Friday, March 17, 2017

Climate Change and the Syrian Civil War

The ongoing Civil War in Syria is both an enormous tragedy and a global crisis.  Estimates have suggested that close to half a million people have died.  The United Nations has indicated that 13.5 million Syrians need some form of humanitarian aid, including approximately five million refugees.  The Islamic State has emerged as a direct result of this conflict, taking over territory in Syria and Iraq and eventually supporting terrorist activity here in the United States.  Lots of factors have contributed to the Civil War, and it has been suggested that climate change is one of them. Showing an unequivocal link between global warming and the conflict is a challenge, but there are a couple of ways to demonstrate why such a link is plausible.  First, climate change appears to have influenced conflicts in past human history.  Second, there is strong evidence from both models and observations that climate change has influenced the recent Syrian drought.  And third, there are reasons to believe that the drought aggravated the tensions that led to the Civil War.

Science can show that the beginnings of historical periods of conflict or stability often coincide with climate shifts.  A 2011 paper, for example, used several thousand tree samples to show that the era of Roman dominance in Europe coincided with a lengthy warm, wet, and stable climate.  Subsequent instability in the climate record coincided with political upheavals, along with the barbarian advances that led to the Empire’s downfall and subsequent political chaos.  A return to stability in the climate beginning around 800 AD coincided with the establishment of lasting Medieval kingdoms.  Similarly, a 2012 paper used cave deposits to confirm the long-suspected notion that the Mayan Empire thrived during a prolonged wet period, began to struggle as the climate got drier, and then collapsed completely during a period of extended drought.  And a 2007 paper showed a statistical correlation between cycles of warfare and cycles of climate variation in Europe and China between 1400 and 1900.

So climate change often at least coincides with general historical periods of prosperity and conflict.  The conflicts typically arise from a scarcity of resources, especially water.  In the case of Syria, the nation has been wracked by a very strong, prolonged drought.  In fact, an analysis of an archive of tree ring data from the Mediterranean region has shown that the drought currently afflicting Syria has been the worst in the 900-year record.  Furthermore, modeling studies indicate that the drying of Syria is consistent with a warming world.  According to the most recent IPCC report, global warming is expected to extend the belt of dry, sinking air that shapes most of the world’s deserts further to the north, potentially affecting much of the Mediterranean region.  The historic drought in Syria over the past decade is therefore consistent with our understanding of the physics affecting Syria’s climate.

A 2015 paper titled “Climate change in the Fertile Crescent and implications of the recent Syrian drought” tied the political and climatic loose ends together.  Hafez al-Assad, father and predecessor of current Syrian leader Bashir al-Assad, ramped up Syrian agricultural production to an unsustainable degree.  This caused a steady decline in the nation’s supply of groundwater.  The lost groundwater increased Syria’s vulnerability to the historic drought, and aggravated an already precarious situation.  The loss of livelihood due to the drought led to the mass migration of rural Syrians to the peripheries of cities that were already teeming with Iraqi refugees.  It was in these peripheries that the unrest was kindled.

In short, there is very strong evidence that the drought was a major contributor to the conditions that made the Syrian Civil War possible.  While it is possible that the drought would have happened without climate change, science indicates that the warming world in which we live made such a drought more likely.  And the probability of disruptive long-term weather events occurring is only going to increase as the world continues to warm.  Furthermore, even though this conflict is taking place in a distant land, the consequences have spread globally.  Regardless of where the next disruptive event takes place, we will not be immune to its effects.

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