The devastating environmental impacts of climate change have together become such an ominous cloud on the horizon that they often overshadow other potentially grave consequences that will emerge in their wake. Fortunately, a recent in-house simulation at Wikistrat — the world’s first crowdsourced consultancy where I am a Researcher — sought to address just that. Analysts were asked to explore the geopolitical consequences of climate change. While there is potential for climate change-induced conflict across all regions of the globe, current events have led me to believe that one region in particular will face challenges as the effects of global warming intensify: the Middle East and North Africa (MENA).
In fact, the possibility of climate change leading to further destabilization in the MENA region may already be taking place. Scholars have already suggested that climate-change induced drought was a contributing factor to the devastating and still on-going civil war in Syria, where challenges associated with “climate variability and change in the availability and use of freshwater” created the environment of instability in which non-state actors thrive. Compounding this, the MENA region as a whole is the most water-scarce region on the planet, and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is now projecting powerful changes in climate across the region. This will be certain to exacerbate pressure on available resources such as water and agricultural production, with the annual sum of precipitation projected to decrease by 15-20% by the year 2040.
The end result of these changes could foreseeably go in several directions depending on the degree to which MENA states are able to settle both their internal and external conflicts and begin working together for the collective good of the region. But, should the region not stabilize, climate change might bring with it a potent mix of factors breeding further instability and conflict. The first ingredient involves nuclear technology. While the United States Energy Information Administration (EIA) projects that the nuclear energy capacity of OECD states will slightly decline by 2030 in favor of renewable energy sources, it is predicted that non-OECD states will experience rapid nuclear expansion over that same time period. The majority of MENA states are either in the process of building their first nuclear power plants (NPPs), actively planning on doing so, or have expressed interest in doing so.
This trend will continue at an accelerated pace as climate change begins to create more urgent pressures for alternative energy sources. By 2025, a large proportion of MENA states will have at least one functioning nuclear power plant. It has long been understood that a proliferation risk is present in any state with an established nuclear power plant, as the production of nuclear power requires a steady production and purification of the fissile material used in improvised nuclear weapons known as “dirty bombs.” Though proliferation matters are naturally less of a problem in countries with stable governments able to enforce the proper protections needed to ensure that potentially sensitive technology and information does not fall into the hands of terrorist organizations, MENA states have historically ranked on the lower end of the stability scale.
As these trends coalesce, and MENA state governments become increasingly unable to deal with the effects of climate change, non-state terrorist organizations will be more likely to rise to power in the very states least capable of keeping fissile materials and pertinent nuclear technologies secured. To be clear, these are just predictions — but they emphasize the importance with which the international community should weigh currently unfolding MENA-region conflicts like the Libyan Civil War and the spread of the Islamic State. A strategic landscape that is particularly vulnerable to the rise of non-state terrorist organizations already exists in the Middle East, and with climate change, things will only get more difficult.