Climate change, Syria and the conflicts to come

Recognition of climate change as a key trigger for the war in Syria is not new. A 2009 report from IISD identified increased risks of conflict in Syria and surrounding countries as a result of the impacts of climate change on food security and water availability. A paper by Peter Gleick published in 2014 concluded that “water and climatic conditions have played a direct role in the deterioration of Syria’s economic conditions.” A paper by Kelley et al., published in March 2015 went further:

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 centers. Century-long observed trends in precipitation, temperature, and sea-level pressure, supported by climate model results, strongly suggest that anthropogenic forcing has increased the probability of severe and persistent droughts in this region, and made the occurrence of a 3-year drought as severe as that of 2007−2010 2 to 3 times more likely than by natural variability alone. We conclude that human influences on the climate system are implicated in the current Syrian conflict.

These studies deserve an airing now, given the current focus of attention on the latest refugee crisis to face the Middle East (and Europe if you listen to the hysteria about letting moderate to tiny numbers of refugees into the EU and its member states), driven predominantly by the conflict in Syria.

Of course the links between climate change and the Syria conflict are neither simple nor deterministic. If the Assad government had responded better to the worst drought on record – outside the norms of long-term climate variations – that destroyed the livelihoods of farmers and livestock keepers and resulted in food insecurity and economic crisis, conflict might have been avoided.

But disasters and conflicts arise from the interaction of triggers or hazards with underlying social, political, economic and environmental vulnerabilities. These vulnerabilities are everywhere, and not just in Syria.

Climate change is accelerating, and we are just experiencing the beginnings of a massive global climatic transition that will see unprecedented droughts, floods, storms and other forms of climatic (and hence societal) disruption come thick and fast. This is just a breathing space before the shit really hits the fan.

When the next big climatic transition really gets going (the last one was over five thousand years ago, and very different in nature, but not necessarily in some of its consequences), we’re likely to look back at the numbers of refugees and migrants we’re fretting about today and think “wow, we had all that fuss over those tiny numbers?”

This underscores the importance of addressing climate change through a combination of mitigation (reducing the greenhouse emissions that are causing it), and adaptation to the climate change we haven’t prevented (and that’s going to be a lot of change, given the continuing failure of mitigation). Adaptation will include so-called ‘incremental’ adaptation to protect and preserve existing systems and practices, as well as ‘transformational’ adaptation which will see existing systems, practices, settlement patterns and economic activities abandoned or replaced with something else where they are simply unviable under a changed climate. Somewhere in the mix will be migration, one of the principal means through which humans (and plants and animals) have adapted to climatic and environmental changes for as long as they have been around.

We need to recognise that migration will be a key element of adaptation, and we need to embrace, facilitate and – as far as possible – manage it, for example through helping migrants to move and ensuring that services, facilities and infrastructure to cope with their arrival are in place in destination regions. We can’t close our eyes to migration and pretend it’s someone else’s problem. But this is precisely the attitude of many European governments to the Syria refugee crisis. Again, let’s be clear that the crisis is a humanitarian one located in Syria and its neighbours, and along the migration routes that are the products of policies designed to limit migration and make it somebody else’s problem (e.g. by ensuring refugees can only apply for asylum once they have arrived in Europe, meaning they have to make dangerous journeys facilitated by unscrupulous people traffickers and cross European borders illegally before they can even think about applying).

It’s perverse that those most vocally opposing the migration of what some will call ‘climate refugees’ (a problematic term, but let’s go with it for now) tend to be those who are most hostile to action on climate change and transitions to cleaner forms of energy (see for example the UK government’s recent slashing of support for renewable energy), and keenest on extracting and burning more fossil fuels (see for example the same government’s strong support for fracking). This is the opposite of joined-up thinking, let alone policy making, by those who do not, and apparently cannot, understand the world that is forming around them, in large part as a consequence of their own actions and inaction.

