Climate change has contributed to the Syrian conflict and human trafficking. It’s time to acknowledge its link to terrorism.

climate change

Syrian refugee holds onto his children as he struggles to walk off a dinghy on the Greek island of Lesbos, 24 September 2015. (REUTERS/Yannis Behrakis)

By Annique Browne

What’s the biggest threat to U.S. national security? During this year’s presidential campaign, most candidates have cited conflicts in the Middle East as the number one peril.

Except Bernie Sanders. The Democratic candidate has singled out climate change, saying it “is directly related to the growth of terrorism.”

Many people do not think that global warming and unrest in the Middle East are related, but climate change may well have aggravated the refugee crisis there.

Plankton form the base of the food chain; there would be no sea life without these microscopic organisms. Because of global warming, the amount of plankton in the waters of the Middle East is declining.

Without plankton to feed on, the number of fish declines and fishermen have greater difficulty making a living. With large numbers of refugees seeking to cross the Mediterranean Sea, these fishermen instead use their boats to make money transporting migrants.

Higher temperatures in this part of the world have in this way helped to increase human trafficking across the Mediterranean. While trafficking would still be a problem without climate change, global warming has worsened the situation by depleting fish stocks, driving fisherman to seek other sources of revenue.

Drought drove Syrian farmers from their lands.

Climate change may also have played a role in the war in Syria.

Global warming worsened drought in the Fertile Crescent, which extends from the Nile Valley, round the eastern Mediterranean coast lands and through the valleys of the Euphrates and Tigris rivers to the head of the Gulf.

Farmers have had to abandon fields because a lack of water has led to many crop failures.

Many of these farmers and their families moved to the cities to try to find work, but the cities already had a great many economic problems of their own. With the increase of people in Syrian cities, tensions escalated.

While environmental problems did not cause the war, they aggravated the situation and helped produce the conflict we see today.

Were the Paris attacks timed to disrupt COP 21?

Consider the attacks last November in Paris. They took place days before the start of the world’s largest environmental conference, COP 21. Did the terrorists time their attacks in part to deflect attention from the conference and to damage the chances of a climate accord?

We don’t know the answer to that question. But we do know that COP 21 was almost put on hold because of the uncertain safety situation in Paris.

One would not normally consider plankton to be a contributing factor to human trafficking and the migration crisis. Many people choose not to consider the connections. Many U.S. Republicans are pushing to reduce funding for environmental research because they deem the war on the Islamic State to be more pressing.

But while global warming did not directly cause the Syrian conflict, it was a contributing factor. By tempering global warming, we could take a significant step in combating terror.

We should not continue to treat environmental concerns and conflict in the Middle East as unrelated topics. By advancing efforts to save our planet, we can reduce violence in the world.

(The views are the author’s.)


abrowne (569x590)Annique Browne was born in Philadelphia and is in her final year of high school studying in Rennes, France with the School Year Abroad program. Her studies in France have piqued her interest in international affairs. Next year, she will continue her studies at the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University.

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