Severe drought had been punishing southern Syria when the first protest slogans against the government appeared on the walls of a school in the town of Daraa in 2011. Water shortages, a poor government response, as well as corruption and the brutal arrest of the students who scrawled the graffiti, marked the beginning of one of the most violent conflicts in recent history – and researchers are finding more evidence that climate change is a growing threat to global security.
A study published this week by German think tank Adelphi concluded that the risks and impacts of climate change have catalysed the growth of terrorist groups. This is true of Islamic State in Syria and neighbouring countries, Boko Haram in Sudan, and narco-trafficking groups in Central America.
"Areas that are already in a vulnerable situation are caught up in a vicious cycle which leads to the emergence of terrorist groups that then find it easier to operate, which has consequences for all of us," says Lukas Rüttinger, co-author of the report entitled Insurgency, Terrorism, and Organised Crime in a Warming Climate.
Pressure from all sides
In Syria, extreme weather events, population growth, poor management of water resources, urbanisation, and unemployment contributed to the current situation. Government failures and long-standing tensions between the various sectarian groups contributed are also significant factors.
According to the study, the impact of climate change facilitated IS’s dominance in a number of ways. Farmers who had lost everything due to water shortages saw economic opportunities and a new sense of purpose in IS, the report said.
Control of water resources also became a weapon of war. Climate scientists predict that drastically increased temperatures and sustained periods of severe droughts will be commonplace in the region by 2100.
"Syria can be seen as the worst-case scenario and a warning sign," the authors say.
The report also focuses on Guatemala, where violence caused by armed groups is a major cause for concern. With high levels of extreme poverty, food insecurity and a legacy of conflicts, the Central American country still suffers from the degradation of natural resources, unproductive land as a result of deforestation, and water overuse, which leaves the population especially vulnerable.
"The additional impact of climate change will make rural Guatemala in particular more and more food insecure, making the rural poor more likely to take up alternative illicit livelihood activities or cooperate with drug trafficking networks," the report says.
Several current conflicts show that the complex risks generated by climate change contribute to the emergence of armed rebel groups around the world.
In the area surrounding Lake Chad in Africa, competition for water and land stoked social tensions and violent conflicts, which fostered the establishment and growth of Boko Haram.
"Large-scale environmental and climatic change contribute to creating an environment in which NSAGs can thrive and open spaces that facilitate the pursuit of their strategies," the report argues.
It is not only countries with weak governance that can be affected by armed groups’ terrorist activities. More stable governments will also suffer from the pressures caused by climate change, urbanisation, environmental degradation, and increased socio-economic differences, say the authors of the study.
One recommended strategy to combat this explosive combination is to better understand the impacts of climate change and increase cities’ and citizens’ ability to adapt.
"The goal is to create more resilient societies and states that can absorb shocks, in a broader sense. And transform the challenges through political processes, while at the same time maintain political and social stability, preventing violence," Rüttinger says.