Growing Connection Between Climate Change, Terrorism Affects Politics

The Eiffel Tower is lit with blue lights as part of the events in the French capital to mark the World Climate Change Conference. The terror attacks that shook Paris in November led to increased security at the climate change talks. Eric Gaillard/REUTERS

"Is it possible that we should prepare against other threats besides terrorists? Maybe we should be concerned about other problems as well."

Those were fateful words when Al Gore spoke them in An Inconvenient Truth, his 2005 film about global warming. The U.S. was at war in Iraq and Afghanistan. The fear of another 9/11 was still very real. But only a few politicians were beginning to view climate change as a threat to global security equal or greater than terrorism.

It's 2015, and the landscape is different. Gore is less of an outlier. Witness the world coming together in Paris. President Barack Obama was one of hundreds of heads of state in the French capital this week to discuss an international climate deal at COP21, for which around 180 countries submitted emissions reduction plans. He has said that his successor will have to take climate change seriously in order to have credibility abroad.

"You travel around Europe and you talk to leaders of governments and the opposition, and they are arguing about a whole bunch of things. One thing they're not arguing about is whether the science of climate change is real and whether or not we have to do something about it," Obama said Tuesday in Paris.

In the U.S., though, Republicans are generally dismissive of the idea that human activity causes climate change, and they are even more doubtful that climate change could exacerbate terrorism through drought, refugee crises and fights for dwindling resources.

"This Administration is putting environmental concerns above conducting a robust fight against ISIS," said House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy in a recent statement.

"In an effort to justify their environmental agenda [they have] repeatedly equated climate change to the threat of radical Islamic terrorism."

The back and forth on climate and terror has been waged inside and outside the Beltway since the beginning of the Paris talks. Presidential candidates including Ted Cruz, Chris Christie and Marco Rubio have all criticized Obama's priorities, but the White House doesn't want to play the ranking game.

"They are both crit­ic­ally im­port­ant, and we have to do both at the same time," said Ben Rhodes, deputy national security advisor, on Sunday. "Ob­vi­ously there is an im­me­di­ate threat from ter­ror­ism that has to be dealt with to pro­tect the Amer­ic­an people.... I think over the long term, clearly we see the po­ten­tial for cli­mate change to pose severe risks to the en­tire world."

During a recent Democratic presidential debate, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders implied that climate change "creates" terrorism, and while the administration hasn't gone that far, leaders in the executive branch clearly believe that a world with more water shortages, rising sea levels and changing weather patterns could produce economic crises that lead to political instability and violence.

Earlier this year, the Pentagon released a detailed report on the security risks of global warming, concluding that "climate change will aggravate problems such as poverty, social tensions, environmental degradation, ineffectual leadership and weak political institutions that threaten stability in a number of countries." The intelligence community agrees: Former CIA Director Leon Panetta, current Director of National Intelligence James Clapper and current CIA Director John O. Brennan have all weighed in on climate-related political destabilization in resource-poor countries. In a report to the Senate Armed Services Committee, Clapper's office wrote that "extreme weather, climate change, and public policies that affect food and water supplies will probably create or exacerbate humanitarian crises and instability risks," citing climate change as a potential cause of water scarcity in dry regions like the Middle East.

Obama raised the subject during a commencement speech at the Coast Guard Academy this year.

"Climate change constitutes a serious threat to global security, an immediate risk to our national security," he said. "Politicians who say they care about military readiness ought to care about this as well."

There aren't any federal agencies that are dragging their feet on the science of climate change. Even NASA has weighed in. The aeronautics agency tracks the Earth's "vital signs" on its website.

What are the signs, exactly? The world is on track for an average global temperature increase of 5 degrees celsius from pre-industrial averages. The rise in sea levels that would result from temperature changes would not only lead to flooding in coastal areas and island nations; it could also lead to more extreme storms and eventually affect human agriculture.

The reason that violence increases in unstable, impoverished areas is that people are more likely to turn extreme when they have very little to lose. A lost farm, a destroyed home, a starving populace held down by a tin-pot dictator: These are the things that produce recruits for jihadist movements.

Scientific consensus holds that an increase of even 2 degrees would be catastrophic in terms of its impact on global weather, which would get the ball of instability rolling. Even if the Paris talks go well and there is no political derailing of U.S. efforts, the world probably won't avoid that benchmark.

One question for the Republicans is whether they would support a bevy of federal agencies—from the CIA to the Defense Department to the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration to the Agriculture Department—continuing to produce reports that accept climate change as a given. It's hard to imagine a Pentagon headed by an appointee of Marco Rubio, Donald Trump, Ted Cruz or Jeb Bush releasing a paper on the risks of climate change while there is an ongoing war in the Middle East requiring U.S.-led airstrikes.

"No matter how you feel about the issue of the environment, and the climate, and the changes to climate, there's no way any reasonable person could conclude that the most immediate threat we face to our security is what the climate's going to look like in 25 or 30 years," Rubio said in New Hampshire Monday.

A few years ago it might have been different. The 2008 Republican presidential nominee John McCain accepted climate change as man-made and proposed a cap-and-trade program to limit carbon emissions. That kind of overlap between the parties is increasingly rare. The first President Bush enthusiastically took part in the climate summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992. Though many environmentalists thought the treaty he committed to was too weak, it would be hard to imagine a President Cruz attending such a summit, or coming away with any comparable agreement.

What if the original voice who brought climate change into mainstream politics had been someone other than Gore, like Joe Lieberman or Jim Webb? Would the political lines look different? Would Americans be split on whether climate change matters?

Of course, priorities can always change. In 2008, when he campaigned as the anti-Bush on foreign policy, did anyone expect Obama to support enhanced surveillance or ramped up drone strikes? Maybe a President Rubio would receive a security briefing that changed his mind about global warming.

Then again, maybe not.