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The Role of Climate Change in Armed Conflicts across the Developing World and in the Ongoing Syrian War

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Abstract

This study examines the causal relationship between warming temperatures and armed conflicts in the developing world, and specifically, in Syria. The goal is to find and establish a correlation between the two factors and to understand how their complex dimensions might be influenced by the political, economic, social and environmental context in which they take place. This has been done by examining studies from Africa and the ongoing war in Syria, where resource scarcities resulting from changing weather patterns and environmental mismanagement have contributed to current political, economic and social instability. By demonstrating the increasingly prominent role climate change plays in armed conflicts, this study highlights the security challenges of political stabilization and sustainable industrialization in weak states.
Carleton Review of International Affairs Vol. 3 (Summer, 2016)
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The Role of Climate Change in Armed Conflicts across the
Developing World and in the Ongoing Syrian War
Anaïs Voski
Abstract:
This study examines the causal relationship between warming temperatures and
armed conflicts in the developing world, and specifically, in Syria. The goal is to find and
establish a correlation between the two factors and to understand how their complex dimensions
might be influenced by the political, economic, social and environmental context in which they take
place. This has been done by examining studies from Africa and the ongoing war in Syria, where
resource scarcities resulting from changing weather patterns and environmental mismanagement
have contributed to current political, economic and social instability. By demonstrating the
increasingly prominent role climate change plays in armed conflicts, this study highlights the
security challenges of political stabilization and sustainable industrialization in weak states.
Introduction
As seen in numerous headlines around the world and an increasing number of research
projects and policy assessments, many experts are beginning to make the case that underlying
environmental factors can be blamed for sparking the civil war in Syria. Although the issue
seems to be a hot topic in the news nowadays, the environment versus security debate has been
ongoing for almost three decades. In 1987, the World Commission on Environment and
Development argued that environmental degradation in the future would lead to shortages in
resources, which in turn would lead to violent struggles for those increasingly scarce
resources.
1
But by the 1990s, experts suggested that the abundance, rather than the scarcity, of
resources was to blame for the new wars of the era.
2
The debate re-emerged after the 2003
invasion of Iraq and again in 2007, when United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon
asserted, “the Darfur conflict began as an ecological crisis arising at least in part from climate
change.”
3
But according to later studies, rainfall actually increased before the Darfur war,
1
Brundtland, Gro Hariem. "World Commission on environment and development."
Environmental policy and law
14, no. 1
(1985): 26-30.
2
Indra de Soysa, "Ecoviolence: Shrinking Pie or Honey Pot?"
Global Environmental Politics
2, no. 3, 1-34.
3
Ban Ki-moon. "A Climate Culprit in Darfur."
The Washington Post
, June 16, 2007. Accessed December 4, 2015.
http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2007/06/15/AR2007061501857.html.
Voski The Role of Climate Change in Armed Conflicts across the Developing World …
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which meant the conflict could not be blamed on drought.
4
A recent study on Syria successfully
reignited the debate all over again, when the authors boldly stated that a severe drought, which
preceded the civil war, contributed and led to the outbreak of the conflict.
5
Inarguably, the topic
has remained highly contentious over the past couple of years, and with seemingly no end to
the debate, the question remains: does climate change cause conflict, and is it to blame for
sparking the war ongoing war in Syria?
This essay will argue that climate change is an increasingly prominent contributing
factor to armed conflicts in the developing world, and more specifically in Syria, where the
socio-economic consequences of a warming world directly contributed to the outbreak of the
ongoing war. This paper’s first section will examine the highly polarized debate about the link
between climate change and armed conflict while the second section will focus on Syria as a
case study. More specifically, the second section will examine the complex and interrelated
connections between climate change, the Fertile Crescent drought, and Syria’s pre-war
political, economic and social dimensions that laid the basis for economic scarcity, societal
tensions, and what early on might have started as an environmental and humanitarian crisis.
Main
It is undeniable at this point: climate change is one of the most pressing political,
scientific and even economic challenges of our time,
6
with over 97 percent of scientists agreeing
that it is caused by human activity.
7
Climate change, as most commonly defined, is a change in
regional and global climate patterns that is mainly due to the increased levels of atmospheric
carbon dioxide produced by the use of fossil fuels. The most prominent effects of climate change
include, but are not limited to, rising temperatures and sea levels, increased natural disaster,
4
Halvald Buhaug. "Climate not to blame for African civil wars."
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences
107, no. 38
(2010): 16477-16482.
