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Could Climate Change Have Contributed to Syria Uprising? Study Says Yes

A new study says that Syria's civil war was sparked in part by drought exacerbated or even caused by climate change.
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Scientists have been warning for years that climate change could lead to political conflict, and even war, often citing the uprising in Syria.

Now, a study published on March 2 in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences purports to provide evidence that this is indeed the case.

The influx of nearly 1.5 million internal refugees who piled into urban areas between 2007 and 2010 as the region dried out had a “catalytic effect” that contributed to political unrest, said researchers at the University of California Santa Barbara, along with Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs and Lamont–Doherty Earth Observatory. The lack of precipitation stemmed from “a combination of natural variability and a long-term drying trend, and the unusual severity of the observed drought is here shown to be highly unlikely without this trend,” the authors noted in their abstract.

It’s not the first time this correlation has been drawn. The progression was laid out in interviews in Showtime’s The Years of Living Dangerously, its celebrity-laden series on climate change that aired a couple of years ago.

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In one episode, Thomas Friedman of The New York Times went and spoke to actual Syrians. As the young woman speaking to the reporter on a park bench notes in the trailer below, during years of drought that were as lacking in governmental assistance as they were in water, farmers not only flocked to urban areas but also lived in the poorest of those areas.

“If you notice, most people in revolution are from the countryside of Syria,” she says.

Friedman’s research after his interview bears this out. The drought was the worst in Syria’s history and happened over the four years leading up to the revolution.

While the evidence is circumstantial, it is hard to ignore, experts noted. And the International Panel on Climate Change, in its 2014 report, also predicted that conflicts would increase worldwide as environmental conditions deteriorated.

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“Climate change worsens the divide between haves and have-nots, hitting the poor the hardest,” Slate noted back in April 2014, when the IPCC report was released. “It can also drive up food prices and spawn megadisasters, creating refugees and taxing the resiliency of governments.”

While several scientists emphasized to The New York Times that there is no direct link, the fact that people flocked to urban areas during the drought is irrefutable. The researchers, as National Geographic put it, “compiled statistics showing that water shortages in the Fertile Crescent in Syria, Iraq and Turkey killed livestock, drove up food prices, sickened children and forced 1.5 million rural residents to the outskirts of Syria's jam-packed cities—just as that country was exploding with immigrants from the Iraq war.”

The drying trend in the region, lead author Colin P. Kelley told The New York Times, influenced the severity of the drought and did not seem to be the result of natural fluctuations. Rather, the researchers said, the trend toward dryness, warming and aridity more closely matched the amount of time—100 years—that human activity had most markedly been affecting climate.

“The study provides an important data point that reinforces the strength of climate model projections for the Middle East, including Syria,” the researchers concluded. “While more research is needed to disentangle the complex web of underlying factors behind the conflict, this study strengthens the connection between climate change and the 2007–2010 drought.”