Climate Change Added Fuel to Syrian War
Climate change in the form of sustained drought is not to blame for the bloody and prolonged conflict in Syria, according to a new study. But drought nevertheless plays a contributing role in creating the conditions for conflict – and a database of 1,800 riots over a cycle of 21 years delivers the evidence to support that hypothesis, according to a second study.
The idea that climate change, with consequential drought and famine in its wake, can drive conflict and topple kingdoms, empires and civilisations is not a new one: climate change has been identified as a factor in the fall of the ancient Assyrian empire and the fall of the Mayan civilisation, and the recent drought in the eastern Mediterranean has been identified as the worst in 900 years.
But, scientists in the UK argue in the journal Political Geography, there is no evidence to support climate change as a factor in the Syrian civil war.
This is an argument not likely to be settled by any one study. Researchers in the last three years have repeatedly warned that climate is likely to be a contributing factor to civil conflict or violence in some cases simply because hot weather and short tempers seemed statistically linked, in others because prolonged drought turns farmers and herdsmen into climate refugees.
And the flight from the land has been linked with the beginning of civil unrest in Syrian cities. This argument has been invoked by, among others, former US President Obama, Prince Charles of Great Britain, the World Bank and Friends of the Earth.
Not so, say the scholars in Political Geography. They argue that though the drought was severe, it was not necessarily caused by man-made climate change driven by profligate combustion of fossil fuels, and that although drought contributed to migration to the cities, this would have involved not 1.5 million people but no more than 60,000 families. Economic liberalisation in any case may have been the more important factor, they say.
Droughts are a factor that add fuel to flames that are already burning
“Our paper finds that there is no sound evidence that global climate change was a factor in sparking the Syrian civil war. Indeed, it is extraordinary that this claim has become so widely accepted when the scientific evidence for it is so thin,” said Jan Selby, who directs the Centre for Conflict and Security Research at Sussex University in the UK.
“Global climate change is a very real challenge, and will undoubtedly have significant conflict and security consequences, but there is no good evidence that this is what was going on in this case.
“It is vital that experts, commentators and policymakers resist the temptation to make exaggerated claims about the conflict implications of climate change. Overblown claims not based on rigorous science only risk fuelling climate scepticism.”
But the link between climate and violence remains. European researchers report in the Journal of Environmental Economics and Management that they studied the pattern of rioting recorded in sub-Saharan Africa between 1990 and 2011, and found a systematic link between sudden depletion of water resources and the outbreak of unrest.
They used statistical reasoning to find that droughts raised the risk of rioting from 10% to 50% in a given month in any region. There were other factors: density of population, the presence of lakes and rivers and the local ethnic mix could all contribute to the probabilities of conflict. That did not mean that droughts “cause” conflict.
“In order of importance, it is political, economic or social causes that create tension,” said Jérémy Lucchetti, a professor in the University of Geneva’s economics and management faculty, who led the study.
“Droughts are a factor that add fuel to flames that are already burning.”
The article “Climate change did not cause Syrian war” was originally published on October 11, 2017 on the Climate News Network
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In addition to the good discussion above, in a very recent article in “Nature Communications” scientists threw some different light on the relationships between climate changes and crises since ancient times. They compared strong volcano eruptions which changed weather patterns in monsoon areas from 500 BC until today and compared them with regional conflicts since that time.
Especially good data they found for the Ptolemaic Egypt (305–30 BC). This epoch can be seen as a proxy for the current changes in weather patterns due to climate change. During the Ptolemaic times the volcanic activity was much more pronounced than today and historic sources were quite well documented.
The result of the scientists’ findings: Changes in weather patterns contribute to revolts, but at the same time they reduce interstate wars and conflicts.
The reason: After the years of a major volcanic outbreak, harvests decreased while hunger increased followed by revolts. Governments needed now their resources to hold down the revolts and at the same time had no soldiers available for wars with other states.
This suggests, that climate changes (or better: changes in weather patterns) have no influence on violence as such, but rather change the focus of violence from interstate (favourable climatic conditions) to inner-state (unfavourable climatic conditions), and vice versa. The level of violence seem to remain the same.
I found it interesting, how difficult it really is to find out if and how changes in weather patterns due to climate changes can be linked to conflicts (in this research due to volcano outbreaks, which can change weather patterns over many years). So one should be careful to threaten people with dystopian visions based on currently still uncertain evidences, I think. Better live with uncertainties, but concentrate on the precautionary principle instead in doing everything to stop climate warming from becoming worse.
Source: Manning, Joseph G. et al. (2017): Volcanic suppression of Nile summer flooding triggers revolt and constrains interstate conflict in ancient Egypt. Nature Communications 8, Article number: 900 (2017), doi:10.1038/s41467-017-00957-y. Open publication available at: https://www.nature.com/articles/s41467-017-00957-y