5
Colin P. Kelley, Shahrzad Mohtadi, Mark A. Cane, Richard Seager, and Yochanan Kushnir. "Climate change in the Fertile
Crescent and implications of the recent Syrian drought."
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences
112, no. 11 (2015):
3241-3246.
6
Harriet Bulkeley, and Peter Newell.
Governing climate change
. Routledge, 2015.
7
NASA. "Scientific Consensus: Earth's Climate Is Warming." NASA Global Climate Change: Vital Signs of the Planet. Accessed
December 4, 2015. http://climate.nasa.gov/scientific-consensus/.
Carleton Review of International Affairs Vol. 3 (Summer, 2016)
122
changing landscapes and precipitation patterns, increased risk to wildlife and risk of fire and
flood, as well as resource scarcity, economic losses, and increased risk of droughts with the
latter three effects being particularly relevant in the case of Syria.
It is important to mention that we are living in a new era one that is not only
relatively the most peaceful times known in human history, but one that has also been defined
as the Anthropocene, or the “new geological era.”
8
Indeed, on one hand we have seen a steady
decline in human violence and conflict not only over the general course of human history,
9
but
also most recently, as the number of armed conflicts has been steadily decreasing since the
early 1990s.
10
On the other hand, changes in climate patterns have only started to become more
apparent in the mid and late 20th century and are becoming even more noticeable as global
warming continues to push forward in the 21st century.
11
Even researchers who have argued
heavily against linking climate change with conflict, such as Halvard Buhaug, have admitted
that the many effects and complex processes associated with climate change and rising
temperatures have only truly started to appear in the past 15 years.
12
This means the research
and data are both fairly recent and thus should be utilized with caution. Since the environment
is now considered to be inseparable from human actions, “the sheer scale of human activities
now means that we are living in a new geological era, the Anthropocene, where we are actively
remaking the environment.”
1314
It is in this context that the link between climate change and
armed conflicts has emerged as one of the most contentious topics in environmental politics,
both in the general discourse and in the context of the ongoing Syrian war.
8
Simon Dalby, “Peacebuilding and Environmental Security in the Anthropocene” in Didier Péclard, (ed.)
Environmental
Peacebuilding: Managing Natural Resource Conflicts in a Changing World
(Berne: Swisspeace Conference Paper, 2009), 8.
9
Steven Pinker. The better angels of our nature: Why violence has declined. Vol. 75. New York: Viking, 2011.
10
Halvald Buhaug, Nils Petter Gleditsch, and Ole Magnus Theisen. "Implications of Climate Change for Armed Conict."
(2009): 75-79.
11
Buhaug et al., "Implications of Climate Change for Armed Conict, 2009.
12
Ibid.
13
Tim Flannery. "The Weather Makers: How We Are Changing the Climate and What It Means for Life on Earth." (2005).
14
Dalby, Peacebuilding and Environmental Security in the Anthropocene, 8.
Voski The Role of Climate Change in Armed Conflicts across the Developing World …
123
Section I: Climate change vs. armed type of conflicts
While examining the link between climate change and conflict, this paper will focus
specifically on armed type of conflicts in the developing world. The rationale behind this are
the complexities and challenges of defining war and non-armed type of conflicts, as well as the
overall decrease in interstate wars since the end of World War II. However, while this decrease
has led to more peaceful years in the West, it has also led to a relative increase in intrastate
conflicts in various developing countries across the Middle East, Africa, and South America.
The reason why developing countries are significant in this particular case is because they so
often lack, or partially lack, the solid political, economic, and social structures that would make
similar conflicts in Western, stable nations unlikely.
15
In fact, there definitely appears to be a
consensus that economic, political and social factors determine “how countries handle resource
scarcity” – a factor that is key to analyzing the link between climate change and conflict more
in-depth.
16
Numerous studies, experts, NGOs, and policymakers have argued over the past
decade that there is a link between climate change and conflict. Most notably, a Christian Aid
report from 2007 painted quite an alarming and apocalyptic picture of the future. The
organization reported that, according to their estimates, by 2050 more than a billion migrants
might destabilize entire regions due to fighting over basic needs such as water or food.
17
The
United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the Pentagon, and Homer-Dixon
are no exceptions from making similar claims; the latter has stated that “climate change will
help produce […] insurgencies, genocide, guerrilla attacks, gang warfare, and global
terrorism”,
18
whereas the Pentagon has painted a “Hobbesian state of nature whereby humanity
would be engaged in ‘constant battles for diminishing resources.”
