Laura Bliss is CityLab’s West Coast bureau chief. She also writes MapLab, a biweekly newsletter about maps (subscribe here). Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Atlantic, Los Angeles magazine, and beyond.
The link between climate change and radicalism is complex, and it has never been so important to understand.
In the wake of catastrophic terrorist attacks on Paris, French Prime Minister Manuel Valls has announced that the U.N. climate summit—slated to take place in the French capital at the end of the month—will be “reduced to the negotiation,” with “concerts and festive events” likely to be cancelled. The fate of a mass demonstration in the streets of Paris, planned to take place on the eve of the critical conference, is also in question.
Security is the primary concern surrounding the landmark conference, which expects some “10,000 government representatives plus 7,000 observers per week and 3,000 journalists, in addition to thousands of climate campaigners,” Politico reports. Friday, 129 people were killed and more than 350 were injured in attacks on cafes, restaurants, a concert hall, and a stadium not far from where the climate talks will be held. The Islamic State, or ISIS, has taken responsibility, calling the acts of terror “the first of the storm,” according to the New York Times.
It’s extremely fortunate that French leaders opted not to cancel the climate summit entirely, even as the attacks might seem to overshadow its relevance. World leaders at the conference are expected to come up with a global pact to reduce carbon emissions by significant measures. It has been called the “last-chance saloon” to save the planet from warming more than two degrees Celsius, the threshold beyond which climate change’s most damaging effects are believed to be irreversible.
We are familiar with some of those effects: rising tides, acidified seas, superstorms, and droughts. But it bears remembering that some of climate change’s most violent byproducts will come from humans, not just environmental circumstance.
The Paris attacks are an example. Drought, exacerbated by climate change, contributed to the human conditions in Syria which allowed ISIS to grow. From 2007 to 2010, the Fertile Crescent’s worst drought on record caused extensive crop failure, skyrocketing food prices, and “a mass migration of farming families to urban centers” already crowded by Iraqi refugees, the authors of a well-regarded 2015 PNAS study on the subject write. Politifact reports:
This influx of people exacerbated existing problems like unemployment, corruption, and brewing discontent with the regime of Bashar al-Assad, which failed to respond to the situation, according to the study. In 2011, the unrest reached boiling point and erupted into the Syrian uprising.
[…] "Once the war had begun, all sorts of pre-existing actors took advantage of the situation to pursue their goals—ISIS was one and the collapse of Syria provided fertile ground for their actions," said co-author Richard Seager, a professor of climatology at Columbia University.
This is not to say that climate change caused the rise of ISIS, or the attacks on Paris. Its role was indirect. Still, the anger and dissatisfaction stirred by the drought, and its timing, had real “cascading effects” that, multiplied with other threats, are resulting in bloodshed. However global leaders decide to fight ISIS and other groups of terror, it seems clear that the world will continue to experience violent, human byproducts of climate change, particularly in regions that are already politically or economically turbulent.
Presidential candidate Bernie Sanders said as much in the Democratic debates Saturday night, after CBS moderator John Dickerson asked if he still saw climate change as America’s greatest national security threat, having made statements to this effect previously. “Absolutely,” Sanders replied. Candidate Martin O’Malley has also argued about climate change’s effects on the Syrian conflict. Both have faced criticism (if not ridicule) for these kinds of remarks on both sides of the aisle—and wrongly so.
The link between climate change and radicalism may be complex, but it is real, and has never been so important to understand. World leaders have an unprecedented opportunity to make the connection at the Paris summit. They must act to stem all types of violence that climate change implies: not only terror, but hunger, thirst, inequity, and extinction.
Far from being minimized after Friday’s horrific events, the stakes of the Paris climate talks are even higher.