Butterfly Effect: Why Spies Need to Focus on Climate Change

Butterfly Effect: Why Spies Need to Focus on Climate Change

By Charu Sudan Kasturi

A woman looks at the destruction in Haulover in the Northern Caribbean Autonomous Region, Nicaragua.
SourceINTI OCON/AFP via Getty


Global warming is helping terrorists. It won't be defeated by missiles and drones.

Charu Sudan Kasturi

Charu Sudan Kasturi

OZY Senior Editor Charu Sudan Kasturi's column, "Butterfly Effect," connects the dots on seemingly unrelated global headlines, highlighting what could happen next and who is likely to be impacted.

When President Joe Biden and 40 other world leaders gathered for a virtual summit on climate change organized by the U.S. in April, the list of speakers had an unlikely name on it: Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines.

“For the intelligence community, climate change is both a near-term and a long-term threat that will define the next generation,” she said, addressing the group.

It’s extremely rare for America’s top spy to speak to a giant gathering of foreign leaders — especially one that includes the country’s biggest strategic rivals. Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin were in Haines’ audience.

Yet the moment captured a growing acknowledgment by intelligence agencies the world over that climate change was no longer a subject related primarily to science and economics. Today, it’s increasingly a national security threat that’s already impacting how countries deal with the issues of mass migration, extremism and deadly terrorism.

This week, the United Nations warned that a million Afghan children could die of hunger as the war-torn South Asian nation faces a crippling food shortage. This comes weeks after the Taliban grabbed control of most of the country, including the capital, Kabul. The U.N. has managed to secure pledges of donations worth more than $1 billion for Afghanistan, but it’s unclear just how far that will go in preventing starvation deaths in a country where poverty levels are projected to shoot up from an already desperate 72% to 97% by mid-2022.

What is clear is that this growing humanitarian crisis helped catalyze the Taliban’s return to power in Afghanistan. In evaluating the stunning collapse of the country’s democratically elected government last month, analysts have focused on that regime’s corruption, as well as on America’s failure to secure commitments from the Taliban before agreeing to withdraw and the lack of a fight put up by NATO-trained Afghan soldiers.


A Hausa-Fulani farmer works at a farm in the outskirts of Sokoto, Sokoto State, Nigeria.

Source LUIS TATO/AFP via Getty

But the Taliban’s rapid resurgence in recent years, culminating in this moment, has also been aided by historic extreme weather events — floods and droughts — that have devastated the livelihoods of Afghanistan’s farmers. More than 60% of Afghans depend on agriculture for income. With that no longer a reliable source, they’ve been more vulnerable to the entreaties of a militant group willing to pay them a steady income to take up arms against a discredited regime — one that let them down. This too has been a factor in the Taliban’s dramatic drive to power that forced America, the world’s most powerful nation, to beat a chaotic retreat from the country.

This isn’t just about what’s happened in Afghanistan though. As we remember those we lost 20 years ago on 9/11, we must ensure that we get better at predicting and preventing the conditions that enable dastardly terrorist groups from gaining strong foundations. And climate change is a factor that strategic thinkers and the intelligence community can no longer treat as an afterthought.

In Nigeria, where growing aridity due to climate change is robbing farmers of their livelihood, the terrorist group Boko Haram has found a fertile recruiting ground. Also in Africa’s most populous nation, a growing scramble for limited resources between farmers and herders has in recent years spiraled into a deadly ethnic conflict between the Fulani and Hausa communities.

Meanwhile, according to the Global Terrorism Index released by the Institute for Economics and Peace (IEP), Burkina Faso, Mozambique, Congo, Mali, Niger, Cameroon and Ethiopia are all among the nations that have seen an increase in terrorism. Common to all of them, the IEP points out, is the fact that they face “various ecological threats.”

Chad, another country on the frontline of the fight against terrorism, is among the nations most vulnerable to climate change. Lake Chad has shrunk by 90% since the 1960s.

Across the continent in Somalia, droughts have forced the displacement of 1.3 million people since last year. It’s little surprise that the country is a hotbed of extremism. At least seven people were killed in a suicide car bombing in the capital Mogadishu on Tuesday. The al-Qaida-linked al-Shabaab terror group has claimed responsibility. And in Iraq, water shortages fueled the Islamic State group’s recruitment.

Refugees Flock To Dadaab As Famine Grips Somalia

Somalian refugees return from collecting water at the edge of the Dagahaley refugee camp.

Source Oli Scarff/Getty

All of this tells us that the next iteration of the war on terror needs to invest heavily in combating climate change if it is to be successful. For the moment at least, the U.S. and most of its allies don’t have the appetite for sustained military battles overseas. That’s understandable after the devastating — and often frustrating — wars of the past two decades.

Like America in Afghanistan and Iraq, France is withdrawing troops from the Sahel region of Africa. But there’s another unlikely way they could help the vulnerable governments of West and Central Africa, Iraq and other countries in fighting terror: by strengthening their hands against climate change through financial support and the transfer of clean energy technology.

Indeed, that’s something the West is already expected to do under the Paris climate change agreement. Now though, it’s clear that Washington and its allies must see this not just as a moral commitment but one that is directly tied to their own sense of national security.

The alternative is terrifying. Climate change is crippling the resistance of countries and societies to combat terrorist groups. Military might can rout a specific group — the Islamic State group has lost its territory in Syria and Iraq, for instance — but others will sprout up. They’ll have different names, flags and allegiances, but will all feed off the desperation of hungry communities destroyed by global warming and left to fend for themselves by the rest of the world.

As Afghanistan has shown us, democracy means only so much when your stomach’s empty.

Charu Sudan Kasturi

Charu Sudan Kasturi

OZY Senior Editor Charu Sudan Kasturi's column, "Butterfly Effect," connects the dots on seemingly unrelated global headlines, highlighting what could happen next and who is likely to be impacted.