Did climate change contribute to the start of the Syrian war?

More than four million people have fled Syria since conflict began in in 2011, with current news of the refugee crisis bleak to read. A further eight million have been forced from their homes, so numbers may only rise.

While European countries debate how many of those in need should be allowed to cross their borders, many are beginning to question why the situation is so bad, and if this is a warning of things to come. While the civil unrest and discontent with President Bashar al-Assad’s rule cannot be overlooked, did climate change help contribute to today’s serious situation?

Professor Richard Seager of Columbia University, argues that this is exactly the case. His study, published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in March this year, says “There is evidence that the 2007-2010 drought contributed to the conflict in Syria. It was the worst drought in the instrumental record, causing widespread crop failure and a mass migration of farming families to urban centres.”

The suggestion is that as natural disasters are more frequent and severe, such as in the three-year drought in Syria, agricultural land is ruined, turning pastures into deserts. Those who work and earn off the land are driven away, seeking solace in urban centres. Overcrowding and increased poverty may help lead to civil rest, as appears the case in Syria.

Francesco Femia of the Washington D.C. Center for Climate and Security explains, “That internal displacement may have contributed to the social unrest that precipated the civil war. Which generated the refugee flows into Europe.” Tens of thousands of Syrians are arriving in the continent, trying to reach countries like our own to seek a place of refuge.

Syria, blighted by drought for the last 50 years, but experiencing nothing as severe as the latest weather event, “is not the only country affected by this drying,” said Seager. “Lebanon, Jordan, Israel, Iraq and Iran are too. However the various social, religious and ethnic wars play out, in the coming years and decades the region will feel the stress of declining water resources.”

Craig Bennett, CEO of Friends of the Earth said: “Armed conflict will always be a risk in a world with oppressive dictators, terrorist groups, ideological extremism, the militarisation of sensitive regions by world powers, and an arms trade on the constant look out for new business. All of these factors, and more, are behind the appalling conflict in Syria, and the reason Europe is now struggling to cope with tens of thousands of refugees.”

The U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has recently discussed his concern of a flux of “climate refugees”, saying: “You think migration is a challenge to Europe today because of extremism, wait until you see what happens when there’s an absence of water, an absence of food, or one tribe fighting against another for mere survival”.

Whether the climate change noted in Syria is in fact caused by human activity and global warming, is of course a subject of heated debate. The study explicitly states that human force has made “the occurrence of a 3-year drought as severe as that of 2007-2010 2 or 3 times more likely than by natural variability alone,” and that “human influences on the climate system are implicated in the current Syrian conflict.”

Meanwhile, climate change deniers fiercely dismiss the study conclusions, arguing the points are not statistically significant. James Delingpole, writing for the right wing opinion website Breitbart said: “Is there nothing green ideologues won’t do to try to breathe pseudo-scientific life into their bankrupt climate change thesis?… But then, as any liberal, greenie or Social Justice Warrior could tell you, when the facts don’t suit the narrative, change the facts.”

However, even President Barack Obama has thrown his weight behind the notion that while there are other compounding factors to the war, changes in weather helped to fuel the fire. He said, “Understand, climate change did not cause the conflicts we see around the world today, yet what we also know is that severe drought helped to create the instability in Nigeria that was exploited by the terrorist group Boko Haram. It is now believed that drought, crop failures and high food prices helped fuel the early unrest in Syria, which descended into civil war in the heart of the Middle East.”

The cause behind the severe drought in Syria put aside, the world should take note of the shocking images on television screens and be aware that there is potential for more of this to come. Bennet of Friends of the Earth said, “…if the government continues to move backwards on climate change, then we should get ready for a much bigger refugee crisis.”

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