Syria, Yemen, Libya — one factor unites these failed states, and it isn’t religion

November 30, 2015
Sheikh Ghazi Rashad Hrimis touches dried earth in the parched region of Raqqa province in eastern Syria, November 11, 2010. Lack of rain and mismanagement of the land and water resources have forced up to half of million people to flee the region in one of Syria's largest internal migrations since France and Britain carved the country out of the former Ottoman Empire in 1920.     REUTERS/Khaled al-Hariri (SYRIA - Tags: AGRICULTURE ENVIRONMENT) - RTXUR9R

Sheikh Ghazi Rashad Hrimis touches dried earth in the parched region of Raqqa province in eastern Syria, November 11, 2010. REUTERS/Khaled al-Hariri

As world leaders gather in Paris this week to address climate change, they will labor under the shadow of recent attacks by Islamic State. Yet as they think about climate issues, they should remember that the connection between climate change and Islamic State — and more broadly, between climate change and political instability — is not just a coincidence. It may instead be the key reality of the 21st century.

The rise of IS was a direct result of the failure of the Syrian regime, as it was beset by urban uprisings in 2011. Yet those uprisings did not come out of nowhere, and were not merely inspired by protests in Tunisia, Libya and Egypt. Syria was an increasingly prosperous country in the 1990s, with its various ethnic and religious groups working together in cities.

Yet between 2006 and 2009, Syria was crippled by its worst drought in modern history. A recent article in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences showed that this drought was not natural. Rather, hotter temperatures and the weakening of winds that bring moisture from the Mediterranean were likely the region’s reflection of rising greenhouse gas emissions, according to computer simulations.

Combined with poor water management and government neglect of farm conditions, the drought caused a collapse of farming in northeastern Syria. Seventy-five percent of farmers suffered total crop failure, and 80 percent of livestock died. Around 1.5 million farming families migrated to cities to look for work and food, joining millions of refugees from Palestine and Iraq. The added burden these refugees placed on Syria’s cities, and the distress of the farmers who lost their lands due to the drought, helped fuel the spread of rebellion against the Assad regime.

To be sure, climate change is never the single most important cause of conflict; it is what academics call a “structural threat.” Governments that can respond to such threats — because they have popular and elite support, have resources to respond to challenges, are willing to deploy those resources to distribute food and aid to the needy, and have diversified economies that can produce jobs — are not going to be shaken because of global warming. If we lived in a world where all regions were led by such governments, then climate change might be an economic burden and force changes in our lifestyle, but it would not bring the threat of state breakdown and civil war.

Unfortunately, Central America, most of Africa, the Middle East, and much of South Asia are dominated by precisely the wrong kind of governments. These regions have too many fragile states where large segments of the elite or populace distrust the government because of ethnic, religious, or economic exclusion; where governments have limited economic resources to respond to humanitarian crises; where governments are disinclined to respond to problems among marginalized groups or regions of their country; and where the economies are too dependent on agriculture or mining, and so cannot provide work for people if they are forced to move.

In such countries — or worse, in clusters of such countries — a spike in food prices, a severe drought or a ravaging flood can provide a harsh test of government. And where one government fails, the ensuing conflicts can spread to other fragile states and inflame an entire region.

Today the world is seeing an epidemic of failed states: Libya, Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Afghanistan, Nigeria, the Central African Republic, Somalia and Mali have all lost control of parts of their territory. In every case, the weakening of state authority has created space for militants, and particularly for IS, to recruit followers and conduct operations. The conflicts have also sent massive waves of refugees to a Europe that is unprepared to handle them.

Think now of a world in which the population under age 24 in Africa has increased by 500 million people, and the populations of Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, Palestine, and Yemen have increased by over 100 million people. That is the UN’s projection for 2050. Add to this mix a combination of severe droughts, devastating floods, crop failures, and massive migrations that create collisions and heightened competition among ethnic and religious groups struggling for land, resources and incomes. Then think of how the governments of these regions could and would respond to such crises, and whether Europe and other safe havens could absorb even a tiny fraction of the resulting refugees.

If such a world exists one day, the current crisis in Syria and the actions of IS terrorists may be multiplied many fold.

World leaders in Paris should therefore focus on their opportunity to remove one of the key drivers of potential state breakdowns and terrorism in the future, by adopting vigorous measures to halt global warming.

It is already too late for modest measures to address global warming. As the study of Syria’s drought shows, the weather pattern changes, depriving fragile regions of adequate rainfall, are already underway. Preventing further disasters will require more than just holding the line at today’s levels of carbon emissions in China, the United States and Europe. Africa’s current carbon footprint is tiny, as its population is so lacking in access to energy that each African produces less than one-seventh as much carbon dioxide as each Chinese. Yet by 2050, if Africa were to emit as much carbon per capita as China does today, Africa’s carbon emissions would be as much as China and the United States combined produce today.

In other words, if Africa advances just to Chinese levels of fossil fuel consumption by 2050, then even if today’s major emitters manage to stop all of their own emissions growth, total global emissions will still grow by 40 percent by mid-century, blowing past the carbon budget required to keep total temperature rise within the two-degree limit recommended by the International Panel on Climate Change to avoid severe climate deterioration.

To accommodate necessary growth in energy use in Africa — vital to making the countries of Africa more resilient and better able to provide jobs and security to their growing populations — the world must move quickly on two fronts. The major emitters must first find ways to quickly reduce their carbon output from today’s levels. And they must develop low-carbon pathways for economic growth so the rest of the world can develop without creating new structural threats for political crises.