Even those whose job it is to address climate change and fund responses to it are failing to grapple with the ‘wicked problem’ of migration. Mention it to any of the major donors involved in dishing out climate finance and they’ll usually pull a horrified face and throw their hands up as if to say, “What? We can’t touch that – it’s way to difficult and controversial!” At the same time, many mainstream migration researchers are reluctant to bang the climate change drum on the grounds that historically, climatic and environmental change is just one factor among many that influence people’s decisions to migrate. This may be true in the period for which the most evidence is available, but given the massive changes in climatic and environmental conditions coming our way historical analogues are arguably of limited relevance.

Syria and its refugee crisis is a humanitarian disaster that needs addressing now. But it is also very likely a harbinger of things to come. If we can’t cope with this crisis, we’re going to be pretty screwed when it comes to dealing with the wider societal implications of climate change.

Finally if you want a summary of the role of climate change in the Syria conflict in comic form (perhaps the best way of explaining the situation to above mentioned policy makers), this is very good, and very succinct:

Additional note: Biff Vernon delved a bit deeper into this topic than I have in a series of blog posts in 2013, the first of which can be found here. Thanks for the heads up Biff.

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Agricultural transitions in a changing climate

Over at the Garama website I’ve written an opinion piece in response to the African Development Bank’s recent statements about the importance of transitioning from traditional subsistence to modern commercial agriculture in Africa. While commercialisation is not necessarily bad in and of itself, the history of development policy in Africa offers us some cautionary lessons. These are particularly pertinent in the context of climate change. Check out the article here.

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Mainstreaming climate change – training course

There is a lot of focus on ‘mainstreaming’ climate change into development planning these days. The idea of mainstreaming climate change is to ensure that its implications are routinely considered by those responsible for designing and implementing development investments, strategies, plans, policies, programmes and projects. The aim is to identify and reduce climate change risks associated with such initiatives, and to make sure than any opportunities such initatives may present to build resilience to climate change are taken.

My company, Garama 3C Ltd, is offering a 3-day training course on climate change mainstreaming, aimed at development professionals who need to address climate change in their work, and organisations that want to develop their own mainstreaming systems, processes and mechanisms.

The course is held in Norwich, UK, and cost £1200 including 4 nights accommodation (£800 for those arranging their own accommodation). The next course is planned for 15-17 July 2013, and the course will be repeated from 8-10 October 2013. The plan is to run the course several times a year.

We can add dates to the calendar if there is sufficient demand, for example if an organisation wants to send a number of staff on the course.

We are also offering a mobile version of the course that can be run at a location chosen by the client, such as a regional headquarters or country office.

See the Garama website for full details of the course, including a draft programme, or download the information here as a pdf.

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Good and bad causes (and a new paper)

I’ve heard it said the the road to Hell is paved with false dichotomies, and this appears to be particularly true of academic theories about causality, a subject on which I was invited to speak at a workshop in Copenhagen about this time last year. The workshop also resulted in a special issue of the Danish Journal of Geography, which has just come out, and in which I have a paper.

Specifically, the workshop addressed causality in human-environment interactions, wrestling with the question of whether we can say a particular environmental change or stress can be said to “cause” a particular societal outcome.


Environmental change is just one factor that influences people’s decisions to migrate, but sometimes it can be the dominant factor. Photo: building buried by ash and pyroclastic flow in Plymouth, Montserrat. The town is now abandoned.

To anyone who has lost their house in a hurricane, or seen their crops wither and die in a drought, this question might seem ridiculous or even offensive. However, those who study human-environment interactions will point out that, somewhere along the line, a decision has been made to build a house in an area exposed to hurricanes, or to grow crops in a region prone to drought. It is the interaction between the vulnerability of human activities and infrastructure resulting from such decisions (to exploit or inhabit risky areas), and the occurrence of an environmental hazard or stress that results in risk, and in negative societal outcomes. In other words, environmental hazards only affect human activities or infrastructure that we put in their way.

The problem becomes more complex when we’re talking about the role of environmental stresses in larger-scale phenomena such as migration or the collapse of human societies. Droughts may act as triggers for food crises, but droughts of similar magnitude and duration can have very different societal impacts depending on the vulnerability of the exposed population. This is apparent in regions that have experienced meteorologically similar droughts in different years, with very different outcomes due to changes in government policies or the introduction of effective early warning and response systems. Can a drought be said to have caused a famine in one year, when a similar drought some years later leaves the same country or region relatively unscathed? It is widely accepted today that famines are as much man-made as they are natural disasters, even where drought acts as a trigger.

