Is Climate Change Causing Violent Conflicts?
Recent and tragic events involving the death of refugees fleeing war-torn regions in the Middle East for safe havens in Europe and elsewhere have once again shed light on of the key questions surrounding climate change: does it cause violent conflicts?
A recent study suggests that climate change was one of the causes of the Syrian conflict. The researchers found that the severe drought in the country between 2006 and 2010 forced many Syrians to leave their crops and herds to try and make a living in Syrian cities, which were already overcrowded. Are these displaced Syrians the first documented climate change refugees?
Until recently, the idea of climate change refugees had been largely theoretical. But the researchers studying the Syrian conflict are confident that climate change, along with other factors like corrupt leadership, inequality, and population growth, was a main catalyst of the conflict.
The study used statistics to show that water shortages in Syria, Iraq, and Turkey killed livestock and led to higher food prices. An astounding 1.5 million rural residents converged on Syrian cities, which were already experiencing overpopulation. High food prices and crowded living arrangements made meeting life’s necessities difficult, and tensions in the region rose accordingly.
Using meteorological data, the researchers concluded that it is unlikely that natural weather variability alone can account for the weather conditions that caused the drought.
The Idea Receives Presidential Assent
During a speech last spring, President Obama warned that climate change was one of the causes of violent conflicts throughout the world, calling it a “threat multiplier”. He talked about the conflict in Nigeria and the instability – created by extreme drought – in the country that was exploited by Boko Haram. He also noted that his government believes that climate change was a factor in the Syrian civil war
The US government has long been arguing that climate change will lead to further violent conflicts and millions of climate change refugees, particularly because many of the regions that are the least politically and socially stable are very susceptible to drought -- which is going to become more likely as climate change intensifies.
For example, the World Bank recently forecast that climate change will lead to more heat-waves and drought in the Middle East and North Africa, leading to crop failure, water shortages, and dislocation of rural inhabitants. Sound familiar?
Today, Baghdad experiences about eight extreme heat days per year. According to the World Bank study, the number of days could increase to 90 with a two degree Celsius temperature increase and 115 days with 4 degrees of warming. One can only imagine the consequences of such an intense change in temperature.
The Bottom Line
While it would be unreasonable to state outright that climate change caused the Syrian civil war, it would be incorrect to state that it did not play a part in fueling the crisis. If projections of temperatures in conflict regions bear out, the world could be in for more violent conflicts and a record numbers of refugees.
All the more reason to take action now to mitigate climate change and create frameworks and policies for adapting to it.