Climate Change and the fight against ISIS

Climate change introduces risks to geopolitical stability across the globe. What can we do to prevent militant organizations like ISIS from benefiting?

Early in the 2016 US Presidential campaign, candidate Martin O’Malley presented a controversial claim, stating, “One of the things that preceded the failure of the nation-state of Syria and the rise of ISIS was the effect of climate change…” [1]. O’Malley’s statement was immediately met with incredulity and disbelief from his opponents [2]. While the evidence is inconclusive as to the degree to which a causal relationship exists between climate change and the rise of ISIS over the past five years [3], there are links between climate change and political instability in Syria in particular, as well as throughout the world more broadly.

From 2007 to 2010, Syria and surrounding areas witnessed “the most severe drought in the instrument record,” causing livestock mortality and crop failure and resulting in the migration of nearly 1.5 million people from farming communities to urban centers [4]. The subsequent strain on urban infrastructure by this refugee population contributed to crime, unrest, and ultimately the rise of ISIS [5]. Climate scientists have controlled for natural variation in temperatures and humidity and illustrated a causal effect between climate change trends and the occurrence of this abnormally severe drought [6].

As weather patterns become increasingly volatile, and temperatures in aggregate increase, the reliability of the world’s current water and agricultural infrastructure will continue to degrade. This will continue to cause migration of affected people largely into urban centers where they will place strains on local infrastructure and social systems [7]. These effects will be disproportionately great in poorer areas of the world where infrastructure and social safety nets are less developed to begin with [8]. These places are overwhelmingly the ones whose governments are most unable to defend against militant groups such as ISIS. Agents cooperating in the fight against ISIS today, including the Global Coalition to Counter ISIL led by the US Government, must recognize this increased risk, and adjust their operating models appropriately.

The Global Coalition to Counter ISIL was formed in 2014 by US President Obama and presently includes 66 participating states [9]. The coalition organizes operations under several “lines of effort,” the primary five being: (1) Providing military support to our partners, (2) Impeding the flow of foreign fighters, (3) Stopping ISIL’s financing and funding, (4) Addressing humanitarian crises in the region, (5) Exposing ISIL’s true nature [10]. The fourth line of effort includes the humanitarian assistance in the forms of “shelter, food and water, medicine and education” [11] diverted by participating states directly to the citizens in the regions where ISIS is active. These activities have provided lifesaving services to a group of people caught in a conflict zone; it will be critical for this coalition to maintain this element of its operating model to prevent exacerbated humanitarian and geopolitical crises.

There are, however, critical changes that must be made to the coalition’s operating model to address the increased destabilization from climate change over the next hundred years and beyond. First, and most urgently, the coalition needs to recognize the link between climate change and increased geopolitical risk induced by the degradation of water and agricultural infrastructure, and begin allocating investment dollars that are commensurate with this risk. The US Government needs to authorize the coalition’s partner defense organizations to collaborate with research organizations and the private sector to develop breakthrough technology to prevent or reverse the effects of climate change. Furthermore, the coalition must initiate a campaign to convince the US electorate of the risks posed by climate change. It must be clear to voters that any decision to postpone major and sustained investment in advanced technologies for low-carbon energy generation and usage, water conservation, and sustainable agriculture will increase the US’ and world’s vulnerability to militant groups.

To do this, I argue the coalition incorporate into their five “lines of activity” operating model a sixth line that is similar to what scholars describe as a “Manhattan-project” for climate change. Modeled on the US-led initiative to develop the first nuclear weapons in the 1940s, this type of program would rally an interdisciplinary group to devote talent and investment to technological advancement [12]. The military as a customer of the resulting technology presents the additional benefit of generating immediate and significant demand to drive market dynamics that will ensure successful outcomes. While the present non-wartime environment presents restrictions on the power government has to execute such a program (compared with the wartime allowances available in the 1940s), a concerted effort engaging multiple stakeholders to sprint to a solution on a complex problem is only possible under the leadership of a government organization [13].

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[1] David A. Graham, “A Link Between Climate Change and ISIS Isn’t Crazy,” The Atlantic, July 22, 2015, [], accessed November 2016.

[2] “RNC rips O’Malley for linking rise of ISIS to climate change,” Fox News, July 21, 2015, [], accessed November 2016.

