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Cole: Positioning climate threat as chief security threat appropriate, justified

Bernie Sanders (D-Vt.) stayed true to his past statements that climate change is the greatest threat to national security in last week’s Democratic debate. Recent terrorist attacks have seared fresh wounds into the Western public’s heart, and it is not surprising that Sanders’ words raise some eyebrows.

However, the presidential candidate’s controversial assertion is correct, and he can back it up. Saying climate change is the greatest threat to national security is not to say that terrorism is not one. Instead, it is shifting the narrative on how terrorism might be best combatted, approaching this complex problem with appropriate insight.

Sanders’ words must be contextualized throughout the entire debate. “Of course international terrorism is a major issue we have got to address today,” Sanders said. He then went on to explain, “climate change is directly related to the growth of terrorism.”

This linkage is not something that Sanders pulled out of thin air. Government entities and individual representatives alike, including the Pentagon and James Clapper, the Director of National Intelligence, have voiced direct support for this claim.

The Pentagon issued a report last July saying, “climate change poses immediate risks to U.S. national security,” and that it will worsen threats ranging from “infectious disease to terrorism.”

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry recently detailed the impact of climate change on the Syrian civil war.

“It’s not a coincidence that immediately prior to the civil war in Syria, the country experienced its worst drought on record,” Kerry said last week in a speech at Old Dominion University.

This drought was made between two and three times more likely because of human-induced global warming, according to researchers at the University of California, Santa Barbara and Columbia University. More than 1.5 million people moved from rural to urban centers due to agricultural struggles, according to CNN. This immense influx of people increases unemployment and political unrest, creating ideal situations for terrorism recruitment.

When contextualized, Sanders’ comments are entirely appropriate. Positing climate change as the greatest threat to national security is a matter of opinion, but it is a position that holds water. However, right-wing media has been quick to criticize.

Mark Steyn on Fox Business’ “Varney and Company” called Sanders “insane,” showing “delusion and denial.” Peggy Noonan of The Wall Street Journal said Sanders sounded “daffy” and like somebody who “doesn’t understand what the real subject is.” These remarks were just a few of many, all of which shied away from addressing the countless high-profile reports that compose the foundation for Sanders’ rational argument.

In addition to omitting available information, these critiques equate anything less than full-blown anti-terrorist rhetoric as incomprehensible. Limiting the discourse surrounding combating terrorism to a debate on appropriate military action is dangerous. Historically, one must look no further back than the military retaliation in Iraq under the Bush administration, which is argued to have led to the birth of the Islamic State group.

Positioning climate change as the greatest threat to national security does multiple things. It prioritizes the vast environmental and social issues which are worsening the longer widespread action is delayed. In addition, by linking combating climate change to combating terrorism, a traditionally violence-dominated discourse, one that has a track record of horrific results, can be approached geographically, politically and culturally.

It is understandable why Sanders’ remarks sparked such fervent debate. They operate within the intersection of foreign policy and climate change, two largely non-partisan issues.

Sanders’ is fighting an uphill battle, but his deviance from traditional discourse is both refreshing and necessary.

Azor Cole is a senior public relations major and geography minor. His column appears weekly. He can be reached at azcole@syr.edu and followed on Twitter @azor_cole.

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