In an election season defined thus far by a rogue email server, a neurosurgeon once played by Cuba Gooding Jr. in a made-for-TV film and cries to “make America great again,” it should come as no surprise that one of the most serious and consequential foreign policy arguments made by a presidential candidate thus far was largely dismissed on the spot. Though he lags in national polls for the Democratic nomination, former Governor of Maryland Martin O’Malley demonstrated clarity of vision and a nuanced understanding of scientific and social history when he tied the rise of the Islamic State — otherwise known as ISIS — with the accumulated effects of climate change. Unsurprisingly, Republicans responded derisively. In a July interview with Bloomberg News, O’Malley said, “One of the things that preceded the failure of the nation-state of Syria and the rise of ISIS was the effect of climate change and the mega-drought that affected that region, wiped out farmers, drove people to cities, created a humanitarian crisis that created the symptoms — or rather, the conditions — of extreme poverty that has led now to the rise of ISIL [the Islamic State] and this extreme violence.”
Several months later, the world is grappling with tragedy on the shores of Europe as thousands of Syrian refugees flee from the war-torn nation toward greater stability across the Mediterranean. Though some countries, such as Germany, have acted decisively in providing refuge for asylum seekers, many others are bitterly divided over how many migrants they will take in. Some have begun closing their borders and fortifying them with higher walls and armed security.
Thus far, the U.S. has accepted 1,500 Syrian refugees, with President Obama announcing intentions to offer asylum to up to 10,000 in 2016 through a strict vetting process. This strategy has been rightfully criticized when considered in the context of Syria’s population of about 22 million, many of whom are fleeing the country. The U.S. has the resources and infrastructure, as well as the moral responsibility, to do more for those who are most vulnerable in the world in a time of crisis. However, it’s important to note that our responsibility doesn’t end there.
In light of these circumstances, O’Malley’s statement isn’t as much a description of politics in the present as much as it is a foreshadowing of perhaps the greatest ethical and social challenges that the world will face in the next century. Melting permafrost, coastal erosion and stronger storms displaced over 25 million people from their homes last year, according to the Gates Foundation. The Brookings Institute estimates that anywhere from 50 million to one billion people will be displaced from their homes by the end of the century as a result of climate change.
It’s plausible — although, under present circumstances, perhaps naïve — to assume that the Syrian civil war will eventually end and that ISIS’s influence in the region will be heavily diminished, if not eliminated altogether, over time. The accumulation of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, however, will continue to shape the world for centuries to come. What can we learn from the present crisis in Syria in light of these facts?
First, public officials must be vocal in explaining that conflicts that enable terror groups like ISIS to thrive are often rooted in the resource scarcity that comes as a result of climate change. Numerous studies have documented the difficulties that agricultural communities in particular face when sources of income literally dry up. Paired with what becomes an existential quest for increasingly scarce food and water, economic depravity lends itself to increased conflict over time.
Second, it’s imperative that environmentally conscious Republicans stand up to the fossil fuel interests that often dictate the party’s energy policy and speak to the urgency of combatting climate change. The Republican National Committee was quick to dismiss O’Malley’s aforementioned statement as “absurd.” Without bipartisan consensus that the threat of climate change is an actual threat, it’s difficult to imagine the U.S. — the world’s second-largest carbon emitter — assuming a leadership role in sustainable development.
Third, U.S. immigration policy must be reformed to reflect the fact that, as the primary beneficiary of industrialization, we have the responsibility to provide a home to those who are displaced by climate change and make their way to our borders. At the very least, we must work with our allies abroad to ensure that there is a strong and reliable infrastructure in place to ensure justice for refugees across the world.