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THE NEXUS BETWEEN CLIMATE CHANGE AND HUMAN SECURITY IN CENTCOM AND AFRICOM

Updated: Aug 20

Vaania Kapoor Achuthan, Juline Horan, CENTCOM Team; Sean Fukamaki, Francesca Fiore, AFRICOM Team

Week of Monday, August 2, 2021


Climate Change and its effects on long-lasting peace[1]


Over the last few years, climate change and its effects have increased the danger to human security and provided terrorist organizations with resources to recruit in the CENTCOM and AFRICOM Area of Operation (AO). Many individuals living in these countries live in poor conditions caused by religiously driven animosity, government corruption, rampant drug use, and excessive poverty. This, compounded by the increased risk that climate change poses towards everyday living, has pushed many towards joining regional terrorist groups out of necessity, increasing the likelihood for such groups to survive counterterrorism efforts. If more people join such organizations, it will likely lead to the widespread dissemination of their ideology, giving rise to more terrorist groups. This would make it harder for counterterrorism measures to be implemented successfully. While countries in the CENTCOM and AFRICOM AO are not the biggest contributors to climate change, they are still likely to face the most devastating effects of it: floods, droughts, forest fires, and desertification. If the consequences of climate change are not addressed, agriculture, water, and other necessities are likely to diminish significantly, risking the lives of many civilians. Given that terrorist groups provide individuals with necessities, it is likely to motivate civilians to join terrorist groups. Thus, resource scarcity caused by climate change could likely lead to widespread local, national and regional conflict, as individuals and nations fight to survive the fatal consequences of climate change.


In Syria, climate change-induced drought and water insecurity pushed over 1.5 million improvised farmers to forcefully migrate from rural to urban lands.[2] The droughts are likely what lead the country into a deadly famine. Coupled with the government’s lack of willingness to help anyone but the wealthy and privileged almost certainly led to widespread social unrest which spiraled into the ongoing Civil War. It is also likely that in an already dry region, the water crisis faced by Iran and Iraq could lead to a new inter-state war between the two countries.[3] Such a scenario would not be the first of its kind, as one of India and Pakistan’s biggest matters of conflict in Kashmir is caused by the politics of water scarcity with both countries wanting to acquire regions of Kashmir that are equipped with good water sources.[4] The list is non-exhaustive: the rising sea levels in Alexandria, Egypt, and the floods in the Jeddah desert of Saudi Arabia are an indication that climate change is likely serving as an impediment to the CENTCOM AO from achieving any form of normalcy. It is likely that in the future climate change will increase instability in the region as countries and people will have to engage in conflict over scarce resources.


The AFRICOM region, particularly the Sahel and Sub-Saharan Africa, is one of the most affected regions by extreme weather events caused by climate change. Since the 1960s, Lake Chad has lost nearly 90% of its water.[5] As such, the severe effects of climate change have been prominently on display in Western Africa over the last few decades. In turn, this drying-up has almost certainly led to the region’s resource scarcity which, combined with weak state capacity, likely led to a rise in both Boko Haram and the Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP). Climate change is likely to bring about drought and floods which, in turn, could lead to a potential disruption of the agricultural patterns amounting to resource scarcity. This resource scarcity, increasing famine rates, and poverty will likely amount to two different scenarios: conflict over resources or terrorist recruitment for profit. The former can be observed in the Hausa-Fulani tribal conflict in Nigeria which likely originated over resource scarcity. The latter occurs and will likely continue to occur in Mali, where the unpredictable weather patterns (flooding, drought, arid land) affect the livelihoods of many people living in rural areas, increasing their susceptibility to terrorist recruitment.