When it comes to climate change, the debate still rages on. Using terminology from the migration literature, on the one hand are what we might call the ‘maximalists’, who argue that climate change will ’cause’ migration and conflict, among other things. On the other are the ‘minimalists’, who maintain that climatic and environmental change represents just one set of factors among many that influence societal outcomes. Minimalists often go so far as to say that there is no point trying to separate environmental factors from other drivers of societal change, because of the multiplicity of factors contributing to these changes and the complexity of their interactions. The minimalist position seems to be gaining the upper hand, largely because of flaws in maximalist attempts to quantify the numbers of people who might be displaced, killed or otherwise affected by climate change.

Despite these flaws in maximalist thinking, there is a danger here that the triumph of minimalism will lead to a kind of nihilism, which will discourage people from examining the wider societal impacts of climate change. It may undermine attempts to quantify climate change damages, an approach that could be deployed to hold polluters to account and thus drive the large-scale behavioural changes that are required to tackle climate change effectively. And there is a further problem.

While the minimalist camp has evidence and subtlety on its side, it tends to ignore the fact that our empirical understanding of environmental drivers of phenomena such as migration is based on a very limited time window, namely the past few decades. The recent historical period is a poor guide to understanding how people react to massive, severe, and sustained changes in climatic and environmental conditions, as such changes have been few and far between in recent decades and even centuries (while there have been plenty of climatic and environmental shocks, the basic configuration of the global climate has remained essentially unchanged for millennia). Put simply, we don’t have any decent historical analogues for what’s coming, as the global climate reorganises itself over the coming decades (and centuries) in ways that we are struggling to anticipate. Somehow we need to extend the evidence base so that we have examples of how populations – and indeed societies at large – respond to such huge changes in climatic and environmental conditions.

In my paper from the Copenhagen workshop, I suggest that we might learn from the last period of global climatic reorganisation, which took pace between about 6400 and 5000 years ago. This did not involve any large changes in global average temperatures, and was driven by natural processes relating to changes in the Earth’s orbit and the distribution of solar radiation across its surface, rather than the buildup of greenhouse gases from human activity. However, it did involve profound shifts in climatic and environmental conditions across much of the globe, including the desertification of the northern hemisphere subtropical region (southern North America and today’s desert belt stretching from West Africa to China), harsher (and colder) conditions in Europe and other middle and high-latitude regions, and the establishment of a regular El Niño. People practiced small-scale farming and herding, as do billions of people today, and urban societies existed (and became more common and extensive as conditions deteriorated).

The paper summarises evidence from a number of regions suggesting that climatic and environmental change had a profound effect on human societies during this period. The strength of this evidence varies with location, but it is enough for us to construct convincing narratives of environmental change as a dominant driver of social change during key periods. These changes are not always in the same direction – in some places people become more mobile in their search for resources, while in others they retreat to refugia and become more settled. In some locations people give up farming for mobile herding, while in others such herding is abandoned or integrated into a more sedentary lifestyle based on irrigated agriculture. And the effects of large changes in climate go far beyond societal collapse, although that particular outcome has dominated discussions of the impacts of climate change on past societies.

The point is that we can talk about environmental influences on the development of human societies (for better or worse, depending to an extent on your perspective), without falling into the trap of determinism. Another important lesson is that it is naive to stick dogmatically to either a minimalist or a maximalist position. Climatic and environmental changes certainly interact with other drivers of societal change, but the relative importance of these drivers varies over time. Looking to the more distant human past helps us to think about the possibility that some environmental changes may be so great that they overwhelm other drivers of change, even if such a situation is temporary. This certainly seems to have been the case on a number of occasions five to six millennia ago, and I’m prepared to bet that it will be the case again soon.

Here is the first page of the paper (with abstract) – contact me if you would like a full version. References for this and other of my papers on similar topics below.

