Terror Rising from the Desert

We ignore climate change's effect on the Sahara at our peril.

A nomadic Fulani herder grazes his sheep on parched land around Gadabeji, Niger.

Climate change could have a disproportionate impact on those with a nomadic lifestyle.

By + More

From the devastating drought in California’s Central Valley to Atlanta’s ice storms, 2014 has highlighted the catastrophic effects of global climate change. Far from home, however, the long-term effects are just as unpredictable and even more disruptive. Failure to address climate change foreshadows an era in which unpredictable weather catalyzes familiar forms of political instability. As the global war on terror goes, climate change threatens to take a starring and politically destructive role.

Although scientists disagree about the specific impact of climate change on Africa's Sahara desert and its environs, all emphasize its particular mutability. Recent studies emphasize the possibility for geographically localized increases in rainfall, while other suggest an intensification of already-searing episodic droughts. Whatever happens, its magnitude and unpredictability will further destabilize the region. 

As it stands, nomadic people are typically an afterthought in North and West African states that put settled populations first. Climate-driven disruptions of seasonal patterns of migration and agriculture will exacerbate longstanding tensions. A wetter Sahara and Sahel might seem to usher in a new era of bounty, but could also escalate conflicts over newly arable land and new crops on former pasture. Bounty may cause conflict just as drought surely would.

[See a collection of political cartoons on energy policy.]

Consider the "little ice age,” a period of natural global cooling at its peak in the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries, which dramatically remade individuals’ lives and social experiences across the globe. From London’s frozen Thames to killing frosts in Jamestown, climate anomalies catalyzed political and cultural change. Even at the edges of the arid Sahara, often erroneously assumed a static waste, exceptional rains drenched fabled Timbuktu, causing flooding unheard of before or since.

And yet Saharan concerns remain wholly outside of global policy debates with one notable exception: the specter of Islamist violence. The attempted secession of the Azawad territory from Mali in 2012 and sporadic, if fragmented, Islamist violence across the desert points to very real discord. Persistent weakness of some Saharan states and their inability to effectively support beleaguered citizens has inflated the ranks of opposition movements scattered throughout the desert. Islamist in character and, as events in 2012 demonstrated, frequently violent, these movements will continue to attract desert dwellers not only through ideological appeals but also because of the inadequate response of states in the region to other concerns of their Saharan neighbors.

As American, European and perhaps most important, African states ignore climate change’s threat to the lives of pastoralists and farmers in and at the desert’s edge, they simultaneously respond with alacrity to hints of Islamist disputes or “terrorism.” Inarticulate responses to incipient climate change and vociferous ones to violence may well create a system of perverse incentives for Saharan-dwellers frustrated with the failures of their governments: The surest way to attract attention and voice displeasure will lie in an alliance of convenience with varied inchoate, fragmentary Islamist movements.

[See a collection of political cartoons on the economy.]

Unless states address nomadic life and the disproportionate impact climate instability will have upon it, dissident political movements will only increase their influence on nomadic people. These movements, most notably al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghrib but also other groups, largely remain Islamist in character: Their short period of governance during the aborted secession of Azawad demonstrates the type of uncompromising and oppressive regime they imagine.

Persistent refusal of states to consider interests of Saharan denizens will increasingly foster alliances driven by a rejection of particular states, rather than by any abiding political interests. Their ideology, however, may matter less to some adherents than their critique. Some in the desert may turn to Islamist groups not out of a desire for a theocratic state but simply as the most efficient, indeed only, means to attract attention to their discontent.

Ignoring climate change as a foreign policy question augurs a greater destabilization of the Sahara. As American foreign policy in Africa has refrained from addressing climate change and its concomitant, unpredictable effects as a major threat to marginalized peoples, fragile states and American interests, it has simultaneously emphasized the global war on terror as the most visible means to voice discontent.