Aristotle’s Four Causes provide a useful model for analyzing the question of whether climate change “causes” terrorism. By way of introduction, the figure below illustrates how the four types of causes come together to produce a home.

aristotle's four causes in relation to building a home

This post will consider whether any of them come together with climate change and terrorism.

aristotle's four causes in relation to climate change and terrorism

Aristotle’s Four Causes are

  • Material Cause
  • Efficient Cause
  • Formal Cause
  • Final Cause

But before we start using those causes to analyze the linkage between climate change and terrorism, we first have to decide whether to take “terrorism” literally (i.e., as a tactic) or as a metonym for “terrorist acts.” For the sake of this discussion, we’ll take “terrorism” as referring to “terrorist acts.”

We also define “terrorism” as “the use of violence and intimidation in the pursuit of political aims.”

Now the analysis …

Material Cause: For Aristotle, the material cause is the material — the “that out of which” — in which the change occurs (i.e., the substance in which the change from the absence of terrorist acts to the presence of such acts occurs). For the proposition “climate change leads to terrorism,” the material cause is simple — it is society itself. If there be such a thing as climate-change terrorism, then society — not climate change — is its material cause.

Efficient Cause: For Aristotle, the efficient cause is the primary source of change or resistance to change. On the surface, the efficient cause of a change from the absence to the presence of terrorist acts would appear to be the existence of terrorists, but Aristotle would probably get even more basic in concluding the efficient cause of terrorist acts is the art of terrorism. After all, the existence of an artist is contingent upon the existence of an art. So if there be such a thing as climate-change terrorism, then the applied artistry of the terrorist — not climate change — is its efficient cause.

Final Cause: For Aristotle, the final cause is the end or goal for the sake of which something is done. (I’m treating this cause out of order to save the “aha” moment for last.) In the case of climate change, an example would be an environmentalist “spiking” trees to obstruct logging with the intent (final cause) of preventing climate change. Another would be the fire bombing of SUVs. (BTW, does anyone know an example of a terrorist act to advance climate change?) In any case, if we consider the broad array of terrorist motives, we are unlikely to find prevention (or promotion) of climate change among the final causes.

Formal Cause: For Aristotle, the formal cause is the form of what is to be. Here the question is about the “shape” of terrorist acts, all of which vary tremendously based on differing calculations of values, rewards, and opportunities among diverse terrorists and terrorist organizations.

Identifying a formal cause can be confusing because the word “formal” is not being used with the popular meaning of “entailing a distinctive degree of ceremony, custom, or convention.” Instead, it’s being used to refer to something that gives shape or form to another thing. To understand, think “cause of death,” as in death by hanging, shooting, or poisoning. In those cases, the formal cause that gives shape or form to the death in question is the rope in a hanging, the gun in a shooting, or the poison in a poisoning.

Here we should note people are profoundly mistaken in arguing final causes (e.g., murder) arise from formal causes (e.g., guns). Formal causes give shape to final causes but they do not determine them. If the intent (final cause) is to murder someone, then a rope, a gun, or poison will do, but the existence of the latter does not cause the former.

The same thing applies to the idea “climate change causes terrorism.” If the intent (final cause) is to terrorize people, then climate change might theoretically give shape to how that intent finds expression, but it does not “cause” that intention anymore than guns cause murder.

In looking for a kind of terrorism in which climate change operates as its formal cause, we would expect to find climate change shaping particular acts of violence and intimidation in the pursuit of political aims. It’s really, really hard to imagine how climate change could ever operate in such a way. Truth is the things that shape most terrorist acts are the same things that shape other murderous acts: guns, knives, poison, bombs …. So if there be such a thing as climate-change terrorism, then its formal causes won’t be climate change — rather it will take the same forms as other terrorist acts. Think spikes in trees and bombs in SUVs.

CONCLUSION: Climate-change terrorism — based on our analysis of Aristotle’s Four Causes in conjunction with a common definition of “terrorism” — is really, really rare.

  • The material cause of all terrorism is society.
  • The formal causes of terrorism have to be terrorizing — climate change cannot take people by surprise the way guns, knives, and bombs do.
  • The efficient cause of terrorism is always the applied artistry of the terrorist.
  • The final cause of terrorism is rarely the promotion or prevention of climate change.

If we’re going to find bigger and better uses for the idea of climate-change terrorism, we have to resort to metaphors. Here’s one for consideration:

Champions of anthropogenic global warming (APG) are probably the most obvious metaphor. If we’re searching for an analogy to climate-change terrorism, then the proponents of AGP would be the ones who best exemplify its formal and final causes — i.e., (1) using climate-change to shape the means of political intimidation and (2) championing climate-change prevention as the end goal of their fear mongering.

How ironic is that! The ones touting the link between terrorism and climate change are the very ones in whom the linkage between political intimidation and climate change most effectively comes together

Who would have thought?

Maybe Aristotle ….


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PS: None of the above should be taken as uncaring for the environment. I am an enthusiast for that. At the same time though, I am deeply skeptical of the present-day environmental movement’s sincerity. It looks more to me like a facade for other agendas ranging from misguided to downright evil. If the goal is really about preservation of the environment, then the movement needs leadership with more integrity and more common sense.

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1 Comment on Does climate change “cause” terrorism: an analysis in terms of Aristotle’s Four Causes

  1. It often happens that human beings turn to aggression because of something they feel they need and have been deprived of. This need — food or water perhaps — may indeed be caused by climate change (famine or drought).
    The “Arab spring” is regarded as having been triggered by several years of drought.
    But the material tools of aggression vary. Terrorism is a tool of the weak, easily aroused. Military conquest is an expensive tool of the strong (consider Germany’s “need” for lebensraum).
    Aristotle oversimplifies. In ordinary language half a dozen “causes” might be pointed to;
    drought, famine, need, aggression, weakness, . . . with climate change aggravating each. One thing seems certain: climate change might lead to regional and/or global warfare, as well as swelling streams of refugees. Or it might lead to a new era of human cooperation. But “lead to” is not Aristotelian language, and either outcome is possible given other factors.

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