[3] David A. Graham, “A Link Between Climate Change and ISIS Isn’t Crazy,” The Atlantic, July 22, 2015, [], accessed November 2016

[4] Kelley, Colin P, et al, “Climate change in the Fertile Crescent and implications of the recent Syrian drought,” Precedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 2015 112 (11) 3241-3246

[5] Ibid

[6] Ibid

[7] Raleigh, Clionadh, et al, “Climate change, environmental degradation and armed conflict,” Political Geography, 2004 14 (3) 259-272

[8] Tol, Richard SJ, et al, “Distributional aspects of climate change impacts,” Global Environmental Change, 2007 26 (6) 674-694

[9] Kathleen J. McInnis, “Coalition Contributions to Countering the Islamic State,” Congressional Research Service, August 24, 2016, [], accessed November 2016

[10] US Department of State, “The Global Coalition to Counter ISIL,” [], accessed November 2016

[11] Ibid.

[12] Yang, Chi-Jen, Oppenheimer, Michael, “A “Manhattan Project” for climate change?,” Climatic Change, 2007 80 199-207

[13] Ibid.


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Student comments on Climate Change and the fight against ISIS

  1. Hello Doug, thank you for this well-written article on such a relevant topic.

    Climate change is indeed bound to become one of the main drivers of political instability in the near future, to the point that the Department of Homeland Security now considers it a major homeland security risk for the US [1]. As temperature rises and weather patterns become more extreme, millions of people will be forced out of their homes, and this displacement will exert enormous pressure not only on neighboring populations, but on the entire geopolitical landscape.

    As an example, one can look at the effects that the “Little Ice Age”, an unusually cold period between the 14th and 19th century, had on Europe: a sharp reduction in agriculture yields led to famines, wars and eventually, mass migration out of the old continent [2]. This displacement of millions of people, in turn, exerted unprecedented pressure on other populations across the world, followed by wars and, in some cases, the quasi-elimination of entire civilizations. When one considers that this happened in response of a temperature change of only -0.6°C [3], it is easy to see how a potential increase of 2-3°, as anticipated by some climate change scenarios, could have devastating effects on our world.

    It is also clear that our societies are absolutely not ready to handle such large-scale phenomena. To have a remote idea of what this would mean in today’s world, just look at the refugee crisis in Europe: a movement of a few millions people into a wealthy continent of 500m is already bringing many societies to the verge of social unrest, violence and the collapse of political structures such as the EU. When one multiplies this effect by 100, or 500 times, it is easy to see what the potential consequences on society would be.


  2. Man oh man, I’ve never considered the relationship between the empowerment of terrorist organizations and climate change, but after reading your post, it makes a lot of sense: historically, the ascension of extreme terror comes out of deep economic woes (e.g. Hitler and his promise to improve Germany’s devastated economy post-WWI).

    Will the “interdisciplinary group [with] devote[d] talent and investment to technological advancement” that you proposed be focused on researching ways to e.g. increase water conservation? Or will they be focused on the “messaging” piece – identifying and communicating the “link between climate change and increased geopolitical risk?” What techniques do you think they will need to employ to incentivize people to conserve water and work towards sustainable agriculture practices?

    I really enjoyed reading this article — the possibilities are chilling, and a terribly compelling case for why we must change our be more sustainably conscience.

  3. Well-written analysis Doug! This is a very relevant story to today’s geopolitical situation, and a great window into how climate change will significantly impact geopolitics in the years to come.

    The whole idea of “climate refugees” is certainly going to place a strain on existing infrastructure, especially in urban centers as those relying on agricultural production confront droughts, and in turn this strain will ignite conflict over resources that governments must be able to respond to effectively. Unfortunately, the toolkit for governments to respond to climate change is quite limited, and a “Manhattan-project like” initiative to encourage technological progress and innovation might just be what is needed. I just wonder if adding this as a line within the Global Coalition to Fight ISIL limits research to only those problems afflicting Syria. Perhaps a single agency within the U.S. Defense Department could be tasked with investing in and developing technological responses to a wide range of climate change induced threats such as floods, droughts, rising seas, and migration induced by extreme storm frequency. Hopefully, this project will not be as secret as the Manhattan project, allowing for multi-disciplinary involvement, as well as collaboration between the public and private sectors. The private sector definitely needs more incentives, as you say more market motivation, to pursue resource intensive projects that not only benefit consumers, but also serve to stabilize geopolitics and resolve conflict in the future.

  4. Thank you for the thought-provoking analysis, Doug.

    While the term “refugee” is conveniently used to described displaced persons, according to Marine Franck, Climate Change Officer at the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), there is a legal “protection gap”[1] for persons displaced due to environmental reasons. This lack of legal protection is due to the fact that the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees only covers individuals who for are displaced for “reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion.”[2] This legal oversight is concerning because it effectively allows countries to turn a blind eye to those in need – until the problem can no longer be ignored.