If countries continue on this trajectory, it is forecasted that countries in the CENTCOM region will become uninhabitable by 2100.[6] Further, the most vulnerable individuals of our society who already face economic and social challenges are likely to face the greatest brunt of climate change. Those working in the primary sector, specifically farmers are likely to be the most affected by climate change. If the entire MENA region becomes uninhabitable by 2100, it will likely lead to a catastrophic refugee crisis. In Syria, drought led to the deaths of 85% of livestock and widespread crop failure, forcing many into poverty.[7] The government failed to address this climate issue which almost certainly led to the depletion of vital resources. It is highly likely that this exacerbated anti-regime rhetoric, likely prompting many to join non-state actors groups such as ISIS. Not only has climate change in the region likely led to mass violence, the proliferation of non-state actor groups, and civil unrest but has also certainly impeded the region’s infrastructural and developmental ability to combat the devastating effects of climate change. This will likely force the region into a cycle of never-ending violence and climate change, where neither can be addressed without addressing the other.


The 2011 Syrian civil war has shown that the threat that climate change poses to human security includes job and housing insecurity, internal displacement, and a widespread rural to urban intra-country migration, setting the foundation for a refugee crisis.[8] As water scarcity continues to hinder the relationship between Iran and Iraq, this struggle for adequate water could likely lead to a new inter-state conflict in an already fragile region. Similarly, both the flash floods and the droughts occurring in Afghanistan are likely to lead to soil erosion, risking the livelihood of Afghan farmers and their ability to provide for their families. The Taliban funds its operations by imposing a tax on opium cultivation and by taxing laboratories that turn opium into heroin.[9] On the one hand, farmers are likely to find it more profitable to grow opium for the Taliban rather than crops, as the Taliban will likely be able to pay them a relatively higher income than what they would earn selling crops. On the other hand, the Taliban may continue to exploit the local population by taxing them heavily under the threat of violence. Whichever occurs, the Taliban stands to gain from both as either option will further the Taliban’s illegal opium trade which increases their funding, likely invigorating their ability to take control of Afghanistan.


Climate change in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region has already impacted forty million people.[10] These numbers are likely to increase in the future if not addressed. Thus climate change and a lack of climate change mitigation policies in the CENTCOM region almost certainly pose a threat to human security and safety, health, and essential resources such as water. The consequences of climate change will highly likely impact jobs and job security. Those working in the agriculture sector, such as farmers, will likely not be able to grow as many viable crops or keep livestock if there is no access to fresh water or if the climate becomes too dry to grow crops. If farmers are not able to grow crops or have livestock, it may be highly likely that it leads to famine or people becoming malnourished. As such, some farmers are likely to turn to terrorist organizations to make ends meet as many of these organizations rely on funding through illicit means and have the ability to make offers and promises to economically disadvantaged farmers. It is also likely that the Taliban will take advantage of local businesses while also recruiting farmers and pay these poor workers once they are members of these organizations.


As of 2016, roughly 70% of sub-Saharan Africans depend on agriculture for their livelihoods.[11] With climate change acting as a catalyst for desertification in sub-Saharan Africa, it is very likely that finding the resources that allow farmers in these regions to grow crops and raise livestock will become increasingly difficult. Without farming, a large majority of sub-Saharan Africans will likely experience unemployment, poverty, and homelessness, while also losing the capability to provide for their families. As a result, entire generations of Africans may likely lose the ability to have an education if families can no longer afford to send them to universities. In addition to the negative effects on people’s livelihoods, the lack of arable land due to desertification has also contributed to the severe food and water scarcity experienced throughout vast areas of the African continent.[12] Those stricken by famine will likely experience a higher level of vulnerability during extreme weather events such as flooding, heatwaves, and drought. In addition to these health issues, it is probable that those living in severely impacted regions may be exposed to diseases, particularly water-borne diseases such as cholera and dysentery, as access to clean, drinkable water becomes more scarce. The increase in disease exposure, coupled with impoverished living conditions, is likely to create epidemics across vast regions of Africa. If left unaddressed, the impacts to Africans’ health and livelihoods from climate change are very likely to exacerbate existing humanitarian crises and create new crises across the continent, such as the magnification of prostitution, risking the spread of HIV/AIDS.