Brooks, N. 2013. Beyond collapse: climate change and causality during the Middle Holocene Climatic Transition, 6400-5000 years before present (BP). Geografisk Tidsskrift-Danish Journal of Geography 112(2): 93-104. View abstract/1st page, or contact me for an electronic copy.

Brooks, N. 2010. Human responses to climatically-driven landscape change and resource scarcity: Learning from the past and planning for the future. In I. P. Martini and W. Chesworth (eds.) Landscapes and Societies: Selected Cases, pp. 43-66. Springer, Dordrecht, Heidelberg, London, New York, 478 pp. Access chapter via Google Books.

Brooks, N. 2006. Cultural responses to aridity and increased social complexity in the Middle Holocene. Quaternary International 151, 29-49. Download pdf (324 kb).

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A few updates

I’ve added details of a few reports to the website, including reports for the African Development Bank (AfDB) on (i) climate change, agriculture and natural resources, and (ii) climate change, energy and transport; a 2011 report for UNDP on climate change and migration (prepared with Alex Winkels); reports of the Pilot Programme on Climate Resilience (PPCR) Expert Group on country selection for participation in the PPCR.

You can download the UNDP migration report from this website. Links are provided to the PPCR website, from which can download the PPCR reports and other PPCR documentation. If you’re interested in seeing the AfDB reports let me know and I’ll ask AfDB and International Development UEA (who managed this contract) whether this is possible.

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Hurricane Sandy, attribution, and resposibility for climate change damages

There has been a lot of discussion about whether Hurricane Sandy can be blamed in whole or in part on anthropogenic climate change. In short, the consensus among people who work on climate change seems to be that this sort of storm would form in the absence of climate change, but that climate change (warmer oceans, changing weather patterns due to Arctic sea-ice melt) amplifies the severity and mediates the character of such events.

Coming hot (sorry) on the heels of a severe drought, Sandy may be concentrating the minds of at least some Americans on climate change. If these sorts of droughts and storms are to become more common (and maybe even a “new normal”), responses are required. Adaptation will be vital, but it is still worth taking action to reduce the magnitude of human-induced climate change. And that requires political and economic action.

Some years ago, I attended a meeting at which the idea of “fractional attributable risk” (FAR) was raised. Put simply, FAR involves estimating the frequency and severity of extremes under conditions with and without anthropogenic global warming, and taking the difference to see what fraction of damages from extremes in the real (warmed) world can be attributed to the influence of elevated greenhouse gas concentrations. Once you can attribute damages to emmisions, you can pass the costs of those damages on to those responsible. The scientist who presented the idea of FAR said that he believed such attribution of costs on a “polluter pays” principle was much more likely result in action to reduce emissions than any amount of global climate negotiations and agreements (think Kyoto).

Attribution of specific events – at least partially – to climate change is becoming more feasible and more routine, as this article in Bloomberg Business Week (yes, that’s right) illustrates.

This seems particularly pertinent given the multi-billion Dollar impacts of Sandy, and the growing chorus of indignation (at least among some sections of the electorate) that climate change has been completely absent from the debate leading up to next week’s Presidential election.

How can the people of America get their representatives (I use the term advisedly) to do something to address intensifying risks such as those they have experienced this year? The science of attribution of extremes provides one answer.

US citizens need to demand action on climate change from their government, and prosecute for negligence politicians who ignore it, and lobbyists (and their corporate clients) who lie about the science with the sole aim of preventing action to tackle it. Suffered losses because of an event caused or amplified by climate change? Then sue those responsible. That means the primary begetters of greenhouse gas emissions, and those who have deliberately obstructed mitigation through emissions reduction. In principle it’s simple, now that the science of attribution is more advanced.

Related link:

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Welcome to my new website, which pulls together information about my research and consultancy activities. I’ll be adding more content soon. In the meantime you can use the tabs above to find out more about me, to see details of some reports prepared as part of my recent consultancy commissions, and to see a list of some my publications. Or check the About page for more links and information, including about my consultancy work through for GARAMA 3C Ltd.

If you are looking for the SAND & DUST blog, which until recently was hosted at this address, you can find it at its new, dedicated WordPress domain:

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