A New Year’s resolution from Paris 2015

[A shorter version of this appeared in The Hindu’s op-ed pages on Jan 4, 2016]


The lesson from Paris 2015 is this: until world powers don’t stop digging black gold out of the bellies of Iraq, Africa and Saudi Arabia, the convoluted webs of violence, terror and climate change, will continue to keep us trapped in the times to come



Bullet holes in the wall at Bataclan, Paris terror attack site

New Year is the time for making resolutions, for turning back on the year that went by and reflecting on what lessons could be learnt from the past so we do not repeat our mistakes. Last year, Paris witnessed one of the worst terror attacks, besides those in Beirut and Baghdad. It also saw the climate change agreement being finalised. Could the latter be an answer to the former?

The thought had originally struck me while I was standing outside the Bataclan café in Boulevard Voltaire in Paris, staring at the bullet holes on the walls of the building at the site of the November 13 terror attack by Islamic State (IS) terrorists. It was the last week of November, and I was in the city to attend the UN climate summit – the 21st Conference of Parties (CoP21) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change – where heads of states of over a hundred UN member countries were working out a deal to save the earth from the climate catastrophe.

Aren’t both climate change and terrorism manifestations of the same world process, I thought to myself, complicated though their interconnections might be?

You may think that I am stretching the idea a bit too far. After all, terrorism is mostly associated with ideology and climate change with patterns of the weather! But, significant voices have articulated similar thoughts, as I found out; linking two of the most pressing problems that kept world powers worried in 2015. A 2014 U.S. Department of Defense report pointed to climate change being one of the major threats to the country’s national security. In a speech made in November, when Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders referred to the occurrence of drought in Syria as a push factor for terrorism in that country, most people had rubbished it as an overstretch but retired U.S. rear admiral David W. Titley, who is also a meteorologist, made the point too. U.S. government reports note how climate change has the potential for creating instability and poverty in countries it affects the most, leading to discontentment that pushes people to take up arms, swayed by ideological persuasions offered by terrorist organisations in these countries.

syria drought
Image of Syrian drought in 2009


But what voices in the U.S. fail to acknowledge is how it is not just about climate change and terrorism being causally linked, a point that remains difficult to substantiate, but rather how both phenomena are consequences of the plunder of natural resources, in the form of fossil fuels, that continues to feed the greed for wealth of world powers. The complicity of powerful nations like the U.S. in creating a situation in which both terrorism and climate change has managed to thrive is something that the mainstream discourse has not emphasised.

The picture became clearer inside my own mind, as I heard the Nigerian energy activist Ken Henshaw speak at a People’s Climate Summit on the sidelines of the main COP21 summit. Henshaw was deposing against the U.S.-based international oil and gas company Exxon Mobil, drawing the linkages that exist between oil extraction activities around the Niger delta, and the rise of extremist groups such as the Boko Haram. “Nigeria is now called a terrorist country due to Boko Haram insurgency. Much of the insurgency today exists in the region bordering Lake Chad. In the last ten years the lake has shrunk 20 times its original size. Livestock cannot breed anymore in the lands around the lake, there is famine, and fish catch has dwindled. People have become destitutes, (have) joined criminal gangs and insurgency and fundamentalism thrives, as it has become easier to recruit people,” he said. After his speech, Henshaw told me that linking climate change to terror was often viewed as an exaggeration, but failing to see the connections between the two would leave us blind to one of the most obvious existential crises of the current world order.

lake chad.shrinking
NASA image of shrinking Lake Chad: 1972 image from Landsat1; 1987 image from Landsat4; 2002 image from Landsat 7. Courtesy of U.S. Department of the interior/U.S. Geological survey

