How climate change and terrorism – two of the biggest global challenges of our time – intersect is an increasingly urgent question. The past eight years are on track to be the warmest on record, and 2022 saw yet more extreme heatwaves, drought and devastating flooding, with knock-on effects on resource scarcity, agriculture, rural to urban migration and governance. These impacts are being felt in regions or sub-regions where terrorism is already prevalent and presenting significant challenges of its own.
There is, of course, no straightforward correlation between a country or region experiencing climate change impacts and experiencing terrorism. Germanwatch’s Long-Term Climate Risk Index (2000-19) of countries most affected by climate-related extreme events features both countries experiencing significant terrorism-related challenges – including The Philippines, Mozambique, Bangladesh and Pakistan – and countries such as Haiti, The Bahamas, and Nepal, where terrorism is a minimal issue.
So far, climate change and terrorism have intersected in two important and overlapping ways. Firstly, climate change has exacerbated the drivers and underlying conditions conducive to radicalisation. Secondly, it has also provided opportunities for terrorist actors to exploit extreme weather events or resource scarcity to propagandise, recruit and raise funds.
The ten most impacted countries by terrorism on Global Terrorism Index has consistently featured countries experiencing instability, poverty, weak governance and conflict. Climate change can aggravate these conditions, and other inter-linked challenges including resource scarcity, and food and energy security. While the relationship between each of these conditions and climate change is not always causal (and in some instances, remains contested), climate change acts as a threat multiplier. In turn, research shows that these conditions – particularly conflict, weak governance and instability – can act as strong drivers towards radicalization to terrorism.
To take one example of this indirect but powerful relationship, extreme heat, droughts and flooding have impacted both the quality and quantity of water available in many parts of the world. These shortages have negative effects on agriculture, a major provider of jobs in many countries significantly impacted by both terrorism and climate change. This in turn, can act as a incentive for individuals in rural areas to join terrorist groups, who can offer higher wages than those obtainable through legal means.
The indirect nature of this relationship means there is limited data-driven evidence of climate change’s impacts on radicalization so far. However, governments and civil society in various regions – including the Sahel, South Asia and Central Asia – have consistently reported that the impacts of drought, resource scarcity and challenging agricultural conditions have been contributing factors in recruitment by terrorist groups.
Climate change has also provided an opportunity for terrorist groups to fundraise, propagandise and recruit. Terrorist groups have exploited extreme weather events by stepping into the gap left by governments unable to provide humanitarian relief, often in remote locations. For example, in Pakistan, Jamaat-ud-Dawa – the then front organisation of terrorist group Lashkar-e Taiba – provided significant humanitarian relief in the wake of devastating floods in 2010. In Somalia, by repeatedly undermining famine relief efforts, al-Shabaab forced the population in areas under its control to rely on them as the sole service provider, undermining the Somali government’s legitimacy and bolstering their own. In water-scarce northern Iraq, ISIS captured, controlled, sabotaged and looted water installations – in addition to controlling energy infrastructure – allowing them to “recruit” farmers no longer able to access water and electricity. Although these examples are not uniquely driven by climate change, the increasing frequency of extreme weather events and increased competition for resources suggests that there will only be greater opportunities for terrorist groups to seek to exploit in the future.
Looking ahead then, should we expect climate change to continue to play a largely indirect and difficult to quantify impact on terrorism? Although research in this space remains in its infancy, an increasing number of scholars are beginning to explore whether climate change could play a more direct role in the evolution of the terrorist threat.
As yet, there is no evidence that the risks posed to humanity by climate change, or the global failure to address it in a timely fashion, is itself acting as a driver or pull factor for individuals to conduct acts of terrorism. Despite this, governments across the world have repeatedly used counter-terrorism legislation to counter peaceful but disruptive climate change protests, and labelled some of those behind them eco-terrorists.
