Climate Change and Radicalization: A Case Study of Indonesia

Climate Change and Radicalization: A Case Study of Indonesia

. 6 min read

Climate change is one of the greatest threats facing the world in the 21st century. It has also been identified as a threat to global security by organizations such as the U.S Department of Defense. In addition to its environmental consequences, climate change can intensify catalysts of conflict and instability by putting strain on food and water resources, spurring cross-border migration, and increasing the frequency of national disasters. The growing focus on the intersection between climate change and global security necessitates specific analysis for how climate impacts can contribute, directly or indirectly, to specific global security challenges. Radicalization, which this article will define as the process by which individuals adopt violent extremist ideologies, is one security challenge which may be affected indirectly by climate change. The potential link between climate change and radicalization to violent extremism can be studied in Indonesia, a country vulnerable to the consequences of climate change and with a history of violent extremism.

Extremism in Indonesia

The primary extremism threat in Indonesia comes from Islamic extremist groups, which seek to use violence to replace Indonesia’s democratic, pluralist political system with a fundamentalist Islamic regime. Indonesian Islam has a tradition of tolerance and plurality, shaped by its gradual spread through commerce, cultural exchange, and conversion, as well as Indonesia’s religious and cultural diversity. However, more fundamentalist interpretations of Islam began to take root in Indonesia during the 20th century, as Indonesian students returning from Islamic schools in the Arab World brought back more conservative interpretations of Islam. The introduction of more fundamentalist interpretations of Islam to Indonesia created a clash between those seeking to preserve Indonesia’s more tolerant version of Islam and those supporting more conservative interpretations of Islam. When Indonesia gained independence after WWII, Islamic extremist group Darul Islam waged an insurgency against the secular government in an attempt to create an Islamic caliphate. While extremist groups were suppressed under the Sukarto and Suharno dictatorships, more conservative interpretations of Islam continued to spread as Arab countries—particularly Saudi Arabia—promoted more fundamentalist interpretations of Islam through building mosques, schools, and charities. After Indonesia’s transition to democracy in 1998, extremists from abroad were able to return to the country, organize groups, and conduct attacks in the early 2000s.

Today, there are a number of extremist groups operating in Indonesia such as Jemaah Islamiyah (JI), Jamaah Ansharut Daulah (JAD), and the Islamic State of Indonesia (NII). During the height of the extremism threat in Indonesia in the early 2000s, JI was the largest and most organized group, conducting several high-profile attacks—the most deadly being the 2002 Bali Bombing. Currently no extremist groups in Indonesia are as well resourced or organized as JI was during the 2000s, thanks to an increase in counter-terrorism efforts. However, occasional attacks do occur, demonstrating the still-present threat of extremism and radicalization in Indonesia.

Climate Change and Socioeconomic Factors Behind Radicalization

One way climate change may contribute to radicalization in Indonesia is by intensifying socioeconomic factors behind radicalization such as poverty, unemployment, and food insecurity. As an archipelago nation on the Pacific side of the El Niño system, Indonesia is highly vulnerable to environmental changes such as rising average temperatures, sea level rise, droughts, and more frequent natural disasters. These climate impacts can disrupt core sectors of the Indonesian economy, particularly in rural areas. Rising temperatures, for example, could make agriculture—particularly rice cultivation—more difficult. Warmer waters could also threaten marine life, reducing fish stocks and killing off coral reefs on which many rural Indonesians rely on for fishing and tourism income. An increase in the frequency and severity of droughts could further make agriculture more difficult by shortening the growing season, threatening the cultivation of water-intensive crops such as rice. Sea level rise could also disrupt sectors of the Indonesian economy by salinating coastal aquifers and flooding agricultural lands and fishing ponds near the coast, reducing agricultural and fishing output. Moreover, Indonesia is the country with the most land at risk of sea-level rise. With 60 percent—more than 165 million people—of Indonesia’s population living in coastal areas, sea level rise threatens large portions of the Indonesian population with coastal flooding and inundation. Finally, an increase in the frequency of natural disasters such as more powerful cyclones or flooding due to extreme rainfall could cause economic damage, particularly in rural areas with limited climate-resilient infrastructure.