Resource curse

The “resource curse” phenomenon is very much at work in countries such as Nigeria, where the wealth of natural resources has not empowered the local communities in that country, but has fuelled social conflict instead. Conflict brews between agents of world powers that buy oil, the ruling elites who profit from selling it, and the local population that struggles to maintain control over these resources. What the greed for oil driven by world powers has done, therefore, is to create an ideal condition in which terrorism can thrive. Take Afghanistan or Iraq, for that matter. Though terrorist organisations such as the al-Qaeda, which is native to these countries, trace their origins back to the Cold War days, when Arab groups in Afghanistan resisted Soviet invasion and were patronised by the U.S. for strategic reasons, what has exacerbated tensions in the country of its origin today is the struggle over controlling its natural resources. The Iraq invasion too was primarily motivated by America’s own greed for oil. The works of leading intellectuals such as Noam Chomsky and Mahmood Mamdani have exposed how the American “war on terror” is pretty much a war for controlling oil resources in countries such as Afghanistan, Iraq and Africa. While Chomsky’s work has focussed on U.S.’s actions in Arab nations, Mamdani has written about the conflict in Darfur, Africa. In his 2003 essay ‘Wars of Terror’ Chomsky recalls how President Dwight D. Eisenhower and his staff discussed the “campaign of hatred against us (the U.S.)” in the Arab world, “not by the governments but by the people.” The basic reason, is the recognition that the U.S. supports corrupt and brutal governments and is “opposing political or economic progress,” in order “to protect its interest in Near East oil,” Chomsky writes. Today, China too has joined in this race to plunder, taking major initiatives to develop the Amu Darya basin in Afghanistan so as to be able to drill oil from that region’s vastly available resources. But carrying on such economic exploitation of natural resources in these regions, without addressing the problems of corruption and the lack of government accountability in these countries has directly aided the cause of terror. It has also created the reasons for hatred amongst the people that Chomsky had raised in his seminal essay.

Another concern is how revenues from oil are helping to fund terror. Oil fields in Syria, for instance, have been shown to help fund IS terror. And though the U.S. recently surpassed Saudi Arabia as the world’s largest producer of oil, it continues to depend on these countries nevertheless for augmenting its fuel supplies. Nigeria, Saudi Arabia and Iraq figure in the top five countries where the U.S. imports most of its oil from, as per official sources. The oil dependency of the world powers is, thus, not only brewing trouble in countries where it is extracting fuel from, but also proving to be an Achilles heel for itself, making it vulnerable to attack from militant groups. It is this dependency syndrome that is also keeping the U.S. from acting decisively against the Saudi government despite suspicions since the 9/11 days that the country is funding terrorist groups. Realising this, world powers, such as the U.S, are now switching to alternative sources of fuel such as shale gas, which again are not without their share of resistance from environmental groups for the dangerous process of fracking it involves.

Geopolitical context

The international agreement to reduce greenhouse gas emissions that was finalised in Paris on December 12 has to be, therefore, situated in this broader geopolitical context. In the lead-up to the final day of the UN climate summit, I found it hardly surprising that Saudi Arabia, which was the largest oil supplier in the world until recently, was the one country which opposed the climate deal tooth and nail, as its economic interests were at stake. But it budged in the end as it found itself increasingly sidelined at the negotiating table. Clauses on human rights were dropped from the operative portions of the agreement text, in keeping with Saudi Arabia’s demands as it had opposed them, in order to achieve consensus over the agreement. The Paris climate change agreement is thus nothing but a diplomatic victory for world powers, as they can now mobilise the deal to work towards alternative pathways to energy production. This will help reduce oil dependency in their economy, and also help devise methods to drive down the profitability of oil, which could dry up funding for terror as well. There remain fears that much like the Kyoto Protocol of 1997 the Paris agreement too could suffer from a lack of implementation from powerful nations, as the former was not ratified by the U.S. senate back during the Clinton regime. However, with world powers now compelled to act out of enlightened self interest to keep terror at bay, one hopes things would be different this time. Though the Paris agreement doesn’t explicitly mention the phasing out of fossil fuels, the agenda to keep global warming levels low will have to be honoured, and that cannot happen until world powers make concerted efforts to switch over to alternative sources of energy. And that is the lesson from Paris 2015 that we ought to take back home: until world powers don’t stop digging black gold out of the bellies of Iraq, Africa and Saudi Arabia, the convoluted webs of violence, terror and climate change, will continue to keep us trapped in the times to come.


(The writer attended the COP21 summit in Paris as part of a UN Women delegation from South Asia.)


Published by Vidya Venkat

Ph.D. candidate in Anthropology at SOAS, London. Formerly, journalist at The Hindu, Chennai.

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