Syria is at a breaking point. In the past weeks it has been experiencing one of the worst humanitarian emergencies since the start of the nine-year civil war. Currently, over three million civilians are trapped in Idlib, the last rebel-held territory at the Turkish border. About half of them have been forcibly displaced from other parts of the country.
Syrian population displacement is the result of many interrelated factors. Religious, economic and socio-political tensions all contributed to the devastating war breaking out. But studies have demonstrated that climate change also played a relevant role in this and other conflicts. A five-year drought caused a mass migration within the country from rural to urban areas, contributing to the 2011 uprising and, eventually, to the civil conflict, say experts.
“Syria has a very dry inland region and this is part of the dynamic that underscores the conflict,” explained Andrew Pendleton, Director of Policy and Advocacy at the New Economics Foundation, a British think-tank that promotes social, economic and environmental justice. “People who relied on the land for their living have moved from this region and are putting more pressure on the coast and the border areas,” he said.
Climate change was not the principal cause of the Syrian war and it should not overshadow the country’s political and economic crisis. But it did escalate the conflict and “it will become more and more present as this region of the world gets drier,” Pendleton said.
Syria is not an isolated case of climate-related hostilities. Water shortages set off conflicts in Kenya and they are opposing Egypt and Ethiopia over a Nile dam dispute. Fertile land wars are affecting the most marginalised communities in Nigeria, and the prospect of an ice-free Arctic poses threats of tensions over shipping lanes and access to oil.
A 2019 study, Climate as a risk factor for armed conflict, analysed this relationship between climate change consequences and the increase of hostilities. The paper, published in the scientific journal Nature, stated that “experts agree that climate has affected organized armed conflict within countries.” Katharine Mach, Director of the Stanford Environment Assessment Facility and lead author of the study, said that in the coming years global politics will be increasingly destabilized by climate change.
Also, according to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the rise of armed conflict remains tightly linked to environmentally induced migration or displacement. When climate change forces people to migrate, if viable institutions are unable to manage their settlement and integration is lacking, conflict is more likely to spark, the IPCC report says.
Between 2008 and 2016 about 227.6 million people were displaced by natural disasters, as reported by the Global Migration Data Portal. By 2050 there will be over 140 million climate migrants, The World Bank estimates.
However, Katrine Petersen, Campaign Manager of Climate Change Narratives at the Grantham Institute, counter argues that scientists do have solutions to the climate emergency and governments could prevent further wars from happening.
“It is important to make the public aware of the risks that are out there and might happen if we don’t act on the issue with the urgency that requires,” Petersen said. “However, I also think it is incredibly important to not create the idea that there are no solutions and only terrible things will happen because that is not the case.” She believes that the focus of the media and research should shift from the negatives of climate change to possible solutions and governmental actions.
The Syrian war is still far from resolution and governments’ intervention on climate policies will not be enough to stop it. But, as global warming is unrestrainable, without a concrete turnaround on carbon emissions, circumstances could further worsen and exacerbate the conflict, as it is already happening. So, tackling the environment emergency becomes a matter of social justice. Because, as Andrew Pendleton remarked, “climate change is going to impact the poorest people the hardest, and they are the least responsible.”