Scarcely a day has passed in 2015 without some aspect of the on-going civil war in Syria receiving international media attention. From the dramatic scenes of the European refugee crisis epitomised by the harrowing image of Aylan Kurdi’s body washed up on Turkish shores through to the shocking brutality of ISIS and pledges of intervention from world powers, this internecine conflict has proved to be truly global in its ramifications. Yet in spite of this, comparatively little attention has been given to the growing consensus among key policy analysts that its causes are likewise of a global nature – namely, that global warming has played a significant role in precipitating the conflict.
While the link between climate change and the civil war is fast become a talking point for an unlikely collection of public figures, including Prince Charles, Bernie Sanders, Barack Obama, and John Kerry, this is a recent development. Indeed, the failure of commentators to take into account the importance of the protracted drought is partially to blame for their misguided prognoses in 2011 that Syria would be impervious to the tide of popular resistance spreading across the Arab world. In retrospect, however, the role of the drought is undeniable.
From 2006 to 2010, Syria experienced its worst drought on record, with an estimated 75 per cent of farmers suffering total crop failure and, in the northeast of the country especially, loses of up to 80 per cent of their livestock. The result was the internal displacement of up to 1.5 million people on some estimates, who moved to the overcrowded peripheries of cities like Homs, Damascus, and Aleppo, which were already burdened by the influx of millions of Iraqi refugees between 2003 and 2007. In total the urban population grew from 8.9 million in 2002 to 13.8 million in 2010 – a swell that was accompanied by increased crime, unemployment, and an estimated 3.7 million people living food insecure. So while the uprising in Dara’a may have come as a surprise to commentators, it was already anticipated as early as the summer of 2008 in the chilling words of Syria’s Minister of Agriculture to UN officials in a leaked diplomatic cable, where he warned that the fallout from the drought was “beyond our capacity as a country to deal with.”
Admittedly, speaking of climate change as the cause of the Syrian civil war can be misleading. In most cases, climate change does not play a causal role in the direct sense, but rather increases the frequency and intensity of extreme weather events. Furthermore, to fail to acknowledge the Assad regimes’ contribution to these events can, as researchers at The Centre for Climate & Security point out, “unwittingly serve to absolve human and governmental actors of any wrongdoing, and thereby stymie meaningful action.” In fact, the Assad regime’s mismanagement of agriculture, with its subsidies to water-intensive agriculture such as cotton farming and its wasteful flood irrigation practices, is undoubtedly also to blame.
Nevertheless, a growing body of research illustrates the extent to which climate change exacerbated the crisis in Syria. A report published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, for instance, provides detailed evidence that global warming accounts for the lack of rainfall in Syria during the drought, ultimately concluding that climate change made the drought two to three times more likely to occur. In addition to this, a report on future climate impacts by The International Food Policy Research Centre reveals that with current projections of greenhouse gas emissions, this trend is likely to continue into the future, with a decline of yields from crops that rely on rainfall by up to 57 per cent by 2050. In this way, the Fertile Crescent – the birthplace of agriculture – may be barren in a matter of decades. As a recent study by researches at Loyola Marymount University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology concluded: “A plausible analogy of future climate for many locations in Southwest Asia is the current climate of the desert of Northern Afar on the African side of the Red Sea, a region with no permanent settlements.”
It is little wonder then that this research has contributed to an increased awareness of climate change as a security issue. While climate change of course has numerous other consequences, such as biodiversity loss, national governments and militaries have been quicker than many other institutions to recognise its importance to national security. The White House, to take one example, released a statement that describes climate change as a “threat multiplier” that can “aggravate stressors abroad such as poverty, environmental degradation, political instability, and social tensions – conditions that can enable terrorist activity and other forms of violence.” This was echoed earlier back home in a report issued by the Australian Centre for Policy Development, which warned of the security threat if Australia failed to integrate climate change into its security policy. It was in this spirit that some analysts, such as Five Colleges professor of Peace and World Security Studies Michael T Klare, have argued that the COP21: “should be considered not just as a climate summit but a peace conference – perhaps the most significant peace convocation in history.”
There may be good reason to be suspicious of the rise of the security paradigm in relation to climate change, especially when it is conceptualised as national, rather than human security. Yet it continues to be one way in which governments can be made amenable to international agreements like that reached at Paris, which are a crucial ingredient in mitigating the problem. While the war in Syria is undoubtedly one of the worst tragedies of recent times, it can stand as a warning to governments of a kind of world that they still have the power to avoid.
As one Syrian farmer, now a refugee in Greece, succinctly put it: “The war and the drought – they are the same thing.”
Louis Klee is the Climate Change and Energy Security Fellow at Young Australians in International Affairs.
Image Credit: CSIRO (cropped) (Wikimedia: Creative Commons)