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.
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.
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.