When asked, in the wake of the Paris terrorist attacks whether climate change still ranked as the top national security threat, democratic candidate for president Bernie Sanders said, without hesitation, “Absolutely.” This response during Saturday night’s debate was swiftly criticized as being naive and insensitive. Former Obama advisor David Axelrod called Sanders “tin-eared”.

In truth, Sanders gave a bad answer to a bad question. Climate change and terrorism shouldn’t be pitted against other in terms of their importance. The former is a risk or “threat multiplier,” the latter is a threat.

To use a crude analogy: Terrorism is the bullet coming straight at your head while climate change is one of several catalysts for an unpredictable cancer. Both are serious in their own way.

“Picking one thing to be ‘the threat’ makes for good headlines and twitter-sized morsels — but for lousy understanding,” said retired Navy Rear Adm. David Titley. Titley now serves as director of Penn State’s Center for Solutions to Weather and Climate Risk.

Titley’s thoughts echo those articulated by the Center for Climate and Security, a policy institute comprised of senior retired military leaders and national security experts, in a blog post Monday. “We need to move away from both ‘ranking’ threats to national security, or focusing on just one element of the risk landscape that’s easily understood,” it said. “We need to take a closer look at how security risks are connected, and then build from there.”

Researchers have identified a probable connection between climate change and instability in Syria, but you must walk down a long chain of different contributors before it emerges.

A study in the academic journal PNAS implicated climate warming in the intensity of the severe drought which afflicted Syria between 2007-2010. That drought, the PNAS study said, caused “widespread crop failure and a mass migration of farming families to urban centers.”

Civil war broke out in Syria following the drought which led to the prominence of ISIS, but Brad Plumer at Vox points out climate change can only be considered one of many stressors that led to the conflict and its consequences:

Notice how many moving parts there are here. Climate change likely raised the odds of a severe drought occurring in Syria. But even without global warming, a drought might still have occurred — if perhaps less severe. So climate change wasn’t strictly necessary for disruptions to occur. At best we might say it made the situation worse.
It also wasn’t sufficient for conflict. A severe drought, by itself, simply isn’t enough to trigger a bloody civil war. (Note that California hasn’t descended into armed frenzy.) You also have to mix in poverty, the Syrian government’s squandering of water resources, the influx of Iraqi and Palestinian refugees, and a whole web of political and social factors. Syria is an autocratic regime with a long history of human rights abuses. Then you have the fact that Assad responded to the unrest in Daara and elsewhere with extreme violence. There was a lot of tinder in this tinderbox.

So climate change is more accurately framed as a “threat multiplier”, a label which is used by the Department of Defense, says the Center for Climate and Security. “Its impacts on food, water and energy security can create conditions that may increase the likelihood of state instability,” said Caitlin Werrell and Francesco Femia, directors of the Center, in a statement. “And in ungoverned spaces, given the right political, economic, social and environmental conditions, terrorism can thrive, as we see in Syria. In other words, climate change could drive a less stable world, and non-state actors may exploit that.”

So pronouncing climate change as our top national security threat is misguided, because it does not, by itself, instigate hostilities. But it can contribute to conditions that precipitate violence. As Titley put it, “The climate does not have an ‘intent’ to injure us per se … it simply responds to the laws of physics. The consequences though to our global society can be severe.”

And lest one think we need to frame climate change as the top security threat to motivate action on climate change, consider the direct consequences of climate change, including the potential for uncontrollable sea level rise, are more than enough on their own.