A read-it-to-believe-it column in the Huffington Post is demanding that each American do more to stop the looming threat of the Islamic State– by recycling. Arguing a direct correlation between droughts in Syria and the rise of Islamist extremism, the authors blame climate change for the terrorist group’s advance in the Middle East.
With a title like “How Climate Change Helped ISIS,” one would expect the article to be two words long: “it didn’t.” Instead, authors Charles B. Strozier and Kelly A. Berkell argue that a wave of droughts in Syria beginning in 2006 made the nation a fertile ground for jihadist extremism, and that, without humanity’s hand in climate change, those droughts may not have occurred, thus possibly preventing the reign of terror the Islamic State has over the lands it calls its “Caliphate.”
“While ISIS threatens brutal violence against all who dissent from its harsh ideology, climate change menaces communities (less maliciously) with increasingly extreme weather,” the authors write, earnestly. “Most of us perceive these threats as unrelated.” But they are related, the authors argue, because the desperation that grows when climate change triggers a severe shortage of food could snowball into an international terrorist movement:
…[M]any in the West remain unaware that climate played a significant role in the rise of Syria’s extremists. A historic drought afflicted the country from 2006 through 2010, setting off a dire humanitarian crisis for millions of Syrians. Yet the four-year drought evoked little response from Bashar al-Assad’s government.
[…]In the ensuing chaos, ISIS stole onto the scene, proclaimed a caliphate in late June and accelerated its rampage of atrocities including the recent beheadings of three Western civilians.
The drought occurred years before violence erupted in 2011, and that violence was exclusively the product of a crackdown on political dissent by longtime dictator Bashar al-Assad. Government violence towards peaceful opposition caused the drought, and a dictatorship will turn its arms at any dissident for any reason– the drought may have happened to be the excuse this time around, by chance.
But even that is giving the authors too much credit. There is no clear evidence that the droughts, and not any other number of socioeconomic factors, contributed to unrest. Some argue that Assad’s mistake was to liberalize the economy without giving people the corresponding political freedoms, leading to social unrest. Others may argue that it was a perceived economic inequality– or even ethnic, cultural, or religious divides– that turned many against Assad. The droughts, and thus climate change, would be one of many ingredients in a deadly stew.
That is– if the droughts were universally regarded as exclusively to blame on man-made climate change. Even the authors admit it is not, instead noting that “scientists hold climate change partly responsible” for the droughts, and that some other weather events are also occurring in Bangladesh, which may lead to another surge in terrorism.
The solution to problems like the Islamic State for the authors? “It’s time for ordinary people to consider the bigger picture,” they write. While admittedly noting that climate change is one of many factors they believe may have triggered such a disaster in the Middle East, the thesis of their argument is that individuals must do more to be environmentally sustainable to contribute to preventing these disasters, even if a little bit.
There are many problems with the argument and its presentation– even those that believe man-made climate change is an issue worth tackling will feel uncomfortable using the Islamic State, of all things, as an example of potential consequences.
Those who see climate change agendas as a way to manipulate Western economies into “sustainable” behavior that corrals successful businesses will note that the article not once mentions China, one of the globe’s leading polluters. China emits more carbon into the atmosphere than the United States and the entire European Union combined; an area of farmland the size of Belgium is no longer suitable for growing crops thanks to the toxins in the soil. And yet China has been exempt from new UN carbon dioxide reduction standards and remains unnamed in the Huffington Post piece. With so much unrest in China– from the Uyghur uprisings in Xinjiang to the latest protests in Hong Kong– the opportunity to tie violence with climate change seems tailor-made for the logic in this article.
Yet all these faults with the piece miss the most dangerous element of using such a large-scale, uncontrollable phenomenon as climate change to scapegoat genocidal violence: it lets the perpetrators and enablers off easy.
Responsibility is a zero-sum game. If it becomes the responsibility of “ordinary people” to live more sustainable lifestyles, thus preventing the rise of radical Islamism (or, just as laughably, the Ebola virus), then it is no longer the responsibility of individuals with inclinations towards jihad to live righteously and abstain from terrorist activity. It is no longer the responsibility of governments with tumultuous populations prone to sectarian violence to establish long-lasting institutions, resist corruption, and work to incorporate minority populations that may feel excluded by those in power– something former Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki failed miserably at.
And– perhaps most conveniently– President Obama can no longer be held responsible to the appropriate degree for his role in withdrawing American troops from Iraq and trusting Maliki to hold the country together, defying the pleas of well-informed generals and overwhelming evidence that the rise of the Islamic State was more than predictable under the circumstances.
How can he be? The President doesn’t control the weather.