19
Prior to 2007, the majority
of studies focused on state-level factors when attempting to quantify the relationship between
resource scarcity and violent conflict. The discourse took a new direction, however, when an
15
Clionadh Raleigh and Henrik Urdal. "Climate change, environmental degradation and armed conflict."
Political geography
26, no. 6 (2007): 675.
16
Ibid.
17
Christian Aid. "Human Tide: The Real Migration Crisis (London: Christian Aid)." (2007).
18
Thomas Homer-Dixon. "Terror in the weather forecast."
New York Times
24 (2007): 1-2.
19
Buhaug et al., "Implications of Climate Change for Armed Conict, 2009.
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124
article found that environmental change is often either confined to smaller-than-state areas or
spans across international borders.
20
In 2009, a prominent study described “strong historical linkages” between rising
temperatures and armed conflict in sub-Saharan Africa, arguing that, based on their data,
“warmed years lead to significant increases in the likelihood of war.”
21
By sub-Saharan Africa,
the authors were referring to all countries within the five regions of the continent, including
West Africa, Sahel, Central Africa, Eastern Africa, and Southern Africa. According to the
authors, climate change will inevitably worsen instability in already volatile regions as the
effects of global warming such as the possible decline in global food production will have
disruptive effects on human enterprise.
22
Studies before have attempted linking climate change
and conflict by focusing on the role precipitation plays in the relationship, but the problem is
that future projections of rain pattern changes are sometimes contradictory when calculated
using different climate models for the specific continent.
23
Luckily, there seems to be more
agreement between calculations predicting future temperature changes, which helps remove
some of the uncertainty from such studies. Using temperature-based data, the authors found
substantial increases in overall conflict in Africa during warmer years. In numbers, the authors
found that a 1 percent increase in temperatures leads to a 4.5 percent increase in civil war. The
authors also calculated future scenarios: based on current temperature trends, armed conflict is
expected to increase roughly by 54 percent by 2030, resulting in an additional 393,000 total
number of battle deaths. Based on Correlates of War project, which has provided modern
society with the now-standard 1,000 battle deaths per year measure, this is no insignificant
prediction in fact, it could mean more than 26,000 annual deaths in the upcoming 15 years
based on the study.
20
Raleigh and Urdal, "Climate change, environmental degradation and armed conflict”, 675.
21
Marshall B. Burke, Edward Miguel, Shanker Satyanath, John A. Dykema, and David B. Lobell. "Warming increases the risk of
civil war in Africa."
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences
106, no. 49 (2009): 20670-20674.
22
Ibid., 20670.
23
Jens Hesselbjerg Christensen, Bruce Hewitson, Aristita Busuioc, Anthony Chen, Xuejie Gao, R. Held, Richard Jones et al.
"Regional climate projections."
Climate Change, 2007: The Physical Science Basis. Contribution of Working group I to the
Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, University Press, Cambridge, Chapter 11
(2007): 847-940.
Voski The Role of Climate Change in Armed Conflicts across the Developing World …
125
One of the main challenges, of course, is trying to apply quantitative analysis to
complex situations such as conflict that potentially involve political, economic and social factors
besides underlying environmental ones. In an article titled ‘Climate not to blame for African
civil wars,’ prominent expert in the field Halvard Buhaug challenged the findings of the above
report, arguing “climate variability is a poor predictor of armed conflict.”
24
Using different
calculations and alternative measures of drought, temperature and war, Buhaug concluded that
sub-Saharan African civil wars are caused by “more obvious” reasons such as struggling
economies, ethnic tensions and the collapse of the Cold War system, as opposed to increasing
temperatures and climate change. According to Buhaug, the 2009 study’s method of analysis
was fundamentally flawed. He argued that the authors made a mistake by not distinguishing
between peace and smaller conflicts (< 1,000 annual casualties) in the case of the Sierra Leone
civil war or by only using data from the 1981-2002 period, despite the relative decrease in
African conflicts after 2002.
25
However, the question remains somewhat open, as Buhaug has
admitted in an earlier study that he and other researchers could not rule out the possibility that
there is a general link between climate change and conflict. At the same time, limitations in
data and research design, as well as the lack of empirical foundation for such claims, means that
any absolute conclusions would be premature and that the link between the two events remains
“indicative at best and numerous questions are left unanswered.”
