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Is climate change to blame for Syria’s civil war?

Prince Charles joins a chorus of voices, including U.S. President Barack Obama and former Vice-President Al Gore, making similar claims despite good reason to doubt their veracity.

December 01, 2015 12:18 am | Updated June 01, 2016 11:38 pm IST

In this November 28, 2015 photo, a dinghy with refugees and migrants onboard is illuminated by a rainbow as it makes its way on the Aegean sea from Turkey's coast to the Greek island of Lesbos. The International Organisation for Migration said almost 900,000 people fleeing conflict and poverty in the Middle East, Africa and Asia have entered Europe this year seeking sanctuary or jobs.

In this November 28, 2015 photo, a dinghy with refugees and migrants onboard is illuminated by a rainbow as it makes its way on the Aegean sea from Turkey's coast to the Greek island of Lesbos. The International Organisation for Migration said almost 900,000 people fleeing conflict and poverty in the Middle East, Africa and Asia have entered Europe this year seeking sanctuary or jobs.

Was the Syrian civil war partly caused by climate change? Prince Charles, for one, seems to think so. “There is very good evidence indeed that one of the major reasons for this horror in Syria was a drought that lasted for about five or six years,” he told Sky News, adding that climate change is having a “huge impact” on conflict and terrorism.

The Prince is not alone on this one: he joins a chorus of voices making similar claims. In the U.S. President Barack Obama, Al Gore, and the democratic presidential hopefuls Martin O’Malley and Bernie Sanders have all talked of a link between climate change and the Syria conflict.

Having spent some time analysing the evidence, we believe there is good reason to doubt the veracity of these claims. First, most of the public and policy discourse on the conflict implications of climate change is driven by politics, not science.

The earliest reports on the subject were not scientific studies but military-led attempts to dramatise the importance of climate change by linking it to security interests. And the recent outpouring of claims about Syria’s civil war is motivated by a similar attempt to “securitise” climate change ahead of the Paris summit. While some scientific studies do find that climate change has conflict and security implications, just as many disagree.

Deeply flawed study

There appears to be some scientific support for the climate-conflict thesis: a study by Earth scientists at Columbia University, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences , found: “Climate change is implicated in the current Syrian conflict”. The problem is, this study is deeply flawed.

First, the study is not even about Syria specifically, nor about the links between Syria’s drought and civil war. Rather, its key finding is that there was a multi-year drought during the late 2000s across the “fertile crescent”, a region defined by the authors as stretching from southern Russia to Saudi Arabia. Through statistical modelling, it is then claimed that this drought was made two to three times more likely by human-caused climate change.

On to this analysis, the authors simply bolt a few dubious, secondary assertions about the links between drought and conflict in Syria. Crucial among these is that pre-war drought in Syria led to the displacement of as many as 1.5 million people to the country’s cities. But this figure — widely reproduced in media reports — is almost certainly wrong: the sole source for it is a single short news report, and it is completely out of line with Syrian government, UN and other estimates, most of which suggested numbers in the region of 250,000.

Moreover, whatever the level of pre-war internal migration within Syria, it is misleading to pin this mainly on drought. Syria’s cities were growing throughout the 2000s, thanks to economic liberalisation. And most of the “drought migration” occurred in 2009, after the overnight cancellation of subsidies on diesel and fertilisers.

Most important of all, the Columbia authors present no serious evidence whatsoever that Syria’s “drought migrants” helped spark the civil war.

They offer no evidence that any of the early unrest was directed against the drought migrants — which one would surely expect if they were indeed a cause of social stresses. And this, to put it bluntly, is because there is no such evidence.

The case for international action on climate change is strong enough without relying on dubious evidence of its impacts on civil wars. Claims such as these are mostly rhetorical moves to appeal to security interests or achieve sensational headlines, and should be recognised as such. Prince Charles and others should steer well clear. — © Guardian Newspapers Limited, 2015

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