These goals can be met. If the United States, Europe and China all reduced their carbon emissions by 20 percent, other developing countries could increase their carbon emissions by almost one-third without an increase in world carbon output. That should be the goal for the next 10 years.

Beyond that date, it is critical to find ways by which all countries can escape dependence on fossil fuels for their economies, and reduce global emissions while still promoting global economic growth.

Terrorism thrives among weak and failed states, and among displaced people. If we are to reduce both in the future, we need to make sure that our climate does not further deteriorate. If we fail to prevent continued global warming, the rise in political temperature may far outstrip the warming of the weather outside.


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Interesting argument that misses three things. First, that the population out grew the resources that existed before the effects of climate change. Second, assuming that there is a massive change in the carbon output that the world’s climate patterns will return to make the valleys of these areas again agriculturally viable. Third with no reduction in the rate of child birth in these areas in particular and the world in general that the problem will not occur again.

Posted by MisterConcerned | Report as abusive

U.S. role in destabilizing these countries?

Posted by HolyCorp | Report as abusive

You mentioned in the second paragraph that IS was created because of the failure of the Syrian regime. Think again, IS was created because of the financial support from Saudi Arabia and Qatar. They support and provide the rebels and insurgents money and armaments regardless whose they support. They do not care to whom deliver the armaments to fight the legitimate government that Syrian people chose the legitimate president. On the other hand, the logistic support from turkey to ISIL, and allowing them to pass through Syria-Turkey border to aid them and buying the oil from ISIL. You also mentioned that Syria was a prosperous country started in the 1990’s. All of the world knows Syria had self-sufficient unlike the Arab countries.

In the fourth paragraph, you mentioned Syria had refugees from Palestine and Iraq, too. Those affect the economy of the state, but you must know we (as Syrian people and our president) did not reside the asylum seekers into refugee camps, unlike what happens to the Syrian today. No country supported us to help refugees. We helped them and share medicine, food and home with them. Who did cause the problem for those refugees? Of course, Israeli occupation to Palestine, and American Invasion to Iraq.

Look at what happened in Iraq and Libya after overthrowing Saddam Hussain and Moammar al-Qathafi, from 2003 so far, Did Iraq become a prosperous country or democratic? and also Libya, from 2011 so far, just the destruction and ISIL.

Think again.

Posted by Sami85 | Report as abusive

When is the last time a Muslim country has innovated or invented ANYTHING? Are there medical breakthroughs or clean energy advancements coming from Muslim countries?

Posted by Solidar | Report as abusive

The author badly fails in that he believes that “governments” are some mystical entity. Governments are the people no matter which type of govt. They reflect the culture of the people. Culture of laziness and ignorance? That’s what you govt. is. Typical liberal, blaming but no truth or solutions.

Posted by UgoneHearMe | Report as abusive

It was raining dollars , that’s what caused the uprising in Ukraine and Syria.

Posted by Macedonian | Report as abusive

Pick any engineering feat in the Muslim world: Aswan Dam, Suez Canal, Burj Dubai tower…. they were designed and built by non-Muslims. Germans, Australians, Russians, Americans.

These are helplessly backward countries. And yes, Islam is the problem. The Koran does not encourage innovation or progress in this world. Neither does the Bible really. Europe did not advance appreciably until they started ignoring the pope about 400 years ago.

Posted by Solidar | Report as abusive

Population explosion was a major factor in all three countries. All the Arab spring countries had unsustainable population growth rates and borderline feudal economies.

Posted by GetReel | Report as abusive

Dry is not new in the middle east. A 2,000 year-old book talks about camels there. Now I will agree that the bible is fiction, but even fiction has to draw on reality. And the reality is…. camels. Not crocodiles or toucans or other swamp creatures. Camels.

The place sucks. Move.

Posted by Solidar | Report as abusive

This article is a lot of hot air that endorses human caused global warming, even when science and data do not.
Never mind the fact that all of the areas mentioned among the failed states are ALL semi-arid to completely arid desert regions, where droughts are common and have been for millions of years.
This entire opinion is a lipsticked pig, contrived in an effort to lend credence to the failing global warming argument.

Posted by The-Mailman | Report as abusive


What about Ukraine? – another (pretty well) failed state…

Posted by Thrakianu | Report as abusive

This should be required reading for all people on the planet. Outstanding work. Thank you.

Posted by rhess595 | Report as abusive

Excellent article ….economic inequality within a similar groups usually leads to much unhappiness about the unfairness of the system.
It is not a big step to take on arms and attack the ‘perceived enemy’
Religion often forms the basis for organizing the revolt .
There are always some exceptions where ‘groupies’ who are not directly affected want want to join in the ‘action’ eg France & Sydney

Posted by wondering_too | Report as abusive

Egypt, Somalia, Afghanistan…..

Probably just a coincidence that the failed states omitted by the writer…. are also Muslim. Any time you mix an authoritarian patriarchal religion with 115 degree heat…. and throw in some goat meat….

You have a toxic mix of rage and delusion.

Posted by Solidar | Report as abusive

Actually, the greatest amount of climate damage is being experienced by the Baltic states, not the middle east.

Posted by No_apartheid | Report as abusive

If we are in War declare or undeclared. Then no one from the Middle East should be along to go to Europe or the USA. European and the USA do not know how to say no. Let alone a President who cannot lead in war or not.

Posted by davidriguez | Report as abusive