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.


About Nick Brooks

Nick Brooks is Director of Garama 3C Ltd, a small consulting firm specialising in climate change and development. Garama offers consultancy and training services to government, multilateral organisations, NGOs and the private sector, with a focus on mainstreaming climate change adaptation into decision-making and planning. with a background in climate science (see and for more details). After graduating with a degree in Geophysics from Edinburgh University in 1993, and a brief postgraduate role at the UK Met Office, Nick completed a PhD on drought in the Sahel at the University of East Anglia's Climatic Research Unit in 1999. He subsequently undertook postdoctoral work at the University of Reading, using remote sensing and field surveys to identify archaeological sites and indicators of past environmental change in the Libyan Sahara. Nick then moved back to UEA, where he worked as a researcher on vulnerability and adaptation to climate change. In 2005 Nick became an independent consultant, working on climate change adaptation and related issues with a variety of clients including UNDP, UNEP, UNESCO, IUCN, the UK's Department for International Development (DFID), the African Development Bank (AfDB), and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development. In 2012 Nick established Garama 3C Ltd, continuing his work with DFID and AfDB, working with new clients, and developing Garama's climate change training courses. Nick continues to be active in research, working with colleagues at UEA and elsewhere on human responses to past climate change. This work focuses on adaptation during the Middle Holocene Climatic Transition, from around 6400-5000 years ago. Nick established the Western Sahara Project, and is a co-director of the project with Joanne Clarke at UEA. The Western Sahara Project examines the transition to aridity in the disputed, non-self governing territory of Western Sahara, through an archaeological and palaeoenvironmental lens.
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