Why climate breeds conflict: Syria, drought and civil war

Why climate breeds conflict: Syria, drought and civil war

Syrain war climate change drought risk
ShutterstockChristiaan Triebert
A new report links climate change, volatile weather and extreme social unrest in Syria — an ominous picture of how the risks associated with climate volatility can play out.

There has been speculation and concern among many factions, including the U.S. security community, that the onset of climate change will usher in economic, political and social unrest, leading to additional conflicts around the world. In a report released last fall, the Department of Defense referred to climate change as a “threat multiplier.”

Now, a new report just released in the proceedings of National Academy of Science claims that climate change was a key factor leading up to the current conflict in Syria.

The study points to a severe drought in the region during 2006-2009. The drought led to crop failures that caused some 1.5 million people to migrate to the cities. It turned the country from a food exporter to a net importer, driving food prices up (and illustrating how environmental risks quickly can bleed into other facets of society and the economy).

These changes exacerbated problems in the already-stressed cities when pro-democracy demonstrations broke out, ultimately becoming violent and turning into an uprising against President Bashar al-Assad, who had all but ignored the breakdown. 

As rebel brigades formed to stand up to government forces, the conflict erupted into a full-scale civil war in which some 200,000 lives already have been lost.

A number of research efforts agree that the Syrian drought, the worst in modern times, has its roots in climate change.

Lead author Colin P. Kelley claims that the likelihood of a drought of this magnitude had increased two to three times due to increased aridity in the Fertile Crescent region. Kelley said that they could find no other apparent cause for the warming and drying trend that has developed over the past 100 years.

Martin P. Hoerling, a meteorologist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, agreed with the causal link involving "human interference with the climate" and called the study "quite compelling."

Researchers at the Center for Climate and Security long have argued that the Syrian drought had a basis in climate change and that the drought had led to widespread displacement. The continued breakdown of law and order in Syria has led to the emergence of ISIS.

A year ago, Christiana Figueres, U.N. climate chief, warned (PDF), "Climate change increases the risk of armed conflict around the world because it worsens poverty and economic shocks."

Last year a Showtime documentary, "Years of Living Dangerously," hosted by Thomas Friedman, highlighted this trend, focusing specifically on Egypt, Syria and Yemen.

Now that hypothesis has some serious scientific weight behind it. A website tied to the documentary, Climate Wars, prominently features a quote from Ahmen Maher, an Egyptian Youth Leader: "If the people can’t find bread, they will make a revolution."

Retired Navy Rear Adm. David Titley, now a professor of meteorology at Penn State University, has the credentials to connect these dots if anyone does.

"It’s a pretty convincing climate fingerprint," he told Slate in an interview. Pointing to decades of poor water policy, "there was no resilience left in the system," and that the drought caused Syria to "break catastrophically."

Given the convergence of political and geophysical factors, plus the critical need for water and its place at the heart of the climate crisis, the stage was set for the Middle East to be a climate disaster years ago — a disaster that might just be beginning to unfold.

This article first appeared at JustMeans.