Climate change is however playing a growing role within the far-right, particularly within the so-called eco-fascist movement. In contrast to the pro-social narratives of mainstream climate change activists, the far-right does not hope to prevent man-made climate change. Instead, it sees an opportunity to exploit concerns around climatedriven migration to broaden support for far-right, racist narratives. Others within the far-right see climate change as the vehicle through which the destruction of Western governments can be accelerated, allowing nations to return to a “natural”, monocultural past. Variants of these narratives have featured in the manifestos and rhetoric of far-right actors and attackers, including the Christchurch and El Paso attackers.
Given the salience of climate change, it is very likely to feature more prominently in future terrorist and violent extremist narratives and propaganda from across the ideological spectrum, as they seek to exploit media interest in both issues to spread their message as widely as possible.
As yet, there have been limited attempts to more closely integrate climate change and counter-terrorism responses, or indeed, climate change and broader peace and security efforts. At the UN, attempts to introduce climate change to the Security Council agenda faltered in late 2021, with key Member States arguing that climate change was a development not a security issue. Civil society has also warned that any attempt to more closely integrate the two runs the risk of securitizing the climate issue, increasing the likelihood of human rights abuses and fundamental freedoms being limited, including in relation to peaceful protest.
There are however areas in which Member States and international or regional organisations could seek to integrate climate change within counter-terrorism and P/ CVE, while being mindful of avoiding these negative impacts.
Firstly, counter-terrorism and P/CVE strategies and programmes should include an assessment of how climate change impacts on radicalization and its underlying drivers. In a macro sense, this could seek to identify regions or countries where climate change is more likely to have a disproportionate impact on conflict and other drivers to radicalization. This analysis could help to guide regional and international counter-terrorism responses, particularly capacity building and technical assistance efforts. In a micro sense, this assessment could focus on whether climate change and responses to it are playing a more direct role as a push factor towards radicalization to terrorism. In doing so, it is critical that the definitions of terrorism and violent extremism being used remain narrow and are not broadened to include and target activity by peaceful climate activists.
More broadly though, there is an opportunity for a paradigm shift in how climate change and P/CVE activities could or should overlap. Instead of securitizing climate and development programming, can we make P/CVE programming greener?
A sizeable proportion of P/CVE programming focuses on providing recipients with vocational skills and training so that they can provide for themselves and their families. However, there is limited evidence that entities funding or delivering this type of programming currently factor climate change into either their selection of recipients or the training being provided. Training individuals in vocations that are traditional to an area might seem intuitive, but if these vocations are either currently or likely to be negatively impacted by climate change, then the programme might not deliver long-lasting impact.
Where appropriate, this type of vocational or skills-based P/CVE programming could pivot towards activities that are either future-proofed against the impacts of climate change, or preferably, those directly related to climate change reduction or adaptation activities. In addition to seeking to prevent violent extremism, programmes could deliver broader benefits that help communities counter or adapt to the impacts of climate change, simultaneously addressing individual vulnerabilities and a macro factor that exacerbates the conditions conducive to radicalisation.
By looking at P/CVE through a climate lens – instead of looking at climate change mitigation through a security lens – there is a real opportunity for P/CVE to deliver both security and climate-related benefits at the individual and community level, and support governments in achieving their own climate-related targets.
This comes with caveats. As with all P/CVE programming, the first priority should be the principle of do-no-harm. Blending security and development creates real risks that the latter is overwhelmed by the former, with all the attendant risks regarding human rights. As such, this issue must be addressed carefully, taking an evidence-based approach that prioritises human rights and seeks to integrate lessons learned from the development and climate mitigation and adaptation fields. But the urgency of both the climate change and terrorism challenges – and the strong intersection between the two in those countries most affected by terrorism – means that ignoring climate change is simply not an option for counter-terrorism and P/CVE policymakers moving forward.
This essay is taken from ‘Climate Change, Terrorism and Potential Implications for P/CVE’ by David Wells – Global Security Consultant, Former Head of Research and Analysis, UN Counter-Terrorism Directorate, originally published in the Global Terrorism Index 2023 report.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Vision of Humanity.