The United Nations Security Council on Dec. 9 will hold its first open thematic debate to explore the links between climate change and terrorism. Convened by Niger, which holds the presidency of the council in December, the debate is the latest in a recent surge of council meetings focusing on climate security. While the meeting will provide an opportunity to better understand the interaction between climate, conflict, and violent groups using terror tactics, there are significant risks that the fields of climate security and environmental peacebuilding will become dominated by the heavily securitized framework of counterterrorism.
For much of the 21st century, certain permanent U.N. Security Council members (China, Russia, and the United States from 2016-2020) have resisted efforts to bring climate change issues to the fore in the chamber, other than in an open debate in 2007. However, since 2018, an increasing number of Security Council meetings have begun to focus on the links between climate change and security. Yet, no formal UNSC document (such as a resolution or presidential statement) has explicitly focused on climate security in more than a decade since a 2011 presidential statement.
Climate, Conflict, and Terrorism – What We Know
While for much of its life the UNSC has seemed allergic to acknowledging the existence of any concrete links between climate and security, climate change has been increasingly prominent in the security sector and in conflict research. In 2014, for example, the Pentagon (which had identified climate change as a security threat since the 1990s) published its Climate Change Adaptation Road Map, a national defense strategy for the future impacts of climate change. And in a 2015 report for Congress, the Defense Department stated that “Climate change is an urgent and growing threat to our natural security, contributing to increased natural disasters, refugee flows, and conflicts over basic resources such as food and water.”
Some academics and research organizations have also noted that climate change will likely aggravate fragile situations and contribute to social upheaval and violent conflict, while others have argued that even “stable” states could be pushed towards fragility. At the same time, analysts have documented instances in which localized climate crises have actually opened opportunities for conflict resolution. In fact, growing recognition of the role of climate change as both a driver of violence and an opportunity to build peace has prompted a range of organizations — the Quaker United Nations Office in Geneva, the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, and my own, Saferworld, among them — to conduct research and to address climate crisis, conflict and environmental degradation. (Saferworld’s new 10-year strategic plan commits to working with partners on ensuring that climate change adaptation and mitigation strategies take peace and conflict dynamics into account and build an evidence base for informed policy development and advocacy.)
But the links between climate and violent groups using terror tactics are less clear. While the majority of the top 20 countries experiencing the highest impact from terror attacks in 2020 also experience clear and obvious impacts of climate change, correlation does not equal causation.
Some have suggested that climate acts as a threat multiplier that could exacerbate many conditions conducive to the rise of more violent groups committing terror attacks. But others have argued that despite the seductive link for policymakers in contexts like Niger and the wider Sahel, there is currently no clear empirical evidence of the link between violent groups and climatic and environmental factors. This does not mean that a link does not exist, but rather that it is extremely complex and context-specific, and not enough is yet known to ascribe definitive causation, as Luca Ranieri has eloquently explained. In the meantime, careless barreling ahead with “solutions” to haphazardly defined problems risks backfiring, even fueling conflict itself. Adding a further wrinkle to the relationship, some states have linked climate and “terrorism” in another way — labelling environmental defenders and activists as “terrorists,” illustrating the potential risks posed by an intensified counterterror framing of the issue.
Learning from Previous Mistakes
Two decades of the global war on terror has had a disastrous impact on human security. Hard-security strategies often imposed from outside have prioritized the State over affected populations, and have rarely been based on a robust conflict- and gender analysis or an understanding of national and subnational social, political, or economic dynamics. While there are many mistakes that must not be repeated, two clear potential pitfalls from the record of counterterrorism approaches stand out for the climate-security field.
The first is the potential “securitization” of climate and environmental initiatives, whereby the problem is viewed through a narrow national security lens and the responses are framed accordingly. What this means in practice is that investment in climate solutions – via multilateral and bilateral aid and financing – could increasingly be connected to efforts to reduce the “threat of terrorism” – rather than as a standalone imperative in itself. Securitization has already compromised many peacebuilding, gender equality, and human rights efforts – and so the risk for the climate movement is real. Joined-up strategies to address security issues should be welcomed – but it will be detrimental if climate-justice initiatives or other environmental peacebuilding work is instrumentalized within a wider securitized effort to address the threat of terror acts.
Narrow framing of violent groups and terror attacks as a climate-induced problem is the second big risk. This will be palatable for a number of States who can present climate change as the core driver pushing individuals to join violent groups and allow them to present a narrative that ignores their own governance deficits, human rights violations, and policies of marginalization and corruption. This has happened in relation to civil conflict for quite some time – many states weaponize climate impacts to shed responsibility for contributing to, or causing, said violence. Care should be taken to avoid lazy assumptions that not only allow the obfuscation of government’s role in breeding discontent, but also divert significant resources away from the climate crisis and instead towards “counterterrorism.”
How to Approach the Relationship Between Climate and Terrorism?
Misconceived climate-security policymaking could have significant adverse and counterproductive impacts (such as those noted here). This is especially true if these policies do not grapple with or account for the experiences of communities most at risk. Whereas environmental stewardship, inclusive and accountable governance, human rights, and community-driven peaceful change processes can — and should — go hand in hand, policy responses that clumsily connect violent groups to climate change can provide governments with a narrative that depoliticizes conflicts and downplays their own responsibilities.
What is clear is that the relationship between climate change and terrorism is a complicated one. Interventions at the U.N. Security Council open debate should refrain from making links too definitive and statements too sweeping, thus inflating the threat. While it is encouraging to see the Security Council inch closer to a potential resolution on climate, we do not need lazy links between climate and terrorism when so much is still to be understood. At a time when counterterrorism at the United Nations needs to be right-sized, such a document could be held up as justification for the reverse — a new fundraising drive by the U.N. counterterrorism architecture, to further expand the already exponential increases in size it has enjoyed.
What is needed is increased support for rigorous analysis to understand where an investment in climate solutions can help reduce the impact and likelihood of support for violent terror groups and wider conflict issues. Building engagement strategies from this analysis and learning from people living and working in environments where climate change, conflict, and violent groups using terror tactics overlap, can help the climate justice and environmental peacebuilding movements avoid sinking into a securitized war on terror world.