Rising temperatures have exacerbated social and economic grievances, resulting in a surge of violent conflict throughout the AFRICOM region.[13] Intercommunal conflicts are likely to increase dramatically in the future, as groups with different beliefs, religions, and ethnic backgrounds will inevitably need to share territory and resources due to an increase in climate migration. It is also likely that tensions and violence between Christian farmers and Muslim herders in Nigeria will escalate as these groups fight over land resources. Another type of conflict that is on the rise due to resource scarcity in the AFRICOM region is intrastate conflict among state and non-state actors.[14] Terrorist groups have likely been able to thrive in the Sahel and sub-Saharan Africa as a result of capitalizing on the instability created by resource scarcity, weak state capacities, and poor governance. Due to persisting droughts and worsening water shortages, it is also likely that interstate conflicts will occur more frequently as states fight for control over resources, particularly water. Without proper climate mitigation, adaptation, and education, it is very likely that many of the future conflicts in the African continent will be indirectly caused by climate change.


In 2009, ISIS recruitment focused on impoverished Iraqi farmers whose work was destroyed by droughts and winds.[15] In Syria, water insecurity likely influenced the formation of ISIS and recruitment. This was likely due to the ability of ISIS to provide access to fresh drinking water, which could help recruits support their family and themselves. In the CENTCOM AO, the climate change-induced vulnerability of individuals to be recruited by terrorist organizations is likely to remain high, especially when it is highly probable that essentials such as water are being offered by such groups. With terrorist organizations having the available funds to offer protection and resources to those who are poor or do not have access to depleting resources, it is likely to increase their recruitment numbers which will almost certainly lead to more attacks and allow terrorist organizations to destabilize governments.


Along with assisting in terrorist recruitment, climate change has likely influenced border fragility and refugee crises as seen in Syria, evidence suggests that mishandling of climate change by the Syrian government, especially with droughts increasing in number and intensity, has a role in Syria’s fragility.[16] With climate change depleting resources in many countries that are already struggling economically, people are likely fleeing to other countries in such large amounts that it is causing a mass refugee crisis. This refugee crisis coupled with the increased border fragility caused due to floods is likely to make it possible for terrorist groups to recruit foreign fighters to carry out international acts of terrorism. With countries lacking basic infrastructure and the capacity to tackle border insecurity caused due to the uncertainty of climate change incidents, cross-border recruitment will likely continue to grow.


The weaponization of climate change, otherwise known as environmental terrorism occurs when terrorist groups use environmental resources either as a target and/or a means to carry out violence.[17] The growing depletion of natural resources such as water in the CENTCOM AO will likely lead to the weaponization of climate change. Thus, it is also highly likely for groups such as ISIS to use these resources as a means to carry out large-scale terrorist acts. When important resources such as water are in the control of non-state actors, although unlikely, the possibility of launching a biological weapon into freshwater reserves must not be ignored. If it happens, it will likely set the precedent for the resurgence of biological terrorism. Thus, whether terrorist groups use the limited resources that fall into their possession to recruit more individuals or to carry out an act of terrorism, the moment these principal resources fall into the control of non-state actor groups it will likely incite fear, uncertainty, and panic among the masses.


The culmination of the threats posed by climate change to those living in the AFRICOM region is a driving factor behind recent conflicts across the continent.[18] As the effects of climate change continue to worsen, it is likely that African governments will struggle to cope with the increased demand for essential services and resources, as many of these state capacities are already quite fragile. Many youths in regions such as the Sahel and sub-Saharan Africa are likely to join terrorist organizations as a way for them to survive and provide for their families, especially those who are unemployed or impoverished. Terrorist organizations likely prey on unemployed men because the culture in this region expects the man of the house to be a provider for his family. Simultaneously, these organizations will likely attempt to win the support of locals by providing them with essential resources and crucial services that the government has neglected to provide them. Terrorist organizations have expanded to drought-stricken regions to recruit individuals who are facing extreme economic deprivation as a result of climate change.[19] To maintain a steady supply of recruits, terrorist organizations will likely attempt to gain control of all resources in a specific area, forcing citizens to depend on them for basic needs such as food and water while also raising revenue through extortion and taxation. Terrorist organizations will likely continue to flourish in African countries that are experiencing both weak state capacities and resource scarcity caused by climate change and poor governance.