26
It is important to mention
that, according to the same study, the frequency of armed conflicts and the variability in
temperature correlated negatively, but the latter variable was measured as an anomaly in
temperatures as opposed to actual Celsius degrees. This detail could be significant for those
who argue that the variable levels of temperature anomalies are not indicative of the overall
progression of climate change and its effects on the environment, and thus should be used with
caution in statistical analysis.
27
Despite the strong claims on both sides of the debate, the real challenge appears to be
establishing a direct causal relationship between climate change and armed conflicts and this,
24
Halvard Buhaug. "Climate not to blame for African civil wars."
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences
107, no. 38
(2010): 16477.
25
Ibid., 16478.
26
Buhaug et al., "Implications of Climate Change for Armed Conict, 2009.
27
Ibid.
Carleton Review of International Affairs Vol. 3 (Summer, 2016)
126
as of 2015, is yet to happen. A more recent article in Science compared 60 different studies and
found that there is “more agreement across studies regarding the influence of climate on human
conflict than has been recognized previously.”
28
Most studies highlighted three specific
consequences of climate change, which contributed to instability first and which then later
contributed to conflict. The three main factors are the intensification of natural disasters,
increasing resource scarcity, and rising sea levels, which are known to have damaging effects
on infrastructure, health, and livelihoods.
29
This is especially true in the geographical regions of
the Mediterranean, northern Sahara, and southern Africa, where rising temperatures and
changing precipitation patterns have been making the regions “notably dryer and hotter.”
30
Unfortunately, based on projections by both the Pentagon and the Intergovernmental Panel on
Climate Change, the warming trend is definitely expected to continue in the future.
31
Rather than arguing that the effects of climate change are the direct cause of conflict
which would mean linking nature and society directly it is in fact the societal tensions and
economic scarcities caused by rising temperatures that appear to lead to increased conflict in
the developing world. Even skeptics such as Buhaug agree that “several factors that increase
general conflict risk are sensitive to climate change.”
32
It can be argued, then, that even though
climate change might not be the direct cause of armed conflict, it is, at the very least, an
indirect contributing factor. This would explain why ongoing droughts in California have not
caused conflict in a stable, developed country such as the United States: because “violence is a
probable outcome only in societies already suffering from a multitude of other ills.”
33
Or rather,
as Homer-Dixon has put it, “environmental scarcity is never a sole or sufficient case of large
migrations, poverty, or violence; it always joins with other economic, political, and social
factors to produce its effects.”
34
28
Solomon M. Hsiang, Marshall Burke, and Edward Miguel. "Quantifying the influence of climate on human conflict."
Science
341, no. 6151 (2013): 1235367.
29
Buhaug, “Climate not to blame for African civil wars”.
30
Peter Schwartz and Doug Randall. “An Abrupt Climate Change Scenario and Its Implications for United States National
Security: Imagining the Unthinkable.” (U.S. Department of Defense, Washington, D.C., 2003): 16.
31
Ibid.
32
Halvard Buhaug. "Climateconflict research: some reflections on the way forward."
Wiley Interdisciplinary Reviews: Climate
Change
6, no. 3 (2015): 275.
33
Buhaug et al., "Implications of Climate Change for Armed Conict, 2009.
34
Thomas Homer-Dixon.
Environment, scarcity, and violence
. Princeton University Press, (2010): 16.
Voski The Role of Climate Change in Armed Conflicts across the Developing World …
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The indirect link between climate change and armed conflict means that focusing on the
middle factor, namely the socio-economic consequences of climate change, will have to be made
a priority when attempting to determine how global warming might result in more conflict in
the future. These socio-economic effects include, but are not limited to, the failure of
governments to deliver public goods due to economic scarcity, as well as resource
mismanagement. These often result in resource competition among citizens, unemployment,
migration, job losses and a scarcity-induced decrease in economic output.
35
The effects of
climate change on developing economies and their citizen’s mobility is what International
Alert’s Dan Smith called “a recipe for conflict,”
36
as climate change will inevitably continue to
push forward in the foreseeable future and make societies more vulnerable to turmoil. The
developing world has become a key element to this debate; not only because most developing
countries are geographically situated in areas projected to be most vulnerable to climate
change, but also because their governments often lack effective and reliable governance
structures. Unsurprisingly, the 20 countries most vulnerable to climate change formed a bloc in
late 2015
37
and have already demanded a 1.5 Celsius degrees warming limit at the currently
ongoing UN climate change summit in Paris.
