The Pentagon and Bernie Sanders Agree: Terrorism Linked to Climate Change

NYU’s Christian Parenti explains how we can connect the dots between droughts, neoliberal policies and terrorism


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Story Transcript

JESSICA DESVARIEUX, PRODUCER, TRNN: Welcome to the Real News Network. I’m Jessica Desvarieux in Baltimore.

So you may have watched the Democratic debate last Saturday where Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders vowed to eliminate ISIS after the Paris attacks. When pressed by the hosts on whether he still believed climate change to be the greatest threat to national security, the senator from Vermont had this to say.

BERNIE SANDERS: Climate change is directly related to the growth of terrorism. And if we do not get our act together and listen to what the scientists say you’re going to see countries all over the world–this is what the CIA says. They’re going to be struggling over limited amounts of water, limited amounts of land to grow their crops. And you’re going to see all kinds of international conflict.

DESVARIEUX: Following this statement, Sanders was crushed by pundits calling his remarks hyperbole. But our guest today says Sanders’ assessment is right on target, and he can connect the dots between climate change and civil unrest with the Syrian conflict as a prime example. Now joining us is Christian Parenti. He’s a professor at New York University’s global liberal studies program. His most recent book is Tropic of Chaos: Climate Change and the New Geography of Violence. Thanks so much for joining us, Christian.

CHRISTIAN PARENTI: Thank you for having me on.

DESVARIEUX: So let’s get right into this, linking climate change to the Syrian war. We recognize that this is a very complex situation. But you explained that droughts and the collapse of agricultural system heightens tensions. Explain how you can link the conflict back to climate change.

PARENTI: Well, in Syria there was the worst drought ever recorded from 2005 to about 2010. And that sent 800,000 people from the countryside into the city. At the same time the Assad government, in an effort to improve relationships with the West, was imposing austerity. Cutting support for poor, displaced people like these Sunni farmers who went from the drought-affected countryside into the city. And then the Arab Spring uprising involves profound food price spikes, which are caused not by the local drought but by drought in key grain growing regions, particularly in Russia and Kazakhstan, which Russia banned its wheat exports in the year 2011, which was the year that the Arab Spring jumped off. The single largest wheat importer in the world is Egypt. And so all across the region from Tunisia into Syria, food prices were an issue in the Arab Spring.

So you have these farmers displaced from the countryside into the city as the Assad government is imposing austerity. And then this becomes a religious struggle between a sort of, you know, lumpenized Sunni proletariat against this Alawite ruling clique. And the Alawites are a branch of, or sort of a branch of, Shia Islam. So then this takes on the appearance of a religious war, but you can see that underneath it there are class tensions which are exacerbated by the extreme weather patterns associated with climate change.

DESVARIEUX: All right, Christian, I want to push back, though. Because some people may argue that those certainly are factors that made life more difficult for everyday people, but is there really a link between terrorism and climate change crisis, as Bernie Sanders asserted there in that clip? Because not everyone sees it that way. Here’s one of the many critical voices in the U.S. media, Wall Street Journal’s Peggy Noonan, on Face The Nation.

PEGGY NOONAN: Bernie Sanders essentially said a major problem with all of this ISIS stuff and terrorism and what’s going at the West is climate change and global warming. Which makes him, to many people, look slightly daffy. Like someone who doesn’t understand what the real subject is, and is leaning outside to sort of leftist or progressive nostrums that he can talk about. This is about terrorism. It isn’t about climate change and deserts and people migrating because it’s hot.

DESVARIEUX: So Chris, is Bernie Sanders slightly daffy to link climate change and terrorism? I just want your quick response right there.

PARENTI: No, Bernie Sanders is not in error in that regard. And most of the U.S. defense establishment agrees with him. The quadrennial defense review makes an issue of climate change as a threat multiplier, as a dynamic that is going to increase all sorts of threats, including terrorism. There are numerous declassified reports from various branches of the military and from numerous militaries around the world that take climate change seriously as a driving cause of violence.

