Why Bernie Sanders Was Right To Link Climate Change To National Security

CREDIT: AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall

Bernie Sanders makes a point during a Democratic presidential primary debate, Saturday, Nov. 14, 2015, in Des Moines, Iowa.

Friday’s terrorist attacks have made the Paris climate talks “even more” important now, according to Christiana Figueres, head of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).

And on Sunday, Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders elaborated on why climate change remains “the biggest national security threat facing the United States,” after remarks he made in Saturday’s Democratic debate were criticized by people who apparently don’t understand the existential nature the climate threat poses to this country and the world.

Dust-bowlified America

What kind of security will Americans have if the Paris climate talks fail and we turn much of the U.S., Mexico and Central America into a near-permanent Dust Bowl, as NASA warned in February?

“Sorry, conservatives: when President Obama describes climate change as the greatest threat we face, he’s exactly right,” as Paul Krugman explains in his latest New York Times op-ed. “Terrorism can’t and won’t destroy our civilization, but global warming could and might.”

Both the UN and France have made clear that Friday’s despicable terrorist attacks won’t deter the big Paris climate talks that start in two weeks, as we’ve reported. Security will be much tighter. Ancillary marches and festivities will be pared back. And that means the focus will be on the global negotiations, which offer the world the first serious chance at getting off a path of unrestricted carbon pollution that would indeed destroy modern civilization as we know it.

The civilized world stands in solidarity with the French after this senseless slaughter, much as it did after the Charlie Hebdo shootings earlier this year. Success at COP21 (the 21st Conference of Parties to the UNFCCC) is thus even more important for the world, as Figueres tweeted Sunday:

The nations of the world must work together to address the biggest threat to our security. Yes, terrorism and the Islamic State (ISIS) are grave threats. But if COP21 were to fail, then conflicts like the Syrian civil war will become more common, along with disasters that war helped spawn, including ISIS and the refugee crisis.

“In fact, climate change is directly related to the growth of terrorism,” Bernie Sanders said during Saturday’s debate. “And if we do not get our act together and listen to what the scientists say you’re going to see countries all over the world — this is what the CIA says — they’re going to be struggling over limited amounts of water, limited amounts of land to grow their crops. And you’re going to see all kinds of international conflict.”

Since the overwhelming majority of pundits and policymakers don’t understand the existential threat climate change poses, Sanders remarks were criticized, much as fellow presidential candidate Martin O’Malley’s were back in July. Yet for over three years, leading security and climate experts — and Syrians themselves — have made the connection between climate change and the Syrian civil war. Indeed, when a major peer-reviewed study came out on in March making this very case, Retired Navy Rear Admiral David Titley said it identifies “a pretty convincing climate fingerprint” for the Syrian drought.

Titley, a meteorologist who led the U.S. Navy’s Task Force on Climate Change when he was at the Pentagon, also said, “you can draw a very credible climate connection to this disaster we call ISIS right now.”

The study, “Climate change in the Fertile Crescent and implications of the recent Syrian drought,” found that global warming made Syria’s 2006 to 2010 drought two to three times more likely.

“While we’re not saying the drought caused the war,” lead author Colin Kelley explained. “We are saying that it certainly contributed to other factors — agricultural collapse and mass migration among them — that caused the uprising.”

Syria Timeline

Events leading up to 2011 Syrian uprising, with chart of net migration of displaced Syrians and Iraqi refugees into urban areas (in millions) since 2005. Source: Kelley et al. (2015)

Sanders explained the reasoning behind his comments on CBS’s Face the Nation Sunday.

“When you have drought, when people can’t grow their crops, they’re going to migrate into cities, and when people migrate into cities and they don’t have jobs, there’s going to be a lot more instability, a lot more unemployment and people will be subject to the types of propaganda that al-Qaeda and ISIS are using right now,” Sanders said. “So where you have discontent, where you have instability, that’s where problems arise, and certainly, without a doubt, climate change will lead to that.”

In the case of Syria, it was what one expert called perhaps “the worst long-term drought and most severe set of crop failures since agricultural civilizations began in the Fertile Crescent.” It destroyed the livelihoods of 800,000 people and sent vastly more into poverty. The poor and displaced fled to cities, “where poverty, government mismanagement and other factors created unrest that exploded in spring 2011,” the study’s news release explains.

The study concludes climate change is already drying the region, as climate models had long predicted. In 2011, a major NOAA study concluded that “human-caused climate change [is now] a major factor in more frequent Mediterranean droughts.”

NOAA drought

Reds and oranges highlight lands around the Mediterranean that experienced significantly drier winters during 1971-2010 than the comparison period of 1902-2010. Via NOAA [Click to enlarge].

“The magnitude and frequency of the drying that has occurred is too great to be explained by natural variability alone,” explained NOAA’s Martin Hoerling in 2011.

The connection between the conflict in Syria and climate change is not new. In March 2012, Climate Progress published a piece by Francesco Femia and Caitlin Werrell, co-founders and directors of the Center for Climate and Security, which made the case for the link between climate change and events in Syria.

In 2013, Tom Friedman went to Syria to learn firsthand about the connection between the drought and the civil war. His New York Times column, “Without Water, Revolution,” explains what he discovered. Friedman also filmed his visit, where he talked to Syrians about the causes of the civil war. It was for the premiere episode of last year’s Emmy-winning Showtime series, “Years of Living Dangerously.”

Dust-Bowlification and the threat to our food supplies and hence global security are the greatest dangers to humanity this century from human-caused climate change.

That’s because large parts of the most inhabited and arable parts of the planet — including the U.S. breadbasket — face the exact same heating and drying that have already affected the Mediterranean. A 2014 study projected this bleak future:

Future drought

Palmer Drought Severity Index (PDSI) for 2080-2099 with business-as-usual warming. By comparison, during the 1930s Dust Bowl, the PDSI in the Great Plains rarely exceeded -3 (see here). Source: Cook et al. and Climate Progress.

The bottom line: Climate change is the gravest threat to our security, and that’s why the nations of the world must succeed at COP21 and beyond in working together to minimize the danger.