38
The developing world is hence undoubtedly
becoming increasingly vulnerable to the damaging effects of climate change, and Syria is no
exception.
Case study: Syria
Having established that climate change can contribute and indirectly lead to conflict in
the developing world, the question is whether or not it can be blamed for sparking the civil war
in Syria. In 2008, officials at the American embassy in Syria’s capital city of Damascus sent a
35
Leif Ohlsson. "The risk of livelihood conflicts and the nature of policy measures required."
Seeds of True Peace: Responding
to the Discontents of a Global Community
(2003).
36
BBC News. Climate change ‘causes conflict’, at 0:40 Dan Smith, International Alert (2007). Accessed December 4, 2015.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gxrb-89Af8A
37
Al Jazeera. Countries vulnerable to climate change form bloc (2015). Accessed December 4, 2015.
http://www.aljazeera.com/news/2015/10/countries-vulnerable-climate-change-form-bloc-151008124654800.html
38
Forbes. Paris climate talks: vulnerable countries demand 1.5C warming limit (2015). Accessed December 4, 2015.
http://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2015/nov/30/paris-climate-talks-vulnerable-countries-demand-15c-
warming-limit
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cable back to the homeland in which they voiced their concerns over the ongoing drought in
Syria and its implications for rural economies.
39
According to a recent study published in
March 2015 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), there is solid evidence
that the drought between 2007-2010 contributed to the Syrian conflict.
40
For context, it is also
important to mention that the ongoing civil war in Syria is most often said to have begun back
in March 2011, when the Arab Spring sparked pro-democracy protests and uprisings across the
Arab world, including anti-Assad and anti-regime protests in Syria.
41
Based on the numbers, it
is evident that the four-year drought that started in 2007 did in fact immediately precede the
civil war a dramatic change in rainfall that the authors of the PNAS study called “the most
severe drought in the instrumental record.”
42
The PNAS study is noteworthy because on one hand, it is “the first of its kind to look at
a modern, ongoing war”, but also, because it combined precipitation and temperature data to
prove that the 2007-2010 drought had a “catalytic” effect on the war.
43
The authors found that
the four-year decrease in rainfall and increase in temperatures was consistent with projections
of a long-term drying-and-warming trend in the East Mediterranean. The prolonged drought
caused widespread crop failure, as well as inflation, GDP drop, unemployment, widespread
displacement and mass migration. According to data from the Central Bureau of Statistics and
the World Bank, Syria’s agricultural sector accounted for 20.4 percent in 2007, but that number
dropped to 17 percent by 2008.
44
As the authors of the PNAS study explain in detail:
Atieh El Hindi, the director of the Syrian National Agri- cultural Policy Center, has
stated that between 2007 and 2008, drought was a main factor in the unprecedented rise in
Syrian food prices; in this single year, wheat, rice, and feed prices more than doubled (17, 18).
By February of 2010, the price of livestock feed had increased by three fourths, and the drought
39
Thomas Friedman. "Wikileaks, Drought, and Syria."
New York Times
21 (2014): A21.
40
Colin P. Kelley, Shahrzad Mohtadi, Mark A. Cane, Richard Seager, and Yochanan Kushnir. "Climate change in the Fertile
Crescent and implications of the recent Syrian drought."
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences
112, no. 11 (2015):
3241-3246.
41
BBC News. Arab uprising: Country by country Syria (2013). Accessed February 22, 2016.
http://www.bbc.com/news/world-12482309
42
Ibid, 3241.
43
Mark Zastrow. "Climate change implicated in current Syrian conflict."
Nature
(2015).
44
World Bank. “Syria Country Brief (September 2010).” Accessed December 4, 2015.
http://siteresources.worldbank.org/INTSYRIANARAB/Resources/Syria_Web_brief.pdf
Voski The Role of Climate Change in Armed Conflicts across the Developing World …
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nearly obliterated all herds (16, 19). There was a dramatic increase in nutrition- related
diseases among children in the northeast provinces (20), and enrollment in schools dropped by
as much as 80% as many families left the region.
45
According to reports, hundreds of thousands or as many as 1.5 million rural farmers
moved to the already overcrowded and economically-depressed larger cities and suburbs, which
could not immediately adapt to the sharp increase in numbers.
46
This led to severe strains on
the already crumbling urban infrastructure
47
and basic services such as per-capita water
availability,
48
in addition to increased unemployment among Syria’s young demographic.
