, and social discontent to do so. And unfortunately, climate change has and is projected to continue to fuel this discontent: not only in the Middle East but across the globe.

Countries with organized, citizen-focused governments won’t face as many issues, as their governments are more likely to attend to the water and food shortages and extreme weather that will accompany the increase in global temperature. The governments that will have trouble, Goldstone says, are those in the Middle East, Central America, South Asia, and Africa: where this sort of organization does not yet exist.

His recommendation, then, is to focus on fighting global warming now as a preventative measure for more instances of “failed countries” and more opportunities for terrorist organizations like ISIS. It’s a job delegates at the Paris Climate Accord already began by signing the conference’s final agreement on December 12, in which they recognized “that deep reductions in global emissions will be required in order to achieve the ultimate objective of the Convention” and emphasized “the need for urgency in addressing climate change.”

Whether the agreements made to decrease the global temperature by decreasing greenhouse gas emissions and preserving forests will make a difference remains contingent upon countries acting on their promises. But the scientists’ study shows that climate change’s effects are no longer restricted to the future.

“This is a nice, clear-cut example to show that this is not only something that is theorized, and not only something that is going to happen in the future, but something that has already begun to happen,” said Kelley. “It’s happening now, and this is only the beginning of what we can expect to see in the future.”

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