Syrian refugees and climate change: the risks of oversimplifying and underestimating the connection

by Caitlin Werrell and Francesco Femia | Center for Climate and Security
Monday, 14 September 2015 07:45 GMT

A view of a water canal running from the Euphrates river into the semi-desert region of eastern Syria, November 2010. The ancient Inezi tribe of Syria reared camels in the sandswept lands north of the Euphrates river from the time of the Prophet Mohammad. Now water shortages have consigned that way of life to distant memory. Drought in the past five years has also killed 85 percent of livestock in eastern Syria, the Inezis' ancestral land. Up to half a million people have left the region in one of Syria's largest internal migrations since France and Britain carved the country out of the Ottoman Empire in 1920. REUTERS/ Khaled al-Hariri

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* Any views expressed in this article are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Oversimply the climate link and you cut out important pieces of the equation. Underestimate it, and you are left unprepared

It unfortunately took the heart-wrenching image of a dead Syrian child on a Turkish seashore to fully alert the international community to an unfolding disaster: the greatest refugee crisis since World War II.

As the crisis ensues, many in the public eye have been asking the question: What is behind this extraordinary exodus? Essentially, what is the proximate cause? The answer to that question is straightforward. A brutal civil war in Syria has left many people with little choice but to flee.

Some commentators are asking another question, however, that seeks to illuminate “ultimate” causes of an unstable Syria, and the current crisis. Namely: What were the conditions that led Syria to collapse, and how can we prevent these crises in the future? And in that context, does climate change have anything to do with it?

The answer to that is complex, of course. But if one were to summarize in a few words: No. But yes. Meaning climate change is not directly behind the current refugee crisis, as some oversimplified accounts might suggest.

But indirectly, despite some accounts that underestimate the problem, climate change is a factor. This muddled response may be the most responsible way of treating an issue that has significant consequences for both human and national security.

The risks of oversimplifying the role of climate change

The current Syrian refugee crisis is the direct result of a collapsed state, and the civil war that emerged. It is not, despite some headlines to the contrary, the direct result of a changing climate.

This is an important point to emphasize, as giving climate change an outsized role in the current crisis can unwittingly serve to absolve human and governmental actors of any wrongdoing, and thereby stymie meaningful action. It is not a significant stretch, for example, to imagine a Bashar al-Assad, or an ISIS leader, pointing to the sky and saying: “Don’t blame me for these atrocities. It was climate change. And the West created that.”

Ultimately, oversimplifying the link between climate change and the Syrian refugee crisis risks glossing over core social, political and economic issues that need to be resolved.

The risks of underestimating the role of climate change

While we should not overstate the role of climate change in specific and complex human events, such as the current refugee crisis, it is equally unhelpful to underestimate the comprehensive scale of climate risks in the region, which impinge on a broad range of environmental, social, political and economic drivers of state fragility (see, for example, the G7-commissioned report “A New Climate for Peace”). Indeed, climate change risks may already be playing a destabilizing role in the Middle East and North Africa, by straining critical water and food resources.

As we highlighted in 2012, a combination of extreme drought, natural resource mismanagement and population dynamics helped set the conditions for a fragile Syrian state. From 2007-2010, the country experienced the worst drought in its history of records. This drought was part of a trend of declining winter precipitation in the region – a trend linked to climate change (Hoerling et al, 2011). According to a recent study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, climate change made this drought 2-3 times more likely to occur (Kelley et al, 2015).

Combined with water, food and land mismanagement by the al-Assad regime, who subsidized water-intensive agriculture, this drought contributed to the devastation of a significant percentage of Syria’s crop and rangeland, and the displacement of 2 million farmers and herders, many of whom fled to urban centers. This massive internal displacement went largely unnoticed by the international community, and the underlying food and water crisis was not adequately captured in popular fragility indices.

Indeed, in early 2011, Syria was still broadly believed to be immune to the instability that other “Arab Spring” countries were experiencing. While it is not clear precisely how this significant internal displacement of peoples contributed to the revolutionary movement, it is clear that Syria was already a fragile place, and that climatic stresses were a factor in that fragility.

Finally, recognizing the role of climate change does not imply a minimization of the social, political and economic drivers of unrest and conflict. Rather, it gives those dynamics an additional layer of definition. As with oversimplifying the link between climate change and this refugee crisis, underestimating the risks associated with climate change could also mean missing important contributing factors to state stability.

The value of the muddy middle

The simplest way to summarize how climate change fits into the story of the Syrian refugee crisis is not simple at all. Essentially, an extreme drought made more likely by climate change contributed to (along with other key factors) a mass internal displacement of peoples in Syria; that displacement (and other key factors) contributed to the instability that preceded the Syrian conflict; and that conflict is driving the current refugee crisis.

This assessment, though clunky, attempts to avoid both oversimplifying the connection, which can artificially take the critical role of governance (or a lack thereof) out of the equation, while also attempting to avoid downplaying the significant climate risks the region faces – risks that left unrecognized, could leave governments and populations fundamentally unprepared.

The value of this muddy middle is that it is where the truth lies, and thus, where the best solutions will emerge from. Oversimply the climate connection and you cut out important pieces of the equation. Underestimate the climate connection, and you are left unprepared.

Caitlin Werrell and Francesco Femia are Co-Founders and Directors of the Center for Climate and Security. This blog first appeared on the center's website.