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ISIS and climate change: O'Malley has a point

In as much as Democratic political operatives the nation over are praying that this Donald Trump phenomenon isn't just a passing fad, Republicans must be hoping against hope that former Gov. Martin O'Malley catches fire and somehow becomes the Democratic presidential nominee in 2016. "Get a load of this guy," they must be snickering. "He thinks climate change caused ISIS!" Cue the mocking attack ads now.

Did he really say that? Kind of, yes. In an interview with Bloomberg television this week, Mr. O'Malley said this: "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 and this extreme violence." So climate change leads to drought which leads to displacement which leads to poverty which leads to instability which leads to ISIS or ISIL, take your pick of acronym.

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Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus immediately pounced on the remark, pointing to it as evidence that "no one in the Democratic Party has the foreign policy vision to keep America safe." GOP presidential candidate Rick Santorum got into the act, calling it a "disconnect from reality," and arguing that any migration to cities in Syria in recent years is no different from demographic trends in America "where people come into the cities because that is where the opportunities are, just like New York continues to grow for that reason."

Now Mr. O'Malley is fighting back with some mockery of his own, using the episode to solicit campaign contributions by blasting Republicans as people who don't believe in science. "When faced with cold, hard scientific facts, they bury their heads in the sand and deny the adverse effects of climate change on the planet," a campaign spokeswoman said Monday. "Is it any surprise that Donald Trump is leading the pack?"

If we cut away the certitude and hyperbole on both sides, though, there is a real kernel of truth to what Mr. O'Malley said. We'll grant that there are lots of factors involved in the rise of ISIS, from the destabilization caused by the Iraq war to the brutality of the Assad regime in Syria and the cultural currents that have allowed radical Islam to flourish generally. But the idea Mr. O'Malley actually expressed — that climate change will lead to resource scarcity, political instability and eventually armed conflict — is not at all novel, nor is it merely the opinion of tree-hugging lefties.

In fact, the most prominent purveyor of that notion is none other than the U.S. military. In 2014, it released a report on the security threats posed by climate change, and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel (a former Republican senator, by the way), referred to it at the time as a "threat multiplier."

"Rising global temperatures, changing precipitation patterns, climbing sea levels and more extreme weather events will intensify the challenges of global instability, hunger, poverty, and conflict," he said. "They will likely lead to food and water shortages, pandemic disease, disputes over refugees and resources, and destruction by natural disasters in regions across the globe."

Just as it is difficult to blame any particular weather event on global warming, surely it is difficult to definitively say that climate change contributed meaningfully to ISIS. But Mr. O'Malley is hardly the first one to observe the possibility that a years-long drought in Syria was worsened by climate change and helped lead to the political instability in which ISIS has flourished. The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences published a paper this year in which authors made just that connection. The Syrian drought of 2007-2010 was the worst on record there, they wrote, "causing widespread crop failure and a mass migration of farming families to urban centers." The authors present historical data and climate modeling to suggest that man-made global warming makes a drought of that severity two to three times more likely than it otherwise would have been.

Could the Syrian drought have occurred in the absence of climate change? Absolutely. Could a violent, repressive, radical Islamist movement gain control of a large swath of territory without the influence of extreme weather? No doubt. (See: the Taliban.) But when it comes to the essence of the issue — whether the chain of causation Mr. O'Malley describes in Syria is plausible and likely to become more frequent as the globe gets hotter — the answer is unequivocally yes. That doesn't mean that installing solar panels and driving electric cars is an effective or sufficient response to ISIS, nor did Mr. O'Malley say it was. But it does mean that seeking to stop man-made climate change needs to be part of our nation's strategy to prevent extremism and instability in the future.

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