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Issues of the Day Inseparable Threats: Climate Change and Strife in the Middle East

A recent online discussion among sustainability professionals revolved around a Pew Research Center report entitled "Climate Change Seen as Top Global Threat." Significantly, the report is subtitled, "Americans, Europeans, Middle Easterners Focus on ISIS as Greatest Danger."


The report discusses the results of a world-wide survey conducted last spring dealing with people's perceptions of global threats today. The respondents were asked to rank the trends they were "very concerned" about. The answers they could choose from were: Global climate change; Global economic instability; ISIS; Iran's nuclear program; Cyber-attacks; Tensions with Russia, and; Territorial disputes with China.


Results Differ by Geographic Region

The results of the survey concerning regional trends are summarized in this table:



Globally, climate change is the most-cited concern among those surveyed however it ranks highest among those Latin America and Africa. Significantly, in the US, Europe and the Middle East, fear of ISIS is of greater concern.


The differences in perception between respondents from Africa and the Middle East, where residents of the former are most apprehensive about climate change while the latter view the Islamic State as a greater threat can be partially explained by the immediacy and visibility of the latter to those living in or around the countries where the Islamic State is active. 


The survey refers to people's perceptions of threats in their lives, not to the "objective" magnitude of the threat, assuming that the latter could be measured. Another noteworthy point concerning this study is the separation of perceived threats into distinct categories. These distinctions are largely a function of how they are portrayed in the media and in public debate. However, one wonders whether this division among threats is the best way to view them.


Interconnections Among Threats

What strikes me as missing from this presentation of global threats is that the interconnections between them are obscured. Decision makers seeking to prioritize responses and allocate resources to deal with these perils will require a clear understanding of their origins. Dealing with one factor contributing to these threats while neglecting others can offer only partial solutions at best.


The influence of climate change and the rise of the Islamic State is a case in point.


Increasingly, research including a 2013 study published in Science shows that "Deviations from normal precipitation and mild temperatures systematically increase the risk of conflict, often substantially." The core countries where ISIS is most active and successful, Syria and Iraq, have been subject to such conditions.


A 2012 study by the Center for Climate and Security notes that as a result of an extreme drought and crop failures that affected Syria states that since 2011 eight hundred thousand people have lost their livelihoods, one million people have become "food insecure" and an estimate 2-3 million people suffer extreme poverty as a result of a lack of rain and abnormally high temperatures starting in 2006.


An article in The New York Times in March of this year reports that "Drawing one of the strongest links yet between global warming and human conflict, researchers said Monday that an extreme drought in Syria between 2006 and 2009 was most likely due to climate change, and that the drought was a factor in the violent uprising that began there in 2011."


Multiple Causes

A dictatorial police state, poor governance and other socio-political factors is offered almost exclusively to explain the internecine violence in Syria and the rise of the Islamic State. Clearly these are major factors, perhaps preeminent factors in the conflict. However, beyond the notice of the global community climate change apparently provides congenial conditions for the growth of unrest.


In neighboring Iraq, climate-related stresses similar to those affecting Syria also appear to feed sectarian violence and the Islamic State's influence in that country. One manifestation of this is the use of access to water as a weapon by ISIS. 


Policy and action must be informed by research on the interrelationships between the threats mentioned in the Pew Research Center study. These trends cannot be separated into distinct categories and addressed in isolation from each other. It is necessary that the connection between these global trends should be featured more prominently in public debate. 

© Yosef Gotlieb, . All rights reserved