The climate crisis could lead to a rising threat of catastrophic terrorist attacks sparked by a new refugee crisis as people are forced to flee their homes, researchers warned.
Climate change has inflamed tensions in flashpoint areas with the deadly effects of human conflict expected to increase in parallel with increased natural disasters, extreme weather conditions and the loss of cultivatable land, according to a new report.
The study, by the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (Start), said that violent extremist groups were trying to radicalise people who had lost their livelihoods to climate change.
Far-right groups have also embraced “eco-fascism” to exploit culture clashes between ethnic groups as populations are forced to leave their traditional homes in a search for new land to ensure their long-term survival.
The greatest driver of climate-change-linked terrorism comes from the expected surge of refugees and the struggle for control of scarce resources, Bill Braniff, the director of Start, told an online insurance conference.
“This is a recipe for incredibly violent outcomes,” he told a session of the annual conference of The International Forum of Terrorism Risk (Re)Insurance Pools (Iftrip).
He cited the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people in sectarian clashes sparked by the mass migration of Muslims or Hindus after the partition of India in 1947.
He also said that ISIS had exploited the climate change crisis to recruit people in Iraq, where changing weather patterns had prevented them from earning livelihoods from the land.
The UN says armed extremist groups such as ISIS, Boko Haram and Al Shabab thrive in communities stricken by drought and other harsh climatic conditions, where joblessness and despair leave people vulnerable to hardliners.
The greatest threats from terrorism will likely be felt in areas that are already hotbeds of radicalisation and extremism, Andrew Silke, professor of terrorism, risk and resilience at Cranfield Forensic Institute, told the conference.
“Once you throw climate change into the mix, it accelerates all the existing causes you have in a region and makes things much, much worse than they would be otherwise,” he said.
The researchers said that terrorist attacks would not be limited to the places worst affected by climate change. Growing global inequality could lead to violent groups taking revenge on industrialised nations most to blame for causing climate change.
ISIS’s propaganda wing produced a video in 2020 inspired by the California wildfires, urging its supporters to set fires on the US west coast to cause maximum economic damage in reprisal for its involvement in wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Scenarios investigated by researchers included increasingly militant environmental action groups, attacks on countries seen as being most to blame for climate change, and far-right groups linking migration to the destruction of habitats.
“As climate change creates climate refugees, estimated to be in the hundreds of millions by 2050, there will be a massive pushback, fuelled in part by fears that anti-western terrorists are among those climate refugees,” Mr Braniff said.
“These related scenarios are a recipe for mass radicalisation, should they come to fruition,” he said. “Frequency of low-level terrorist attacks will increase and the potential for catastrophic attacks will also increase.”
Russia last year vetoed a draft UN Security Council resolution that would have ranked climate change as a threat to international peace and security.
Led by Niger and Ireland, a proposal backed by the UAE and 112 other UN members described climate change as a trigger for wars and hoped to push the issue higher up the council’s agenda.