It’s important to express solidarity with Belgium at this time of grief and fear, but we have to also start thinking longer term about these kinds of events. One of the overlooked factors leading to the Paris and Brussels attacks is something we’ll be living with a long time: climate change.
We have to start making this point: regional political instability and the resulting export of terrorism are climate change problems. And no doubt we’ll be ridiculed for saying that. “Don’t be ridiculous,” some people will say,”the problem is radical Islam.” Well the Assads have ruled over radical Islamists for decades, and have ruthlessly but successfully put down past Islamist risings. So what was different about 2011? This was:
Now note that by 2011 Syrian grain production actually had begun to recover from the record-setting failures of 2008, but measured against the levels of production in the first half of the decade we’re looking at a bad harvest. And by that year many people had migrated to the cities when their farms failed. Syria had 1.3 million internal refugees — climate refugees — when the first “Day of Rage” was staged in February 2011. 160 villages had been completely depopulated. [source]
We get a better picture of what was going on by comparing consumption, production and importation of wheat to Syria:
Look at what the red line — the amount of consumption — does in 2010. It goes down. Bread is a staple of the Syrian diet much more than it is in the American diet, so what you are looking at are people going hungry. In 2009 they were able to import their way around the bad wheat harvests, then in 2010 you have a hungry year. Why? The local harvests weren’t any worse in 2010 than 2009, but imports drop precipitously because of this:
In 2011, there was enough wheat in Syria, but only if you had the money buy it. In some places the price of bread had risen ten-fold. High food prices can destabilize any country, regardless of its culture or religion. The French Revolution began with bread riots. So did the Arab Spring in 2011. Any country with large numbers of hungry, un- or under-employed people is a threat to peace and international security.
Finally, consider this map:
Think of this not as an agricultural map, but as a risk map. Where an area of climate-induced agricultural failure coincides with an affluent population that can afford to source its food globally, the risk can be discounted. But other countries won’t be able to afford to roll snake eyes when it comes to local harvests and global commodity prices. Some of those countries are important US trading partners and allies.
I am not suggesting we don’t need a security apparatus response to terrorism. Of course we do. But ISIL isn’t an aberration; it’s the start of a long-term, climate-driven trend that will cross religious and cultural boundaries. A security response won’t be enough; we need to get out ahead of that trend by addressing global food security. That’ll require an “all of the above” approach: both reductions in human contributions to climate change and preparations for the changes we can’t avoid.