49
As
Brauch points out, the fundamental requirements of human security include, but are not limited
to, basic infrastructure, sanitation, and emergency and disaster preparedness,
50
which indicates
the extent to which some rural and urban Syrian regions were struggling to meet basic human
security and living standards requirements.
Similar arguments made by the PNAS study and U.S. President Barack Obama have
certainly sparked intense debate over the environmental factors of the Syrian crisis, both within
academic circles and among the general public. In an opinion piece, British professors Jan Selby
and Mike Hulme argued the PNAS study is “deeply flawed.”
51
According to Selby and Hulme,
the ‘1.5 million displaced Syrian farmers’ figure is “almost certainly wrong” based on Syrian
government documents and UN estimates, which both put the number of displaced farmers at
approximately 250,000. The fundamental problem, of course, with both estimates is the same as
the problem with any other estimates coming out of a fragile state or war zone such as Syria:
namely, there is no way to know which estimates are correct. During the Ghouta chemical
attack in Syria on August 21, 2013, rockets containing sarin struck several areas in the
45
Kelley et al., Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 3242.
46
IRIN News. “Drought response faces funding shortfall” (November 2009). Accessed February 22, 2016.
http://www.irinnews.org/news/2009/11/24/drought-response-faces-funding-shortfall
47
Femia, Francesco, and Caitlin Werrell. "Syria: Climate change, drought, and social unrest."
Center for Climate and Security,
February
29 (2012).
48
Rüttinger, Lukas, Gerald Stang, Dan Smith, Dennis Tänzler, Janani Vivekananda, Alexander Carius, Oli Brown et al. "A New
Climate for PeaceTaking Action on Climate and Fragility Risks. Executive Summary. Berlin/London/Washington/Paris:
adelphi."
International Alert, The Wilson Center, EUISS
(2015): 30.
49
Zastrow, "Climate change implicated in current Syrian conflict."
50
Brauch, Günter Hans. Environment and human security: Towards freedom from hazard impacts. UNU-EHS, (2005).
51
Jan, Selby and Mike Hulme. "Is Climate Change Really to Blame for Syria’s Civil War?"
The Guardian
, 2015. Accessed
December 4, 2015. http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2015/nov/29/climate-change-syria-civil-war-prince-charles.
Carleton Review of International Affairs Vol. 3 (Summer, 2016)
130
Damascus suburbs. Although the perpetrator remains unknown, French intelligence estimated
the number of fatalities to be 281,
52
while the United States estimated that at least 1,429 were
killed.
53
Indeed, even the international report produced by the United Nations Mission to
Investigate Allegations of the Use of Chemical Weapons in the Syrian Arab Republic only cited
“numerous casualties” resulting from the attack, as opposed to a specific number.
54
While on
average most news organizations cite over 1,000 victims resulting from the chemical attack, the
uncertainty clearly indicates that conflicting data and numbers emerging from war zones and
unstable regions should be treated with caution and a grain of salt.
There is, of course, a real possibility that Syria’s ongoing civil war could be obscuring
what originally started as an environmental and humanitarian crisis, rather than an armed
conflict. In this instance, securitized discourses about climate change would obscure an
ecological and humanitarian crisis triggered by an authoritative government that is responsible
for causing both the pre-war mass migration by ineffective agricultural policies and also the
post-war mass migration caused by inadequate crisis responses.
55
The Assad regime’s
ineffective agricultural policy practices meant it favoured water-intensive crops such cotton, for
example, despite the anticipated decrease in regional precipitation. According to numerous
reports, in the years leading up to the four-year drought, the Syrian government prioritized
agricultural development in rural areas in order to gain support from local populations instead
of building an infrastructure with the ability to adapt to the changing environmental
conditions.
56
The Assad government reportedly subsidized wheat and cotton cultivation in the
52
French government. "Syria/Syrian Chemical Programme National Executive Summary of Declassified Intelligence."
September 3, 2013. Accessed December 4, 2015.
http://www.diplomatie.gouv.fr/en/IMG/pdf/Syrian_Chemical_Programme.pdf.
53
White House. "Government Assessment of the Syrian Government’s Use of Chemical Weapons on August 21, 2013." Office
of Press Secretary. August 30, 2013. Accessed December 4, 2015. https://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-
office/2013/08/30/government-assessment-syrian-government-s-use-chemical-weapons-august-21.
54
Sellström, A., Scott Cairns, and Maurizio Barbeschi. "United Nations Mission to Investigate Allegations of the Use of Chemical
Weapons in the Syrian Arab Republic."
