The 2007−2010 drought in Syria contributed to the current conflict, according to a new report. Water shortages killed livestock, and rural residents streamed into overcrowded cities. ©Ed Brambley, flickr

I think Britain’s Prince Charles may be on to something. A longtime environmentalist, the heir to the British throne stated on November 23, 2015—just a week before the climate change conference in Paris—that the world’s failure to tackle climate change is a root cause of Syria’s civil war. That deficiency, says the prince, is also contributing to the refugee crisis in Europe and terrorism around the world.

There are others, however, who believe that claims of any connection between our planet’s rapidly warming climate and war lack scientific proof and are simply military-led attempts to puff up the importance of climate change by linking it to security interests.

Is it possible that climate change could now be playing a part in causing wars, maybe for the first time in human history? predicts that the results of rapid climate change will contribute to more conflicts in the future. ©Amer Jazaerli, flickr

Climate change and its causal relationship to war

Despite assertions that the relationship between a warming world and war has not been borne out by research, there is a new study which claims to do just that. A report titled “Climate change in the Fertile Crescent and implications of the recent Syrian drought,” which was approved on January 30, 2015, and published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States (PNAS), concludes that “there is evidence that the 2007−2010 drought contributed to the conflict in Syria.”

After examining meteorological data, the study’s researchers determined that natural variability alone was unlikely to account for the trends in heat and wind that led to the massive drought, the worst Syria had seen in modern times. That drought, most likely due to human-caused climate change, caused water shortages, which, in turn, killed livestock. Coupled with poor irrigation techniques and government mismanagement, Syria’s agricultural system collapsed. Food prices skyrocketed and children got sick. As many as 1.5 million rural residents flocked to Syria’s jam-packed cities and outskirts to try to earn a living. Overcrowding, poverty and unemployment rose dramatically—just as that country was being stressed with large numbers of immigrants from the Iraq war.

This poor quality of life led to dissatisfaction with the government and an uprising against President Bashar al-Assad in March 2011. Protests then led to government violence, kicking off multi-faction clashes that eventually developed into the Syrian civil war, which to date has killed hundreds of thousands of people.

Hundreds of thousands of people have been killed in the multi-faction clashes that eventually became the Syrian civil war. ©a.anis, flickr

While the authors of the PNAS study acknowledge that many other factors also played a part in the Syrian insurgency, they maintain that the drought had a catalytic effect. The abstract states “observed drying and warming are consistent with model studies of the response to increases in greenhouse gases. Furthermore, model studies show an increasingly drier and hotter future mean climate for the Eastern Mediterranean. Analyses of observations and model simulations indicate that a drought of the severity and duration of the recent Syrian drought, which is implicated in the current conflict, has become more than twice as likely as a consequence of human interference in the climate system.”

Climate change and its political connection to conflict

Critics of Prince Charles’s declaration say there are several problems with it. First, the drought not only affected Syria, but other autocratic countries in the area, such as Iran, Iraq and Turkey. Yet they didn’t implode in a similar fashion.

Second, displaced farmers did not lead the protests. The vanguard was the urban-dwelling middle class. Nor were the demonstrations fueled by complaints about drought or farming. Instead, they centered on the right to vote, the right not to live under a dictator, the right to have a decent future and the right to freedom of speech.

Some claim the urban-dwelling middle class spearheaded the Syrian uprising, not rural farmers. ©a.anis, flickr

Those who do not believe that war is tied to climate change also point out that while the new PNAS study finds that climate change has conflict and security implications, there are other studies with opposite results. They contend that most of the discourse on the significance of climate change regarding conflicts is driven by politics, not science. They view the idea that the Syrian war is linked to climate change as motivated by the Paris summit and as an attempt to garner support for global initiatives on climate change by associating it with security interests.

I think that most of us know that wars are complicated. To suggest that climate change is the sole cause of any of them is far too simple. But I believe that thinking that the drought and its link to human-caused climate change had no effect at all is just as flawed.

Do you think climate change played a major role in the Syrian war? Or has the conflict been “hijacked” for use as a political tool to convince the world’s nations to enact greenhouse-gas-limiting agreements before the Paris conference?

Here’s to finding your true places and natural habitats,