Study questions climate change/Syrian war link
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September 14, 2017
Study questions climate change/Syrian war link

An argument that gained traction under the Obama administration that droughts caused by climate change would force mass migrations and contribute to armed conflicts on national and international scales is being at least partially refuted in a new paper by researchers from several European universities. The authors of the paper focus on claims that anthropogenic climate change was a key cause of drought and subsequent civil war in Syria. While they do not dispute that Syria did experience a severe drought before civil war, they contend that the linkages between climate change and the drought, human migrations, and civil war are not supported by the evidence.

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The climate change-Syrian civil war connection recently made news when former U.S. Vice President Al Gore referred in an interview to the nation’s “1.5 million climate refugees.”

Fresh look at evidence

Led by Professor Jan Selby, Director of the Sussex Centre for Conflict and Security Research at the University of Sussex in Brighton, United Kingdom, the goal of the project was to take a “fresh look” at the existing evidence for the climate-change basis for events in Syria and also to conduct new research into Syrian rainfall data and the experiences of Syrian refugees.

“Our paper finds that there is no sound evidence that global climate change was a factor in sparking the Syrian civil war,” Selby states in a University of Sussex news release. “Indeed, it is extraordinary that this claim has become so widely accepted when the scientific evidence for it is so thin. Global climate change is a very real challenge and will undoubtedly have significant conflict and security consequences, but there is no good evidence that this is what was going on in this case. It is vital that experts, commentators, and policymakers resist the temptation to make exaggerated claims about the conflict implications of climate change. Overblown claims not based on rigorous science only risk fueling climate skepticism.”

Economics of migration

Selby and his colleagues found that:

  • Although Northeast Syria did experience an exceptionally severe drought before its civil war, this drought was not necessarily caused by human influences on the global climate.
  • While the 2006/07 to 2008/09 drought did contribute to migration away from Northeast Syria, this was on nothing like the scale that has been claimed (most likely 40–60 thousand families, rather than the 1.5 million people often quoted) and was probably more caused by economic liberalization than by the drought.
  • There exists no meaningful evidence that drought-related migration was a contributory factor in the onset of the civil war.

The researchers concede that it remains possible that additional and stronger evidence of a human-induced long-term drying trend in Northeast Syria and of linkages between drought migration and Syria’s unrest may emerge. They also stress that their work does not address the thesis that climate-change related factors outside Syria—e.g., the increased price of wheat in Russia and China caused by climate-change induced drought in those countries—contributed to Syria’s civil war.

The research paper was published in the journal Political Geography and can be accessed for a limited period of time here.

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