The military, specifically the United States (US) Department of Defense is the single largest producer of greenhouse gases and has a greater carbon footprint than 140 countries put together as a result of its international supply chains, aircraft, naval vessels, and land vehicles as well as its extensive use of energy during counterterrorism military operations.[20] While counterterrorism military operations may successfully deter terrorists in the short term, it is likely that they also serve to undermine long-term prospects by accelerating climate fragility and the corresponding gravitation that civilians may have towards terrorist groups. It is possible that the ongoing droughts and floods in Afghanistan that have pushed many civilians into poverty and homelessness, and lead them to join the Taliban, is the indirect result of US military operations in Afghanistan over the last 20 years. Unless the military focuses on combating terrorism while also reducing their greenhouse gas emissions and using sustainable sources of energy, it is unlikely that counterterrorism military efforts will have a long-term positive effect in this context. Rather, such actions may serve to embolden terrorist groups as they entrench existing geographical climate vulnerabilities, increasing the likelihood for greater radicalization and recruitment in the foreseeable future.


The Counterterrorism Group’s (CTG) CENTCOM and AFRICOM teams suggest that militaries should look into reworking their policies on energy consumption and look into more environmentally conscious ways to execute military strategy. If militaries like the US could work on reducing their carbon footprint, it could help reduce the effects of climate change in the long run. If militaries use more renewable energy, improve the energy efficiency of military vehicles, and utilize more recycled materials, it would very likely help reduce their carbon footprint in the long term. The CENTCOM and AFRICOM teams assess that if these regions do not work to combat the consequences that climate change has on human security, it will result in irreparable damage and severe loss of human lives at the hands of terrorists. Since it is likely that many countries in these regions do not have the economic or technological ability to handle the climate crisis, it is recommended that other, more stable nations, like the US, should immerse themselves in the fight against climate change, considering that the US is one of the greatest contributors to climate change.


To better understand the climate change and human security nexus, the CENTCOM and AFRICOM teams recommend the UN to set up a coalition with nations from the CENTCOM and AFRICOM AO to track the region's climate change issues and its relationship with terrorism. Seeing the impact of climate change on human security could influence these nations to prioritize the implementation of climate change mitigation policies. Countries should adopt a collaborative approach by investing in resources such as renewable energy and diversifying crop production as these changes will very likely assist in keeping resources available and give terrorist groups fewer opportunities to recruit and subject local populations. Investing in affordable and clean energy will not only help deter terrorists but will likely advance women’s rights and assist in reversing the consequences of climate change. Both the AFRICOM and CENTCOM AO serve to gain from introducing climate change into the education curricula, so the younger generations understand the severity that climate change has on the Earth and human security.


While some countries in the CENTCOM region have ratified parts of the Paris Agreement, it is highly likely that none of those policies have been implemented. These nations have likely not implemented these agreements as they do not see climate change as an immediate threat and have other more urgent worries like terrorism or economic recession. Also, countries in the AFRICOM region, despite emitting only about three percent of carbon emissions around the world and having attempted to enforce various mechanisms to counter climate change, have failed to effectively implement, monitor, and adapt these policies as and when new information on climate change comes to light. The UN coalition could feature countries all around the world to ensure countries in this region are being held accountable and making a genuine attempt to enforce the mechanisms to counter climate change. It is likely that many countries in this region do not have the resources to fulfill these attempts successfully, which is where the coalition can assist these regions. Nations in the CENTCOM and AFRICOM AO should heighten security around essential resources to ensure their safety, reducing the possibility of them falling into the hands of non-state actors.


CTG’s CENTCOM, AFRICOM, and Emergency Management, Health, and Hazards (EMH2) teams will continue to monitor the relationship between human security and climate change in these regions and watch for any developments that may arise. CTG is dedicated to detecting, deterring, and defeating threats worldwide through our Worldwide Analysis of Terrorism, Crime, and Hazards (W.A.T.C.H.) Officers, who monitor events 24/7. CTG’s teams work to collect and report on these findings and their implications to present authentic analysis to the intelligence environment.

