How Climate Change Enables the Growth of Terrorism Worldwide

With the world’s temperatures rising at an alarming rate, threats may be manifesting themselves in more than just the environment. A distinct pattern is emerging linking the expansion of terrorism and organized crime groups to meteorological disasters brought on by climate change.

Image by Andy Thies

Scientists have asserted for years that climate change may represent one of the greatest long-term threats to the global population. With rising sea levels, destructive weather events, and drought, many believe that damage from climate change may be more imminent than first thought. However, critics persist. Though climate change is certainly a concern, many say other threats such as overpopulation, radical extremism, and political instability should be of higher priority.

But what if these global threats were one and the same?

Over the past year, prominent political figures, including President Barack Obama and Senator Bernie Sanders (VT), have made controversial statements regarding such a link. The idea is that climate change, in fact, directly contributes to the risk posed by many other global threats, most notably terrorism.

For many, this seems like a reach. Sure, climate change poses a danger to coastal cities as well as seasonal agriculture yields in some locations. Those risks are well documented. But can climate change really affect human behavior on a societal scale? If climate change hurts everybody, shouldn’t that include terrorism and organized crime groups?

It turns out the connection might be more obvious beneath the surface.

“…It is the accumulating stresses,” stated President Obama, “that are placed on a lot of different countries and the possibility of war, conflict, refugees, displacement that arise from a changing climate.”

It is not merely changes in the atmosphere and ocean that contribute to terrorism. Rather, it is climate change that exacerbates poor social conditions in some developing countries, enabling terrorist and organized crime groups to flourish.

“If there is not enough water, if there is not enough land to grow your crops,” stated Sen. Sanders, ”then you’re going to see migrations of people fighting over land that will sustain them. And that will lead to international conflict.”

Image by Andy Thies and Braden Anderson

The hypothesis is sound. Essentially, as global and regional climate become more volatile, both the threat of environmental disasters as well as perpetual climatological stress increases. This, in turn, results in resource scarcity and social unrest. Militant groups are then enabled to expand their power for several reasons.

First, the population begins to experience food and water shortages, thereby causing distrust in government. Then, terrorist and organized crime groups who excel in propaganda, sway public opinion in favor of themselves. They are able to enhance this persona by offering social services that the government cannot, due either to financial or legal restraints.

A classic example involves the American mafia in Chicago, where Al Capone started one of the first soup kitchens in 1931. He along with other gangsters of the time relied upon a kind of “Robin Hood” persona to keep the public firmly on their side, shielding them from legal scrutiny.

Today, similar actions are taken by groups like ISIS. As crippling drought continues to impact large regions of Syria and Iraq, people are forced to congregate in cities to find work. The Syrian regime of Al Assad, unable to provide enough food and clean water experienced violent backlash from citizens. Militant groups like ISIS have been able to step in and provide many of these services (though often through illegal methods). In turn, their support grows as does their geopolitical power. Such practices are often referred to as soft-governance, controlling a population without the use of force.

Another example can be found in Boko Haram, Islamist extremists in central Africa. As Lake Chad falls further victim to a decadal rainfall deficit, clean water is becoming a scarcer commodity. Boko Haram, through disrupting access to this vital water source, has actually exacerbated the situation. Through hostile means, they continue to take advantage of a weakened regional population to grow their own power.

Countless instances of this process have occurred throughout the world for years. However, what is the link to climate change? The image below outlines the correlation between environmental disasters and the rise of organized crime in countries around the globe over the last century.

The Climate of Crime Map
Map by Jesse Howe and Andy Thies


Is it a coincidence that the American mafia experienced its pinnacle during the height of the Dust Bowl? Or that ISIS is able to take control in the midst of a multi-year Syrian drought and water shortage? Perhaps any one or two of these phenomena could be explained by other causes. Certainly, reckless investing and Prohibition contributed mightily to organized crime in the US. ISIS and Boko Haram likely would not exist without radical indoctrination of fundamentalist Islam.

However, these groups likely would not have gained the power they did if not for environmental catastrophe and shortage of vital resources. As we look at the map, a pattern clearly emerges.

The influence of environmental disasters on the growth of terrorism and organized crime appears to be very strong. And as the planet’s climate continues to radically evolve, these disasters will become more frequent and severe.

Not to be forgotten, though, is the simple link that persists between crime and warming. No matter what time-frame or geographic region you look, violent crime rates inflate under warmer condition. In the United States, violent crime rates are up to 12% higher in summer than in winter.

There are also strong data that indicate warming contributes to human aggression, making murders and wars more likely. A recent interdisciplinary study found that in the presence of warming and climatological disaster, societies since ancient times have shown higher prevalence of violence. Many researchers speculate that warm temperatures may simply make people more aggressive due to psychological reasons. However, data shows a clear linkage between climate change-induced resource shortage and large scale violence.

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