Climate Change and War: the origins of the Syrian Conflict

Climatologists and social scientists have been debating whether a severe drought in the MIddle East may have led to the outbreak of war in that country for at least two years. I discussed this topic in a blog post published in 2013. A new study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences is now receiving a lot of attention for its detailed study of the question. So far, the best coverage that I have seen of the topic has been Andrew Freeman’s article, “The Seeds of War,” which combines text with photographs and graphics. I highly recommend this piece. You can also read the abstract for the original article here. Of course,  few questions are trickier than the causation of a war, which are multi-factorial. The anniversary of the outbreak of World War One last year led to a plethora of academic studies about that war’s causation. By its nature, it’s almost impossible to do counter-factual history; that is, to demonstrate what would have happened if something had not taken place. Nonetheless, the causal link in Syria between the collapse of the agricultural economy, the explosive growth of urban populations, and the breaking of social bonds, is a persuasive one.

Nobody would suggest that Syria and Brazil are similar, or that Brazil is likely to face social breakdown or conflict because of the current drought. Still, Brazil is currently suffering through a severe drought that is particularly impacting the economic heartland, including Sao Paulo. Because Brazil relies heavily on hydropower for electricity, the country is economically vulnerable to drought. This study of the origins of the Syrian conflict bears reading and careful thought as global leaders prepare prepare for climate change; what are the ways that we can build resiliency into our infrastructure and societies from California to Turkey? And please read Kim Brown’s blog post about the Syrian refugee crisis.

Shawn Smallman, Portland State University

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