So it’s very real, and experts really across the political spectrum accept this. The question, then, becomes what do you do? You know, the classic rightist response is, well, then you have to build higher walls and you have to prepare for open-ended counterinsurgency on a global scale forever. And a more progressive response would be no, we have to, one, radically reduce greenhouse gas emissions immediately, mitigate emissions, but also deal with adaptation. And provide technology and capital for people to cope with the new, extreme weather that is already happening.

DESVARIEUX: But I want to still talk about this issue, about linking climate change and terrorism, before we get to alternatives, because there are some experts–I have two authors from the libertarian Cato institute. They came out with a recent article from Huffington Post. They say these drought issues have more to do with serious history of bad water management policies and a population that has tripled in the past 35 years. Don’t they have a point in here, Christian? Don’t 300 percent more people create water scarcity issues?

PARENTI: Well, if there is also a drought. But the fact of the matter is Syria went through the worst recorded drought in terms of lack of precipitation. So Syria, between 2005-2010, was not getting enough rainfall. There’s also the precipitating issues–I wouldn’t blame population. I would blame, as I do in my book, neoliberalism. Free market economics totally undermine people’s ability to adapt to this extreme weather. When the state cuts back on agricultural extension, veterinary services, that means farmers whose crops fail due to drought have to leave the land and go to cities, and there they end up often struggling over state power, which is exactly what happened in Syria.

So the thing about climate change is that it doesn’t ever act in isolation to cause violence. It acts by exacerbating pre-existing crises. Crises that libertarians have, intellectuals like the ones you mentioned, have been important in creating, mainly the, the 30-year legacy of free market economic restructuring pushed by the United States and the Bretton Woods institution, the World Bank and the IMF, on the developing economies of the global south, which have mandated that in exchange for lifeline loans, state assets such as state companies, et cetera, must be sold off. [Inaud.] must be deregulated. State support for health and human services, et cetera, must be cut back. This is austerity, this is the neoliberal restructuring agenda. And it has created increased inequality and increased absolute poverty, which is an endemic crisis in many places.

And so now into that comes the extreme weather of climate change, which sort of pushes many of these situations over the edge. The other pre-existing crisis that climate change interacts with is the legacy of the Cold War, which has littered much of the global South with cheap weaponry and unemployed men, primarily men, who know how to use these weapons.

So what I argue is that climate change interacts with other kinds of bad policies that have been misshaping global society and have been driven primarily by, you know, the imperial center. By the United States and its allies in Europe, primarily.

DESVARIEUX: Christian, what’s the alternative then, really quickly?

PARENTI: The alternative is a 180–you know, we have to really redesign U.S. foreign policy. We have to get off fossil fuels, we have to mitigate–and we have to take seriously that adaptation needs to happen. There needs to be technology transfers, there needs to be capital transfers so that people in the global South who live off the land, fisherfolk, farmers, can continue their life ways. Or they will be pushed into cities, and then from there towards increasingly militarized borders in the north. And we can already see what is in store, right. There are about 38 million internally displaced people globally, 9 million people displaced in the Middle East. Well, mainstream estimates say that by 2050 there’s expected to be 700 million climate refugees caused by drought and also rising sea levels.

So you know, this problem is only going to get worse. And in this opening act what you’re seeing are the worst, very very worst, responses. So the task at hand is to try and change the discourse and stand up to the sort of incipient climate fascism which is expressed in the hardening of these European borders in the Balkan, and in terms of this total–this xenophobic overreaction, disgusting xenophobic overreaction by 31 governors here in the United States saying they refuse to accept Syrian refugees. Which, by the way, you know, constitutionally isn’t their business. They don’t decide foreign policy. They’re governors.

DESVARIEUX: All right. Christian Parenti, thank you so much for your analysis, and thank you so much for being with us.

PARENTI: My pleasure.

DESVARIEUX: And thank you for joining us on the Real News Network.


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