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Rising Temperatures Rising Tensions

President Trump’s sudden decision to withdraw U.S. troops from Kurdish territory in Syria has catapulted the debate over the War on Terror back to the forefront of American foreign policy. Yet as the United States prepares to leave Afghanistan, and as President Trump declares the Islamic State “defeated,” other regions already destabilized by violence face a new wave of terrorist activity stemming from a typically overlooked source: climate change. Rising global temperatures are threatening the Sahel, an expanse of land on the southern border of the Sahara Desert that already faces precarious social and economic circumstances. The United States must treat climate change as a growing security threat and take action at home to reduce emissions and mitigate its effects.

The Sahel is particularly sensitive to the effects of climate change. Temperatures are rising 1.5 times faster in the Sahel than the rest of the planet, and violence in the region is rising with them. Record-breaking dry months have increased by 50 percent. Lake Chad, a critical source of water for 30 million people, has shrunk by 90 percent due to droughts that have crippled the regional agricultural system. Burkina Faso, which has also faced drought, suffered 136 jihadist attacks in 2018, four times as many as the previous year. Water scarcity has also shrunk the amount of land available for pastoralists, prompting herders to migrate even further into territory claimed by farmers in a frantic search for fertile pastures. The heightened tensions due to shared land and resources are compounded by “no-go” areas created by violent insurgents.

As a result, much of the Sahel is in the midst of a food crisis. As rising temperatures diminish both grazing land and water levels in lakes supporting fisheries, agricultural yields have become unpredictable. Thirty million people are currently food insecure, and over 12 million people required emergency food aid from the United Nations in order to avoid famine in 2018. Waves of refugees place an additional strain on scarce resources. Because national borders are porous, violent conflict spreads easily from one country to another. Refugees fleeing this violence spread across the region as well: At least five million people in the Sahel were displaced last year alone, causing economic and political shocks in the areas to which they fled. The convergence of hunger and displaced persons creates a potent breeding ground for terrorist groups, which offer a semblance of control to disenchanted youth.

Take, for example, the recent actions of Boko Haram, a notorious insurgency which began in northern Nigeria. Aligning itself with the Islamic State since 2015, the group has sought to establish a caliphate around the shrinking Lake Chad Basin and has spread into Niger and Cameroon. Though much of the American counterterrorism effort has focused on the Middle East, groups such as Boko Haram are extending their ideology and control across North Africa and the Sahel. Through food production, taxes, and restrictions on access to the already weakened agriculture system, Boko Haram has asserted power over the dwindling food supply. Boko Haram relies not only upon economic extortion but also upon acts of violence, such as sowing agriculture fields with landmines to spread terror among the people of the Lake Chad Basin. To make matters worse, the Nigerian government’s counterinsurgency program has unintentionally damaged agricultural production, further reinforcing Boko Haram’s stranglehold on a limited food supply.

Strained food production in the Sahel has also given Boko Haram an opportunity to terrorize farmers and recruit: The group’s access to food gives them a particularly persuasive pitch to the desperate young men in this region. As terrorists exploit these shocks of climate change to assert power, the U.S. military has deemed climate change a “threat multiplier.” Though the Sahel is thousands of miles from the Pentagon, terrorism in the Sahel increasingly affects American military operations. Over 1,000 US troops are currently deployed in Niger, Mali, Cameroon, Chad, and Nigeria to combat terrorism, and the Trump administration spends $242 million annually in military aid to those countries. While the U.S. military is supposedly only “advising and assisting” the militaries of these countries in the fight against terrorism, a series of classified programs has allowed troops to play a larger role. Indeed, four Americans providing backup for one of these classified missions were killed in Tongo Tongo, Niger in 2017. Following the fatal ambush, the U.S. military vowed to scale back missions in Africa. Yet the increasingly disastrous effects of climate change threaten to draw the United States back into a quagmire of counterterrorist operations.

Climate change may be one of the more difficult obstacles in ending the War on Terror, especially since the U.S. has implemented no federal legislation to reduce emissions and mitigate the effects of global warming. While the U.S. Department of Defense has long acknowledged the impact of climate change on national security, the Trump administration has ended military programs that deal with the impacts of climate change. Even as other cabinet officials deny the existence of global warming, former Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis declared climate change a present threat, not a “what-if” hypothetical. While the Department of Defense may have shielded itself from the climate deniers in the Trump administration, it has nonetheless failed to protect programs such as the U.S. Navy Task Force Climate Change, which was ended earlier this year. The Department of Defense is one of the only arms of the federal government still dedicated to addressing global warming under the Trump Administration, and its internal conflict has led it to a standstill on the issue.

The U.S. is the largest historical emitter of greenhouse gases and has contributed the most to the climate crisis which we face today. Rather than making progress in the fight for climate legislation, the Trump administration is backsliding. While this fight has long been categorized as an economic and environmental issue, the implications of climate change on terrorism necessitate that it be considered a national security concern as well.

The Department of Defense has long considered climate change a threat multiplier, but the Pentagon has failed to leverage its enormous influence to combat the dangerous phenomenon. There are many such programs to choose from, including carbon taxes, cap and trade, clean energy investments, fuel standards, and local climate mitigation programs. To save the United States from two more decades of the War on Terror, the U.S. military must treat climate change as the national security threat that it is, and the federal government must respond with the same urgency it does for other security threats of this scale.

Illustration by Liam Archibald ’20:

About the Author

Cartie Werthman '21 is a Senior Staff Writer for the US Section of the Brown Political Review. Cartie can be reached at