__________________________________________________________________ The Counterterrorism Group (CTG)

[1] Climate Change and its effects on long lasting peace, by Vaania Kapoor Achuthan, via Canva

[2] Climate Change and Human Security, EUCERS, February 2019, https://eucers.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/10/EUCERS-Strategy-Paper-18.pdf

[3]Water Shortage and Unrest in Iraq, Global Risk Insights, November 2019, https://globalriskinsights.com/2019/11/water-shortage-and-unrest-in-iraq/

[4] “What Kashmir’s Looming Water Crisis Means for India-Pakistan Relations, The National Bureau of Asian Research, April 2019, https://www.nbr.org/publication/what-kashmirs-looming-water-crisis-means-for-india-pakistan-relations/#:~:text=The%20Kashmir%20water%20crisis%20is,northern%20India%20and%20eastern%20Pakistan.

[5] Lake Chad's shrinking waters, European Space Agency, March 2019, https://earth.esa.int/web/guest/featured-image/-/article/lake-chad-s-shrinking-waters

[6] How the Middle East is suffering on the front lines of Climate Change, World Economic Forum, April 2019, https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2019/04/middle-east-front-lines-climate-change-mena/

[7] How climate change is fueling extremism, CNN, March 2019, https://edition.cnn.com/2019/03/06/world/climate-change-terrorism-extremism-africa-middle-east-intl/index.html

[8] Ibid.

[9] Afghanistan: How does the Taliban make money,? BBC, December 2019, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-46554097

[10] Could climate risk insurance reduce the cost of climate change adaptation in the Middle East?, Middle East Institute, June 2021, https://www.mei.edu/publications/could-climate-risk-insurance-reduce-cost-climate-change-adaptation-middle-east

[11] 70% of Africans make a living through agriculture, and technology could transform their world, World Economic Forum, May 2016, https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2016/05/70-of-africans-make-a-living-through-agriculture-and-technology-could-transform-their-world/

[12] Climate Change Is an Increasing Threat to Africa, United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, October 2020, https://unfccc.int/news/climate-change-is-an-increasing-threat-to-africa

[13] Climate Change Is Shaping the Future of Conflict, International Crisis Group, May 2020, https://www.crisisgroup.org/global/climate-change-shaping-future-conflict

[14] Conflict and Natural Resources, United Nations Peacekeeping, https://peacekeeping.un.org/en/conflict-and-natural-resources

[15] How climate change is fueling extremism, CNN, March 2019, https://edition.cnn.com/2019/03/06/world/climate-change-terrorism-extremism-africa-middle-east-intl/index.html

[16] Beyond Borders: Our Changing Climate-its role in conflict and displacement, Environmental Justice Foundation, 2016, https://ejfoundation.org/resources/downloads/BeyondBorders.pdf

[17] Understanding environmental terrorism in times of climate change, Research in Globalization, December 2019, https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S2590051X19300061

[18] Climate Change Is Shaping the Future of Conflict, International Crisis Group, May 2020, https://www.crisisgroup.org/global/climate-change-shaping-future-conflict

[19] Climate Change and Violent Extremism in the Lake Chad Basin: Key Issues and Way Forward, Wilson Center, July 2020, https://www.wilsoncenter.org/sites/default/files/media/uploads/documents/Climate%20Change%20and%20Violent%20Extremism%20in%20the%20Lake%20Chad%20Basin%20Key%20Issues%20and%20Way%20Forward_0.pdf

[20] Pentagon Fuel Use, Climate Change, and the Costs of War, Watson Institute, June 2019, https://watson.brown.edu/costsofwar/files/cow/imce/papers/2019/Pentagon%20Fuel%20Use,%20Climate%20Change%20and%20the%20Costs%20of%20War%20Final.pdf

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