Final Report
12 (2013).
55
Erika Weinthal, Neda Zawahri, and Jeannie Sowers. "Securitizing Water, Climate, and Migration in Israel, Jordan, and Syria."
International Environmental Agreements: Politics, Law and Economics
: 304.
56
Suzanne Saleeby. "Sowing the Seeds of Dissent: Economic Grievances and the Syrian Social Contract's Unravelling."
Jadaliyya, February
16 (2012).
Voski The Role of Climate Change in Armed Conflicts across the Developing World …
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arid and steppe regions “regardless of the agro-economic consequences.”
57
This not only led to
the over-extraction of water but also contributed to the increasing desertification of the land.
58
The mismanagement of natural resources is not only an agricultural, political and
economic policy failure it’s also an environmental one. As already mentioned above, the most
prominent effects of climate change include but are not limited to, resource scarcity. The
increasing scarcity of renewable resources in the developing world, understood as the “low per
capita availability of a resource”, includes fertile soil and fresh water – which happened to be the
two largest scarcities Syria faced before the war.
59
It is perhaps no surprise then that
mismanaging resources lead to increasing resource variability that is “associated with higher
levels of unpredictability” and that can constitute one of the “the greatest challenges to human
livelihoods.”
60
Another environmental and underlying dimension that might have contributed to the
outbreak of the war is migration induced specifically by climate change. This phenomenon has
led to the emergence of the terms ‘environmental migrant’ and ‘environmental refugee’.
According to Stern, the effects of changing climates such as increasing desertification, water
shortages, droughts, floods, precipitation changes, the collapse of forests and biodiversity,
rising sea levels as well as extreme weather events may all cause mass migration.
61
In the case
of Syria, that would mean that the significant internal flow of migrants moving from rural areas
to the cities could also be attributed to the consequences of climate change. Similar to how
resource scarcities have been shown to lead to increased amounts of violence, Reuveny argues
that migration can also lead to more conflict by causing people to cross fault lines for
example, by moving from rural to urban areas which in turn could lead to distrust, ethnic
tensions, and even more competition over limited resources in the cities.
62
Indeed, data
indicates food prices increased in 2007-2008, which is the beginning of the Syrian drought, as
well as in 2010-2011 around beginning of the Arab Spring, due to various regional and global
57
Weinthal et al., International Environmental Agreements: Politics, Law and Economics, 303.
58
Khaled Yacoub Oweis. "Water crisis uproots Syrian farmers."
Canary Wharf: Reuters
(2009).
59
Buhaug et al., "Implications of Climate Change for Armed Conict, 2009.
60
Ibid.
61
Nicholas Stern. "The structure of economic modeling of the potential impacts of climate change: grafting gross
underestimation of risk onto already narrow science models."
Journal of Economic Literature
51, no. 3 (2013): 841.
62
Rafael Reuveny. "Climate change-induced migration and violent conflict."
Political Geography
26, no. 6 (2007): 656-673.
Carleton Review of International Affairs Vol. 3 (Summer, 2016)
132
causes such as financial speculation and deregulated commodity markets.
63
According to local
news reports, “severely limited” cereal production caused by the Syrian drought led to a spike
in local food prices and placed pressure on basic food supplies.
64
The challenge of trying to establish a direct causal relationship between the changing
Syrian climate and the outbreak of civil war remains ongoing. Similar to how at the macro level
the general literature about climate change and armed conflict is yet to draw a direct causal
relationship between the two, the situation is same at the micro level in Syria. Nonetheless, an
indirect relationship through a middle factor such as the socio-economic consequences of
global warming can be argued within reason to be one of the many factors that contributed to
the outbreak of the conflict. The Syrian civil war is inarguably a “result of complex interrelated
factors” while this does not establish a direct causal relationship between climate change and
the ongoing conflict specifically, it does establish one between climate change and the known
socio-economic consequences of a warming world.
65
In fact, as Gleick argues, water and
climatic conditions played a “direct role” in the deterioration of Syria’s economic conditions,
and economic conditions have been proven to play a large role in the outbreak of civil wars.
