“The Syria conflict has triggered the world’s largest humanitarian crisis since World War II,” reports the European Commission. And a major 2015 study confirmed what Climate Progress has been reporting for years: “Human-caused climate change was a major trigger of Syria’s brutal civil war.”
Now, half of Syria’s population has fled their homes and the massive influx of refugees is taking a toll on other nations in the Middle East and Europe. The chaos has even prompted the United States to deploy troops to the decimated country.
We will have to work as hard as possible to make sure we don’t leave a world of wars to our children.
That means avoiding decades, if not centuries, of strife and conflict from catastrophic climate change, from the synergistic effect of soaring temperatures or Dust-Bowlification and extreme weather and sea level rise and super-charged storm surges, which will create the kind of food insecurity that drives war, conflict, and the competition for arable and/or habitable land.
The Pentagon itself made the climate/security link explicit in a 2014 report warning that climate change “poses immediate risks to U.S. national security,” has impacts that can “intensify the challenges of global instability, hunger, poverty, and conflict” and will probably lead to “food and water shortages, pandemic disease, disputes over refugees and resources.”
The world’s leading scientists and governments came to the same conclusion after reviewing the scientific literature. The U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) warned last year that climate change will “prolong existing, and create new, poverty traps, the latter particularly in urban areas and emerging hotspots of hunger.” And it will “increase risks of violent conflicts in the form of civil war and inter-group violence.”
That same year, Tom Friedman wrote a column, “Memorial Day 2050,” which begins by quoting Gov. Jay Inslee of Washington State who observed: “We’re the first generation to feel the impact of climate change and the last generation that can do something about it.” He concludes that the fight against climate change is our most important “fight for freedom” today, and ends “Let’s act so the next generation will want to honor us with a Memorial Day, the way we honor the sacrifice of previous generations.”
Previously, Friedman had described how warming-worsened drought has exacerbated political instability even now in Syria. His piece “Without Water, Revolution” explained that while the drought didn’t “cause” the civil war, it made the Fertile Crescent fertile grounds for one:
… between 2006 and 2011, some 60 percent of Syria’s land mass was ravaged by the drought and, with the water table already too low and river irrigation shrunken, it wiped out the livelihoods of 800,000 Syrian farmers and herders, the United Nations reported. “Half the population in Syria between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers left the land” for urban areas during the last decade, said [Syrian economist Samir] Aita. And with Assad doing nothing to help the drought refugees, a lot of very simple farmers and their kids got politicized. “State and government was invented in this part of the world, in ancient Mesopotamia, precisely to manage irrigation and crop growing,” said Aita, “and Assad failed in that basic task.”
Friedman concludes, “Young people and farmers starved for jobs — and land starved for water — were a prescription for revolution.” You can watch Friedman enter Syria during the civil war to learn more about the climate change connection here.
Now, large swaths of Syria and Iraq are being overrun and terrorized by the extremist group ISIS, which was able to gain its original foothold in Syria because of the corrupt regime’s misgovernance and the subsequent civil war.
The 2015 study, “Climate change in the Fertile Crescent and implications of the recent Syrian drought,” found that global warming made Syria’s 2006 to 2010 drought two to three times more likely. “While we’re not saying the drought caused the war,” lead author Dr. Colin Kelley explained. “We are saying that it certainly contributed to other factors — agricultural collapse and mass migration among them — that caused the uprising.”
The study identifies “a pretty convincing climate fingerprint” for the Syrian drought, Retired Navy Rear Admiral David Titley told Slate. Titley, also a meteorologist, said, “you can draw a very credible climate connection to this disaster we call ISIS right now.”
Unfortunately, warming-worsened drought is causing problems all around the Mediterranean:
NOAA concluded in 2011 that “human-caused climate change [is now] a major factor in more frequent Mediterranean droughts.” Reds and oranges highlight lands around the Mediterranean that experienced significantly drier winters during 1971-2010 than the comparison period of 1902-2010. [Click to enlarge.]
Ultimately, the poorer a country is — and the worse it is governed — the more warming-worsened drought is likely to drive instability.
The New York Times reported in 2009 that “climate-induced crises could topple governments, feed terrorist movements or destabilize entire regions, say the analysts, experts at the Pentagon and intelligence agencies who for the first time are taking a serious look at the national security implications of climate change.”
That’s a key reason 33 generals and admirals supported the comprehensive climate and clean energy jobs bill in 2010, asserting “Climate change is making the world a more dangerous place” and “threatening America’s security.”
Even with the climate pledges made in the lead up to Paris, we are headed well past the 2°C “defense line” against catastrophic climate change, where we cross carbon cycle tipping points create a world of rapid warming and a ruined climate far outside the bounds of any human experience.
It is a world with dozens of Syrias and Darfurs and Pakistani mega-floods, of countless environmental refugees — hundreds of millions in the second half of this century — all clamoring to occupy the parts of the developed world that aren’t flooded or Dust-Bowlified.
It would be a world where everyone eventually becomes a veteran. And if we don’t act swiftly and strongly to stop it, the IPCC warned in 2014 that the worst impacts were irreversible on a time scale of centuries if not millennia.
So when does this start to happen on a grand scale?
Back in 2008, Thomas Fingar, then “the U.S. intelligence community’s top analyst,” sees it happening by the mid-2020s:
By 2025, droughts, food shortages and scarcity of fresh water will plague large swaths of the globe, from northern China to the Horn of Africa.
For poorer countries, climate change “could be the straw that breaks the camel’s back,” Fingar said, while the United States will face “Dust Bowl” conditions in the parched Southwest.
…Floods and droughts will trigger mass migrations and political upheaval in many parts of the developing world.
We’ve already seen that even areas expected to become wetter can experience an extreme heat wave so unprecedented that it forces the entire country to suspend grain exports, as happened in Russia in 2010.
The U.K. government’s chief scientist, Professor John Beddington, laid out a scenario similar to Fingar’s in a 2009 speech. He warned that by 2030, “A ‘perfect storm’ of food shortages, scarce water and insufficient energy resources threaten to unleash public unrest, cross-border conflicts and mass migration as people flee from the worst-affected regions,” as the UK’s Guardian put it.
And we are not just talking about upheaval overseas. If we don’t take far stronger action on climate change, then here is what a 2015 NASA study projected the normal climate of North America will look like. The darkest areas have soil moisture comparable to that seen during the 1930s Dust Bowl.
Our choice today is clear. We can continue listening to the voices of denial and delay and disinformation, assuring that everyone ultimately becomes a veteran of the growing number of climate-related conflicts. Or we can launch a WWII-scale effort and a WWII-style effort to address the problem. That is our most necessary fight today.
This post is an update.