We need to learn from the Syrian situation, where a lack of resources eventually led to conflict and war.
Paris, Beirut, Baghdad—all three cities were targeted by the Islamic State (IS) in November. And even with hundreds of deaths, these were only a few among countless other victims of terrorist attacks that have taken place in 2015.
In November 2008, Mumbai witnessed its own terrorist attack. The “city that never sleeps” was at a standstill for four days as terrorist attacks took place across the city, killing 164 people and wounding 308 others.
Among the innocent civilians and police officers who were killed was my parents’ friend, Ashok Kamte, the additional commissioner in the Mumbai police department. Both my parents are police officers, and Ashok was my mother’s batch-mate from her National Police Academy days. As a kid, I remember visiting his family’s house when he was the superintendent of police in the Kolhapur district of Maharashtra. It was so surreal and numbing to hear that he had died on 26/11. I still remember the morning of November 26, watching in tears as news of terrorist attacks flashed on the TV screen. Even though I had only met Ashok a few times, his death in a senseless terrorist attack broke my heart. We lost not one, but 164 such people during that carnage.
The same pain tugged at my heart as I read about the attacks in Paris, Beirut and Baghdad. Although it is in the name of religion that IS carries out such condemnable acts, no religion preaches the merciless killings of human beings. Instead, it is a lack of empathy created by a fight for survival that has led to such acts of terror. A fight that will only get worse when countries like Poland close their borders to refugees in the name of national security.
I have always believed that the world is a place where a butterfly flapping its wings can cause a tsunami. Terrorism is not caused by an act of war or the words of a fundamentalist. It is caused by the inequalities that countries have faced in the past as well as the ones they are facing today. Inequalities that are exacerbated by problems like climate change. Religion isn’t at the root of terrorism. It is scarcity of resources and a lack of empathy that causes mindless acts of terror.
Syria’s perfect storm
Let me tell you the story of Syria, a country that was once peaceful, but has since become so scarred with terrorism that millions of people have had to flee. This isn’t a story that was started by a religious movement or a terrorist group, but rather by manmade climate change.
The story begins when Syria suffered its worst drought on record from 2006 to 2010. The drought was very intense and lasted longer than could be explained by natural variations in weather. This was no ordinary drought, but rather an impact of climate change.
Nearly 85% of the livestock died and Syria’s famed fields of halaby peppers withered away. President Bashar al-Assad’s government offered little help to the common farmers. His administration awarded well rights along political lines, so most farmers had to drill their own illegal wells. And people who spoke out against him faced imprisonment, torture and even death.
Around a million rural villagers lost their farms to drought. These people moved into cities like Daraa to look for other means of livelihood. In cities, the water problem became even more acute, and there weren’t enough jobs. The once prosperous farmers were now lucky to even find work as street sweepers. Tempers rose and frustrations festered.
Finally, a group of teenage boys expressed their anger by spray painting a slogan they borrowed from new revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt.
Unfortunately, the local secret police came and arrested 15 of the boys. In the cell of the nearby political security branch, police officers beat and tortured the teenagers. Without showing any empathy or remorse, these policemen burned their skin and pulled out their fingernails.
The boys came from some prominent families in Daraa, and upon hearing this, the family members marched to the governor’s house. Assad’s Syria is a government accustomed to authoritarian rule, meaning any protests that happened in Daraa were met with violence. Soon after, Syrians in other cities gathered in support of the “children of Daraa.” Protests spread following the path of the drought—from Damascus to al-Qamishli. This kind of sustained uprising was not supposed to happen in Syria.
Right up until the first protests in Daraa, international security analysts had proclaimed Syria immune to the rising “Arab Spring,” the popular name given to the democratic wave of civil unrest in the Arab world that began in December 2010. It was this revolutionary movement that created an ideal atmosphere for terrorism to grow and thrive. Political oppression was not the only cause of the Syrian conflict. Perhaps manmade climate change played an even bigger role.
Climate change and conflict
According to Francesco Femia, director of the Center for Climate and Security, environmental stressors are capable of causing wide-scale conflict. When 1.5 million people lose their livelihoods and face drinking water shortages, a survival mindset sets in. The displacement of a massive population further leads to a sense of social unrest. After decades of ineffective leadership, the effects of climate change may have been the “ultimate unhinging stressor for Syria.”
But even if the country recovers from political instability and eradicates terrorism, Syria still stands to lose nearly 50% more of its agricultural capacity by 2050. If current rates of greenhouse gas emissions continue, more extreme droughts will return and water shortages will worsen.
But this situation is not only restricted to Syria. Extreme weather events have started occurring in other parts of the world, too. From extreme flooding affecting Chennai in India to the increased forest fires in Indonesia, climate change is showing its impact.
One can even compare the Syrian situation to that of the state of Maharashtra in India, where a prolonged drought has been occurring since 2009. Hundreds of farmers commit suicides every year, yet the government does not do anything to address the climate change impact that is affecting the state.
With only 8% water left in the dams this year, it is essential that we address such impact of climate change. Otherwise, environmental stressors will lead to potential law and order problems in the Maharashtra. We need to learn from the Syrian situation, where a lack of resources eventually led to conflict and war.
The importance of climate action
It may not even be a coincidence that the Paris attacks on November 13 were committed just weeks before the biggest climate conference known as the Conference of Parties (COP21). An article in The Ecologist points out that any failure of COP21 will benefit IS, as the terrorist group stands to make $500 million a year from oil sales—together with other oil producers.
Another article in the Financial Times says: “Oil is the black gold that funds ISIS’s [Islamic State] black flag — it fuels its war machine, provides electricity and gives them critical leverage from its neighbours.” The article goes on to state that IS derives its financial stability straight from its status as a monopoly producer of an essential commodity consumed in vast quantities throughout the area it controls. Even without being able to export, IS can thrive because it has a huge captive market in Syria and Iraq. So the last thing that IS wants is a global climate agreement that limits consumption on fossil fuels.
In this time of horror and distress, it is crucial that we guard the powerful climate action mandate of COP21 in the coming years. We need to learn from the Paris attacks and the Chennai floods, because when global temperatures breach the 2 degrees Celsius threshold, extreme weather events are only going to have a domino effect on terrorism. But first, we must break out of this blame game and find a solution before it is too late.
“It is through empathy [that] we build bridges and through hate that we destroy them,” as Zak Ebrahim says. When countries and religions turn against each other, the world seems like an iron sky—full of hate and apathy, holding us back from making any real change. In this time of need, let us show empathy to those who need it and work toward a future that builds bridges rather than one that destroys them. Let us start by breaking out of this iron sky.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.