66
While the relationship between the four-year drought and the drop in Syria’s GDP and
agricultural output is quantifiable, the same cannot be said for its political instability, social
unrest, and ‘what-if’ speculations. The challenge is that we cannot know, nor even hypothesize,
what would have happened in Syria if the four-year drought did not happen would the war
have still broken out? And even if it would, would the conflict have the same characteristics it
does today? There is no way to know the answer to those questions, which leaves a significant
portion of the debate up to further data collection and hypothesis testing. The bottom line is
that, since conflicts are rarely, if ever, caused by a single reason,
67
any future attempts to
63
Lagi, Marco, Yavni Bar-Yam, Karla Z. Bertrand, and Yaneer Bar-Yam. "Accurate market price formation model with both
supply-demand and trend-following for global food prices providing policy recommendations."
Proceedings of the National
Academy of Sciences
112, no. 45 (2015): E6119-E6128.
64
IRIN News. “Drought blamed for food scarcity” (February 2009). Accessed on February 29, 2016.
http://www.irinnews.org/news/2009/02/22/drought-blamed-food-scarcity
65
Peter H. Gleick. "Water, drought, climate change, and conflict in Syria."
Weather, Climate, and Society
6, no. 3 (2014): 331-
340.
66
Ibid.
67
Ibid.
Voski The Role of Climate Change in Armed Conflicts across the Developing World …
133
further analyze the underlying causes of the Syrian war will have to include a multitude of
complex and interrelated factors, which can be well presumed to include environmental factors
attributable to climate change.
Conclusion
This essay argued that climate change is an increasingly prominent contributing factor
to armed conflicts in the developing world, and more specifically in Syria, where the effects of
climate change are continuing to push forward and are becoming more noticeable at an
accelerating rate. The current academic literature has failed to establish a direct causal
relationship between global warming and the outbreak of the war that, however, does not
mean that such a relationship does not exist, and thus the issue will continue to remain a
fascinating and ongoing research area. In the meantime, it can be argued that the recent
changes in the Syrian environment were one of the indirect contributing factors to the conflict.
While the discourse on Syria tends to focus on regime change, the triggers for such conflicts
often include “a broad set of religious and sociopolitical factors and the erosion of the economic
health of the country.”
68
As many have argued before, we are living in a new era the Anthropocene that is
redefining not only our attitude towards the environment but also international security as a
whole. In the words of U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, this new era might be one fought for
survival: “you think migration is a challenge to Europe today because of extremism. Wait until
you see what happens when there’s an absence of water, an absence of food, or one tribe
fighting against another for mere survival.”
69
While fighting for mere survival might remain in
the unforeseeable future, for now, it is clear that in order to reduce the risk of conflicts in the
third world, the industrialization of developing countries will need to go hand in hand with
adaptation measures to changing climate patterns. This is especially and increasingly important
68
Ibid.
69
U.S. Department of State. "Remarks at the Global Leadership in the Arctic: Cooperation, Innovation, Engagement, and
Resilience (GLACIER) Conference Opening Plenary." Remarks: John Kerry, Secretary of State. August 31, 2015. Accessed
December 4, 2015. http://www.state.gov/secretary/remarks/2015/08/246489.htm.
Carleton Review of International Affairs Vol. 3 (Summer, 2016)
134
in volatile regions that are already struggling with political, social and environmental
instability.
Voski The Role of Climate Change in Armed Conflicts across the Developing World …
135
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The devastating civil war that began in Syria in March 2011 is the result of complex interrelated factors. The focus of the conflict is regime change, but the triggers include a broad set of religious and sociopolitical factors, the erosion of the economic health of the country, a wave of political reform sweeping over the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) and Levant region, and challenges associated with climate variability and change and the availability and use of freshwater. As described here, water and climatic conditions have played a direct role in the deterioration of Syria's economic conditions. There is a long history of conflicts over water in these regions because of the natural water scarcity, the early development of irrigated agriculture, and complex religious and ethnic diversity. In recent years, there has been an increase in incidences of water-related violence around the world at the subnational level attributable to the role that water plays in development disputes and economic activities. Because conflicts are rarely, if ever, attributable to single causes, conflict analysis and concomitant efforts at reducing the risks of conflict must consider a multitude of complex relationships and contributing factors. This paper assesses the complicated connections between water and conflict in Syria, looks more broadly at future climate-related risks for water systems, and offers some water management strategies for reducing those risks.
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A decade of systematic research on climate change and armed conflict has revealed a number of interesting patterns but few results that are robust across studies. This essay takes stock of the quantitative empirical literature, identifies central limitations, and presents five priorities for future research in the field. While these priorities refer to technical and operational aspects of statistical analysis, their underlying motivation, and objective, is to develop a better and more refined theoretical understanding of possible indirect and conditional connections between climatic changes and violent conflict.
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