Climate change and the war in the Syria

For those of you interested in the debate over global climate change and the war in Syria, there is an important exchange published online in Political Geography 60 (2017).  It starts with an essay by Jan Selby, Omar Dahi, Christiane Frölich and Mike Hulme, ‘Climate change and the Syrian civil war revisited‘:

For proponents of the view that anthropogenic climate change will become a ‘threat multiplier’ for instability in the decades ahead, the Syrian civil war has become a recurring reference point, providing apparently compelling evidence that such conflict effects are already with us. According to this view, human-induced climatic change was a contributory factor in the extreme drought experienced within Syria prior to its civil war; this drought in turn led to large-scale migration; and this migration in turn exacerbated the socio-economic stresses that underpinned Syria’s descent into war. This article provides a systematic interrogation of these claims, and finds little merit to them. Amongst other things it shows that there is no clear and reliable evidence that anthropogenic climate change was a factor in Syria’s pre-civil war drought; that this drought did not cause anywhere near the scale of migration that is often alleged; and that there exists no solid evidence that drought migration pressures in Syria contributed to civil war onset. The Syria case, the article finds, does not support ‘threat multiplier’ views of the impacts of climate change; to the contrary, we conclude, policymakers, commentators and scholars alike should exercise far greater caution when drawing such linkages or when securitising climate change.

Several of those whose work is criticised in the essay respond: Colin Kelley, Shahrzad, Mark Cane, Richard Seager and Yochanan Kushnir (their original contribution ‘claim[s] climate as one of many contributing factors to the unrest’ and ‘nothing [in the critique] refutes this, and none of their supportable arguments even offer reason for doubting this view’), and Peter Gleick (‘While the authors note in a few places that the research studies they critique do not typically claim that climate change “caused” the Syrian unrest, they themselves regularly repeat that very argument as a strawman that they then try to debunk’).

There’s also a blue-helmet response from Cullen Hendrix:

I fear getting the Syrian case “right” – or at least correcting a flawed dominant narrative – will negatively affect discussions of environmental impacts on conflict in the policy sphere. Many will read this article as “all this talk of climate change and conflict is wrong,” when in fact the evidence supports a much more limited conclusion: the impact of climatic factors on the Syrian civil war is not entirely clear. But the dramatic nature of the Syrian civil war and the vocal nature of those linking it to climate change have caused this case to exert inordinate influence on how influential non-specialists and the general public view the relationship between climate change and conflict.

There’s also a robust rejoinder from the original authors:

Firstly, we wish to emphasise that nothing in our analysis or our other writings questions the fact of anthropogenic climate change (though this really should go without saying) [Sadly it doesn’t: see here]. Second, we wish to note that, though some may read our article as evidence that ‘all this talk of climate change and conflict is wrong’, as Hendrix fears, this is not our view. Most academic studies of climate-conflict linkages are much more careful in their use of evidence, and on issues of causation, than the studies interrogated here. Moreover, though there is room for debate on where, when and howclimate change will affect conflict, we do not doubt that it will do so. Given the scale and the range of challenges posed by global climate change, it would frankly be incredible if it did not have some significant conflict implications.

And yet there is a long, sad history of people making overblown claims about climate change and conflict, the Syria example – and Al Gore’s recent extension of it to explain the UK’s vote to exit the European Union – being clear cases in point. Climate conflict discourse has historically been much more policy- and media-than research-led, and indeed policymakers and journalists often show scant regard for academic nuance on these issues (see e.g. Selby & Hoffmann, 2014). In the Syria case, this problem has been accentuated by the readiness of certain natural scientists, most prominently the authors of Kelley et al. (2015), to feed this un-nuanced policy and public discourse while using evidence casually and failing to engage with relevant social scientific research. To this extent the main implication of our analysis is simple: that far greater care is required, since without such care there really is a risk of climate conflict talk fuelling climate scepticism.

My sound-bites don’t do justice to the debate, nor to its importance.

There’s also a commentary from the Center for Climate & Security (‘a non-partisan policy institute’ whose Advisory Board is stacked with Admirals and Generals: even if the Trump administration dismisses global climate change as a hoax invented by the Chinese, the Pentagon certainly doesn’t) here.

More on CCS from the Washington Post here.  The CCS was cited approvingly in a comic, “Syria’s Climate Conflict” (2014), produced by Years of Living Dangerously and Symbolia Magazine; you can access it via Mother Jones here.

If, like me, you wonder about the methodologies on which these arguments and counter-arguments rest, I recommend Thomas Ide, ‘Research methods for exploring the links between climate change and conflict‘, Wiley Interdisciplinary Reviews: Climate Change 8 (3) (2017) to jump-start the debate.