Climate change -> drought => armed conflict + political instability = mass migration, as in Syria

The urgent need in response to the on-going mass migration from the Middle East, especially Syria, and Africa to and through Europe is to ensure the health, safety, and welfare of the migrants. The larger socio-political, and monetary, challenges of how to control these mass migrations, or limit them, and which EU countries will accept and care for them is obviously a pressing issue currently being debated. In the long run, many recognise that to solve the mass migration problem, it will be necessary to understand and address the underlying causes of the migration in the countries from which the migrants are fleeing. While Europe is currently facing migrants in the hundreds of thousands, there are potentially millions waiting in the wings to come. Of the current refugees, about 40-50% are from Syria, either directly or by way of an intermediate country, and that Syrian four-year civil war shows no signs of letting up. In addition, recent reports suggest that there are several million refugees in Iraq that may end up heading for Europe.

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Recently Democratic presidential candidate Martin O’Malley, former governor of Maryland, claimed in an interview on MSNBC that the rise of ISIS and instability in Syria is in part due to a massive, long drought in Syria. Governor Jerry Brown recently predicted that the effects of global climate change will drive mass migration from Central America and Mexico to California just as the current Syrian civil war is pushing migrants to Europe. The right-wing press went ballistic in response to these statements suggesting climate change may have caused the current crisis in Europe.

Yet there is a well-established body of work between drought, resource scarcity and conflict in general. Moreover studies by the U.S Department of Defense, the National Academy of Science, reports by the Center for Climate and Security, and reporting in the New York Times and The Atlantic magazine trace the connections between climate change and political instability and armed conflict in a variety of settings, including Syria.

The U.S. military refers to climate change as a “threat multiplier” that increases risks of widespread political instability in parts of the world. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), in its 2014 report, argued that there is “justifiable common concern” about the increase in risk of armed conflict from climate change impacts.

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 Given the mass migrations from Syria, with no end in sight, the connection between climate change and that migration is important to understand.

First, it has to be made clear, as it is in the various reports on the issue, that political instability, armed conflict, and mass movement of refugees are all complex situations that are caused by many forces and events and policies. Syria is no different. See William Polk, below.

Nevertheless, there is compelling evidence of the contribution that climate change has made to the current mass refugee migration from Syria.

Syria experienced the worst drought in its history between 2006 and 2011. Some 60% of Syria’s land in the northeast was affected. The drought resulted in a 75% crop failure, and the death from hunger or thirst of 85% of livestock. Some 1.3 million people were affected, and about 800,000 Syrians lost their entire livelihood. One million Syrians experienced food insecurity and 2-3 million, of 10 million rural inhabitants, were driven into extreme poverty.

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Those affected, or at least those who could, abandoned the countryside and fled to cities. The cities were already overcrowded from millions of refugees having escaped from Palestine as well as from Iraq since the U. S. invasion in 2003.

Not only was there the historic drought in the countryside, but there were shortages of water in the cities due in part to deteriorating water infrastructure. The al-Assad government had also mismanaged other natural resources by subsidizing water-intensive farming, instead of conserving water, and had allowed over-grazing of the land. To further aggravate the situation, the Syrian government had sold its strategic reserves of wheat in 2006 to capitalize on the high price of wheat at that time.

In 2008 the Syrian minister of agriculture acknowledged publicly that the economic and social fallout from the drought was beyond their ability as a country to deal with. A senior UN aid representative concurred. The pleas fell on the deaf ears of US aid agents.

A study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences reported that the disastrous drought in Syria was two to three times more likely because of increasing aridity in the region as a result of warmer, drier conditions exacerbated by climate change. A NOAA study in October 2011 in the Journal of Climate reported that the recent prolonged drought in the region, including in Syria, was likely due to climate change, and that models predicted a further crop yield decline of between 29% and 57% between 2010 and 2050 if greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions continued unabated.

Thus, no matter who or what group gains control of Syria in the near or far future, no matter what socio-economic-political stability may emerge, one of the underlying causes of the conflict and mass migration — climate change — will continue to worsen and deepen the impacts from drought and other extreme weather events in Syria and the region.

And what we are seeing in the mass migration from Syria foreshadows the environmental refugees who will soon be fleeing low-lying areas, including small islands and urban areas along coasts of most countries. The numbers of such refugees will be in the millions. The environmental refugees will most certainly turn to their immediate and nearby neighbors to help them. These neighbors may have had the resources and foresight to have implemented the necessary infrastructure and protective adaptation measures to withstand the ravages of climate change, but we suspect few if any will have built into their adaptation measures, or cost estimates, the resources to care for millions of their neighbors or distant travellers.



MSNBC, “O’Malley links climate change to ISIS,” Weekend with Alex Witt (25 July 2015).

Daniel Nussbaum, “Jerry Brown: Climate Change Will Drive European-Style Mass Migration to California,” breibart (15 Sept 2015).

Francesco Femioa and Caitlin Werrell, “Syria: Climate Change, Drought and Social Unrest,” The Center for Climate and Security (February 2012).

“New Research in Context: Syria, Climate Change and Conflict,” The Center for Climate & Security (March 2015).

Colin P. Kelley et al., “Climate change in the Fertile Crescent and implications of the recent Syrian drought,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America (2015).

Henry Fountain, “Researchers Link Syrian Conflict to a Drought Made Worse by Climate Change,” The New York Times (2 March 2015).

David A. Graham, “A Link Between Climate Change and ISIS Isn’t Crazy,” The Atlantic (22 July 2015).

William R. Polk, “Understanding Syria: From Pre-Civil War to Post-Assad: How drought, foreign meddling, and long-festering religious tensions created the tragically splintered Syria we know today,” The Atlantic (10 December 2013).

Peter H. Gleick, “Water, Drought, Climate Change, and Conflict in Syria,” Wea. Climate Soc. (October 2011).




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