    While it is difficult to not be pessimistic, I do believe there is still hope since the countries directly neighboring those that are most likely to be impacted by climate change – namely the US, China, and Europe[3] – will feel the aftershocks most acutely, with refugees potentially flooding their doorsteps in the millions. Will the political turmoil that Europe has thus far experienced with the influx of Syrian refugees prompt developed countries to be more proactive with their policies, if nothing else to avoid the turmoil that has engulfed the German political system? Could the “canary in the coal mine” that is the Syrian refugee crisis inject within our political leaders a new urgency to take more proactive measures against climate change?


  5. Doug – great article. I would never have guessed that climate change could have such a huge impact on terrorist organizations and the refugee crisis.

    You brought up an interesting point when you mentioned how something similar to the “Manhattan project” could bring together an interdisciplinary group to invest in technological advancements to combat climate change. My questions here would be what role the private sector would have in the process. Should the public sector take the lead and only solicit expertise from the private sector if needed? Or should incentives be put in place in order to encourage the private sector to work towards a common solution? Either way, I agree that in order for any of this to work, the public should first be convinced of the high opportunity cost that comes from delaying any action when it comes to dealing with global warming.

  6. Doug, this is an excellent topic to discuss, and I remember when O’malley made these comments I thought it was a very logical connection.

    I also found your post interesting to read because it allowed me to reflect on my time in the Middle East while serving in the Army. I was able to witness first hand the impact of climate change in a war torn country. During the course of two deployments to Afghanistan I got to witness the reliance that many Afghanis have on farming and the need for water. Particularly in northeast Afghanistan the amount of snowfall during the winter months directly impacted the water supply in the valleys to support agriculture throughout multiple growing seasons in the spring and summer months. The primary crops grown in northeast Afghanistan were corn and wheat, but the Taliban were also able to leverage certain “safe havens” within the valleys along the river to grow large amounts of opium and contribute to the current global heroin problem.

    I was wondering if you considered discussing the multitude of different secular groups that make up the Middle East particularly in countries that have been in conflict, like Syria, for multiple years, and the additional conflict that can be created from certain groups controlling natural resources, particularly water?

  7. Doug – great post.

    Like Ken, I too remember O’Malley making these points and the subsequent ridicule he faced. To me, the politicization of climate change in the United States stands as a major (but not insurmountable) obstacle to implementing such a large-scale effort. Although the Department of Defense (DoD) enjoys a degree of autonomy as part of the Executive Branch, its funding is ultimately determined by the Congress. To its credit, the DoD has used that latitude effectively: earlier this year, it promulgated a ten-year directive that required climate change to be considered a strategic imperative [1]. President Obama, too, released an Executive Order (EO) along the same lines.

    However, with prominent GOP lawmakers, thought-leaders and even its presidential candidate openly mocking these actions as “delusional”, I can easily imagine a scenario in which a defense spending bill is held hostage over the military’s climate change initiatives. Or, worse still, a Republican president rescinding the EO and directing the SecDef to abandon such efforts. When an entire political party dismisses the entire notion of climate change altogether, I’m not sure how you build the governmental consensus necessary to fund a new “Manhattan Project”.

    For that reason, I think your idea of nesting the project within the larger global counter-ISIL coalition is a smart move. Not only can you lean on the broad consensus outside the US that climate change is a real, existential threat to the international order, but you’d be able to rely on a Democratic President’s relatively free hand in foreign policy to see it through.


  8. Thanks Doug for pointing out this non-intuitive but frightening relationship between global warming and the rise of ISIS.
    The logical cause-effect relationship you lay out between both phenomenons is interesting and convincing, and I totally agree that nations should gather their forces to fight climate change.
    However, these initiatives will by nature have a long-term impact, while the fight against ISIS alos commands immediate and short-term actions.
    Besides, I am not convinced a project with the military as a customer is the only way to achieve efficient results. The civil society, NGOs and private sectors have also the capabilities and incentives to reach this goal.

  9. Very interesting! My first thought immediately went to what impact ISIL could have in their control of natural resources necessary for daily life. My second thought was about the control of many of the other natural resources in the country. The organization has largely been able to fund itself by seizing and selling many of the resources available in the region (primarily crude oil). Should global warming become a more widely recognized threat to humanity and we see an genuine concerted effort to move away from fossil fuels, I wonder what, if any, impact this could have on ISIL cashflows. Though weening the world off of fossils will take decades at the very least, the price impact is likely to take much less time. All else being equal, should ISIL remain a major power in the region as the world shifts its perspective on global warming, they could see a major source of cash dry up.

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