Climate-related disruption of important Indonesian industries such as agriculture, fishing, and tourism could fuel unemployment and entrench poverty in rural areas, which are most dependent on these industries. Some studies show that climate change could reduce the total value of irrigated rice produced in Indonesia—the country’s primary agricultural product—by 20 percent by 2050, posing significant economic risk for farmers. Rising poverty and unemployment in rural areas could accelerate migration to Indonesian cities, resulting in an increase in urban poverty and larger population of urban poor if job opportunities fail to keep up with the arrival of migrants. Moreover, disruption of agriculture and fishing could potentially increase food prices across the country, especially during particularly severe drought periods, resulting in food insecurity and increasing exposure to poverty in both rural and urban areas. Indonesians’ dependence on climate-vulnerable staples such as seafood and rice magnifies the risk of food insecurity, with seafood constituting more than half of animal protein in Indonesian diet and per capita rice consumption at 150kg (330lbs) per person in 2017. Finally, climate change threatens to increase wealth inequality as Indonesia’s 26 million living in poverty, as well as those near the poverty-line, have the most limited ability to adapt to climate impacts such as sea level rise or natural disasters.

These trends could create populations of individuals vulnerable to radicalization. Growing or further entrenched poverty, for example, may increase the likelihood of radicalization in Indonesia as studies show an association between lower levels of income and likelihood of adherence to radical ideologies. Unemployment, especially among young men, can also increase the likelihood of radicalization by creating grievances that make individuals more likely to act violently or adopt extremist ideologies. Moreover, rising urban poverty—due to accelerating migration and rising food prices—could be a factor which increases the likelihood of radicalization. And an increase in wealth inequality, too, may be a factor which increases the risk of radicalization as poor Indonesians may turn to extremist ideologies as a way to make up for a lack of material possessions.

Climate Change and Political Factors Behind Radicalization

In addition to intensifying socioeconomic factors behind radicalization in Indonesia, climate change could also create political conditions that increase the risk of radicalization. Climate change, for example, could create periods of weak governance in the wake of more frequent, intense natural disasters such as cyclones or flooding. Weak governance in certain parts of the country would make it easier for extremist groups to operate and recruit followers. Groups could also win supporters by providing humanitarian efforts and charity. Some extremist groups in Indonesia already provide charity services to members and their families, and could shift to providing aid in the wake of increasingly frequent natural disasters.

General malaise as a result of climate impacts could also heighten dissatisfaction toward the government. Food crises instigated by major climate events, for example, could reduce Indonesians’ faith in government if institutions fail to adequately address rising prices or food insecurity. Similarly, other climate change impacts such as flooding or cyclones could increase dissatisfaction toward the government among affected populations by making policy on issues such as the economy and poverty reduction appear ineffective. Research from Indonesia shows that dissatisfaction toward the government may make individuals more likely to accept extremist ideology by making them more willing to support overhauling the current governance system—such as with a fundamentalist Islamic regime.

There is precedent for environmental issues creating political conditions favorable to radicalization in Indonesia. During 1997 and 1998, the country was hit by record droughts as a result of an unusually strong El Niño pattern. The droughts led to a food crisis, compounding existing economic pain resulting from the 1997 Asian financial crisis. The food crisis and economic pain led to severe dissatisfaction with the government, with massive protests resulting in a regime change that replaced the authoritarian Suharno regime with a democratic, albeit weak, government. The weak governance and political instability resulting from the transition allowed JI to act on its ideology by recruiting followers and planning attacks, leading to the major attacks of the 2000s.


Climate change may influence socioeconomic and political factors behind radicalization. In Indonesia, climate change risks entrenching poverty and unemployment as well as creating periods of political instability and weak governance, contributing to radicalization risk as well as individual-level factors that drive radicalization.

However, it is important to note that radicalization is an extremely complex issue and that there are a wide array of factors, both at the societal and individual level, that may contribute to radicalization, many of which are not discussed in this article and are not related to climate change. It is also important to note that radicalization is distinct from terrorism—as defined earlier, radicalization in this article simply means adopting an extremist ideology rather than committing acts of terrorism. Rather than arguing that climate change alone contributes to or even causes radicalization and terrorism, climate change should be seen as a factor that will contribute to a rising risk of radicalization, especially as its impacts become more defined.

Thus, climate change is an important phenomenon to consider in global counter-terrorism efforts. Effective climate strategy could promote deradicalization by counteracting  the social, economic, and political factors that can drive radicalization. An increase in radicalization creates a larger pool for extremist groups to recruit from and may increase the risk of terrorist acts. Ultimately, the global effort to combat terrorism must add analysis of environmental risks to its efforts to counter radicalization and extremism.