[Watch for more of this kind of news in the coming years as anthropogenic climate change leads to more drought, weather disruption and food scarcity…]
Manmade global warming helped spark the brutal civil war in Syria by doubling to tripling the odds that a crippling drought in the Fertile Crescent would occur shortly before the fighting broke out, according to a groundbreaking new study published on March 2.
The study, published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, is the first to attribute the drought in Syria in large part to global warming.
In doing so, it provides powerful evidence backing up the Pentagon and intelligence community’s assessments that climate change is likely to play the role of a “threat multiplier” in coming decades, pushing countries that are already vulnerable to upheaval over the edge and into open conflict.
Previous studies had shown that the drought, along with other factors such as an influx of refugees from the Iraq War next door, helped prime Syria for conflict by 2011, when the uprising began, before transitioning into an all-out civil war. Today, once-cosmopolitan Syria has been reduced to rubble, with the terrorist group known as ISIS taking over large swaths of territory.
At least 200,000 people are estimated to have died in this conflict so far.
The drought, which gripped the country between 2007 and 2010, forced 1.5 million farmers and herders in northeastern Syria to flee their lands and travel to urban areas in search of food and work.
This profound demographic shift helped further destabilize the country, the study says.
The study also found that much of the eastern Mediterranean, including Syria, parts of Turkey, Lebanon, Israel and Jordan — no bastions of stability today — may face an even more tenuous security situation in the coming decades as global warming increases temperatures and reduces rainfall throughout much of the region.
According to this study and others, global warming along with unsustainable water use is causing the Fertile Crescent, where agriculture and animal herding first began 12,000 years ago, to lose its fertility.
“This region is going to continue to get drier and continue to get hotter, so this is only a problem that is going to continue to get worse in that region,” says Colin Kelley, the study’s lead author and a postdoctoral researcher at the University of California at Santa Barbara.
Although the drought did not directly cause the war and subsequent rise of ISIS, which the U.S. and its allies are combating using military force, it formed a significant part in the cascading series of events that led to the deadly Syrian conflict.
Government policies that encouraged the unsustainable use of water resources and provided inadequate aid to displaced persons, among other factors, also ratcheted up Syria’s vulnerability to conflict around the time of the drought.
“We would not say and did not even attempt to say that the uprising was caused by climate change,” Kelley says. Rather, the drought was one in a chain of events that led to the breakout of hostilities.
“[Syria’s] vulnerability was so acute that all it took was something to push them over the edge,” he said in an interview.
Kelley says the drought set in motion a series of events that wound up sparking one of the deadliest conflicts of the 21st century to date. “A lot of these farming communities abandoned their villages and went to the cities at the same time that Iraqi refugees were coming in,” Kelley says.
“There was a very big population shock to these urban areas.”
Urban areas in Syria saw a population jump of 50% between 2002 to 2010, from 8.9 million to 13.8 million, as a result of refugees fleeing fighting in Iraq as well as those who were abandoning their land in northeastern Syria.
“That’s a tremendous increase in people to these urban areas over this period,” Kelley told Mashable. “It’s not at all surprising that the uprising happened shortly after this.”
Richard Seager, a climate scientist at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Laboratory in New York and a co-author of the study, told Mashable that farmers were prepared to cope with a one-to-two-year dry spell, but three years exceeded their ability to cope.
“The length and severity of this drought [that was] made more likely by human climate change was absolutely key in driving the agricultural community toward a threshold where they had no other opportunity but to pick up and leave,” Seager says.