Why Syria is the canary in the coal mine for a new era of world conflict
It is sheer coincidence that Paris was struck by terrorists on the eve of a key climate conference known as COP 21. To some, the attacks may appear like an unfortunate distraction in the face of efforts to meet a civilizational challenge like no other. Yet there are important cross-connections between security and climate concerns.
Runaway climate change will impose growing stress on natural systems and human societies, and it could well usher in a whole new age of conflict. We live, after all, in a world marked by profound disparities in wealth, social and demographic pressures, unresolved grievances, and a seemingly endless supply of arms of all calibers. Far from being a separate concern, climate change is certain to intensify many existing challenges. More frequent and intense droughts, floods, and storms will likely play havoc with harvests and compromise food security. Extreme weather events, sea-level rise, and spreading disease vectors could undermine the economic viability and long-term habitability of some areas. The result could be escalating social discontent, mass displacement, and worse.
In fact, such scenarios are no longer mere conjecture. Consider Syria. Several consecutive years of severe drought in the country’s agricultural heartland had fateful consequences as underground water sources ran dry, livestock herds died, and farmland turned to desert. Close to three-quarters of farming households in Syria’s northeast experienced total crop failure. Some 2-3 million people fell into extreme poverty. A number of factors are behind this calamity, including climate change, overexploitation of groundwater due to subsidies for water-thirsty crops like cotton and wheat, inefficient irrigation systems and overgrazing.
The drought led to an exodus of perhaps as many as 1.5 million people from rural to urban areas. But Syria’s cities were already under economic stress, in part because of the influx of refugees from neighboring Iraq following the U.S. invasion of 2003. Growing numbers of destitute people found themselves in intense competition for scarce jobs and social services. Francesco Femia and Caitlin Werrell of the Center for Climate and Security point out that “the role of disaffected rural communities in the Syrian opposition movement has been prominent compared to their equivalents in other ‘Arab Spring’ countries.”
Of course, Syria’s civil war is the product of several factors. Deep-seated popular discontent over decades of repressive rule, heightened by Assad’s violent reaction to peaceful demonstrations, surely was a major driver. The rise of extremist groups financed and armed by the Gulf States was another. But this is the important point: the repercussions from environmental degradation do not occur in a void; they interact with a cauldron of societal pressures and unresolved political problems.
Though the precise circumstances and dynamics will vary from place to place, Syria’s experience illustrates the danger of major upheavals if environmental and resource pressures go unresolved. A recent scientific paper warns that due to climate change, some population centers in the Middle East “are likely to experience temperature levels that are intolerable to humans” by the end of this century. Elsewhere, melting glaciers, sea-level rise, highly variable rainfall, and parched farmland could have potentially dire consequences.
Violence captures the headlines, but there are other worrisome impacts, too; population displacements, for example. In 2008-2014, floods, storms, and extreme temperatures displaced a cumulative 158 million people globally — though the annual figures have fluctuated from a low of 13.9 million to a high of 38.3 million. No comparable data exist for slow-onset disasters such as drought.
The number of people displaced due to climate impacts is expected to rise as extreme weather events become more frequent and intense, and as droughts, desertification, sea-level rise, and glacial melt become more prominent. Yet it seems impossible to make any reliable projections. Outcomes will depend on the time, location, intensity, and frequency of disasters; but also on the level of preparedness and resilience of affected communities.
When people are forced to abandon their homes, it is a terrifying situation in its own right, even in the absence of violence. But all too often, what happens when refugees and migrants arrive in host societies adds another layer of concern. The mixed welcome that Syrian refugees have received in Europe and the United States in recent months shows how easily right-wing populists are able to stoke a host of false fears and resentments in some cases, creating an atmosphere of rising mistrust and potential conflict.
Recent events thus demonstrate how climate change, war, and refugee movements can become interlinked in fateful ways. What follows is that a successful climate policy is critical not only for stabilizing the planet’s climate system, but also for dialing down some of these other pressures.
Without question, the Paris climate conference needs to break with the calamitous pattern of past meetings, where government negotiators have watered down proposals, moved from binding to voluntary action, and generally kept postponing difficult decisions. If it manages to do so, then Paris could also—as Michael Klare, professor of peace and world security studies at Hampshire College, has argued—become “the most significant peace convocation in history.”
Given the linkages between climate and conflict, however, more is required. The world is ill equipped to address the disparities and grievances that will mushroom in a warming world and drive future conflict. Enormous military expenditures, weapons exports, and armed interventions inflame rather than stabilize regions of the world that are being torn asunder by environmental degradation and economic misery. Governments spend huge amounts of money on the war system year after year—some $1.8 trillion in 2014 alone. By contrast, according to Christiana Figueres, executive secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, there is still “no credible road map to the $100 billion” per year sum promised by wealthy governments in 2009 to assist climate adaptation in vulnerable developing countries.
Following the Paris terrorist attacks, the French police decided to ban planned protest marches at the climate conference, for security reasons. Thus, it will be a struggle for civil society to be heard. But different perspectives are urgently needed. Without them, COP21 may well turn out to be yet another missed opportunity. And how many more opportunities will we have after Paris?