© Josh Sager – February 2015
This week, the denizens of the right wing media bubble have stirred up outrage over Obama saying that climate change is a larger threat to the USA than ISIS during his most recent Vox interview. They argue that Obama isn’t taking the threat of Islamic extremism seriously and is severely downplaying the dangers posed by ISIS to American interests. These assertions lead into repeats of the long-standing accusations that Obama is weak, ignorant of issues of national security, and potentially putting American lives at risk.
Normally, I wouldn’t cover such a commonplace criticism of Obama by the right wing (they trot this argument out literally every time something goes wrong anywhere in the world that can tangentially be tied back to Washington), but this case does lead us to think about a very interesting question: Just how much larger a threat is climate change to the USA than ISIS?
Putting ISIS and Climate Change Into Perspective
While Obama’s assertion that climate change is more dangerous than ISIS is scandalous in the minds of the right wing, it is demonstrably true. ISIS may be evil, vicious, bigoted, regressive, and a severe threat to many populations in the Middle East (IE. anybody who isn’t a male, Sunni extremist Arab), but their power to threaten the world at large simply pales in comparison to the dangers of climate change.
I will prove this with three metrics of comparison: scope, casualties, and the long term outlook.
In terms of scope, climate change is a global problem while ISIS is, at worst, a regional concern that could occasionally jump borders and cause relatively minor casualties elsewhere (ex. terrorism or the kidnapping of traveling Americans). This isn’t to minimize the chaos and deaths caused by ISIS; merely to point out that evil humans with guns and bombs can only do so much damage, when compared with a literal force of nature.
As you can see in the following map, ISIS has seized control over a large swathe of Syria and Iraq, consolidating its power in populated areas and along travel routes.
Comparably, global climate change will cause coastal flooding, drought, famine, and extreme weather events across large swathes of the planet—this is represented in the following map, with darker red shading indicating a more severe threat
It is also important to note that many experts credit the Syrian drought (likely caused by climate change) as a major precipitating factor for the rebellion in Syria which gave ISIS a foothold. In this respect, the strength of ISIS is actually a consequence of climate change.
In addition to posing a geographically larger threat, climate change threatens to kill more people than ISIS.
While estimates of ISIS’s body count are extremely hard to determine (they don’t exactly allow pollsters or observers into their territory), ISIS’s body count is estimated in the tens of thousands, including nearly 5000 Yazidi civilians. Many of these murders have been brutal, involving mass graves or hideous execution methods (ex. beheading, crucifixion, burning, etc.), so they have received massive coverage by the media.
The casualties from global climate change may not generate the media outrage that a bunch of bronze-age savages beheading civilians does, but it involved far more people. According to the most recent estimates by the World Health Organization, climate change kills tens of thousands every year currently and will result in approximately 250,000 avoidable deaths every year by 2030 if it isn’t addressed. These deaths are primarily due to droughts/famines destroying food supplies, extreme weather, the increased spread of disease (ex. Malaria), and heat stroke.
When we limit this to just American casualties, the disparity becomes even more obvious. To date, ISIS has never injured or killed a single person on US soil nor caused monetary damage to a single piece of property in our nation. In effect, Americans have a perfect way not to risk being hurt by ISIS, and that is simply to not go to areas where ISIS is in control. Conversely, global climate change intensifies the storm activity in our nation and has led to droughts/wildfires that cause massive damage. For example, the WHO estimates that nearly 3000 people will die every year in North America, just due to increased incidences of heat stroke caused by global warming.
In addition to killing Americans, global climate change is causing massive economic losses that will only increase as time goes on. According to a recent study, climate change shaves $1.2 trillion dollars off of the world economy by way of damaging property and causing deaths. If it isn’t addressed, this loss will increase to as much as 2% of the entire world economy by 2030. To make things even worse, most of this damage will happen in developing nations which are the least able to absorb such losses.
The final major criterion for comparing climate change to ISIS is sustainability. Most authorities believe that ISIS is an acute problem while virtually every expert agrees that climate change is a long-term crisis.
Despite its short-term sweep of certain regions in Iraq and Syria, ISIS is simply too extreme to be sustainable in the long-term. They murder civilians on a regular basis and have alienated both the west and their Arab neighbors. These neighbors have started bombing ISIS and have killed thousands of their operatives (they estimate 6000 ISIS casualties just since Jordan started bombing in retaliation for the burning of their pilot). Eventually, ISIS will either implode under its own extremism, or moderate and become just another extremist theocratic regime that holds land in the Middle East (like Saudi Arabia)—in either case, they cease to be a threat to anybody but certain groups living within their borders.
Global climate change moves slowly, but it is virtually impossible to stop, short of coordinated global action. Additionally, climate changes have their own inertia, thus will be impossible to stop once we reach a point of no return (ex. when warming melts enough polar ice that the release of trapped gasses causes a self-sustaining warming effect). Because of this, climate change is going to be a persistent problem that, at minimum, requires decades of close management by international associations and, at worst, becomes unstoppable.