Are Climate Change And the Conflict in Syria Connected?

A new study shows a link between the nation’s recent unrest and a major drought spurred on by global warming

Syrian Conflict
A general view shows damaged buildings in the Douma neighborhood of Damascus in Syria on February 24, 2015. MOHAMMED BADRA/Reuters/Corbis

Scientists have been arguing for years over the extent of influence climate change can have on the emergence and unfolding of human conflicts. Now, a new paper has evaluated global warming’s role in the conflicts in Syria—the first study of its kind to evaluate an ongoing war.

Published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the study “documents a century-long trend of increasing temperatures and decreasing rainfall” in Syria, reports Nature. It links these changes to the worst drought in the nation’s recorded history, which hit between 2007 and 2010 and crippled agriculture. As the land drastically dried, 1.5 million people fled rural regions for cities and their outskirts, with tensions arising over the management of water resources. Researchers say that these drought-related developments contributed to the social unrest that would eventually erupt into civil war.

“Because the observed trend could be reproduced only when climate models took manmade greenhouse-gas emissions into account, the study’s authors conclude that global warming helped to drive the recent drought,” explains Nature.

The study does not assert that climate change played a major role in the complex political and social conflicts that led to war in Syria. Rather, it states that “human influences on the climate system are implicated” in the crisis—in other words, it played a part. As Nature reports:

“I don’t think anyone would claim that climate change is a proximate cause of conflict,” says Francesco Femia, director of the Center for Climate and Security, a think tank in Washington DC. “But it can exacerbate those conditions that can make conflict more likely.” The new research on Syria is worrying, he adds, as climate models predict further drying in the region in coming decades.

Other studies conducted over the last six years have linked climate change as a contributing factor to conflicts throughout the world, including modern unrest in Africa. But not everyone in the scientific community is convinced. Some argue that global warming has little influence when compared to the effect of the failure of policies implemented as people and governments react to climate change.

And Andrew Solow, an environmental statistician interviewed by Natureargues that the debate is a distraction from implementing necessary efforts to “strengthen civil institutions” in compromised regions. “You don’t have to cut CO2 emissions by 80% to provide clean water to poor people living in Africa or [implement] better agricultural practices,” he said.

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