Did global warming cause the Syrian civil war?

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Michael Bastasch DCNF Managing Editor
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If Congress authorizes military strikes against Syria, is global warming to blame?

According to Francesco Femia, co-founder of the Center for Climate and Security, the Syrian conflict that has caught the attention of the world was preceded by the “worst long-term drought and most severe set of crop failures since agricultural civilizations began in the Fertile Crescent.”

The severe drought, combined with massive crop failures and poor agricultural policy on the part of the Assad regime, forced mass migrations from the countryside to cities that were already hard-pressed by refugees from Iraq, Femia argues. Military analysts overlooked these factors and argued that Syria would be immune to the civil unrest that had previously swept through authoritarian Middle Eastern regimes.

“But under the surface of what seemed to be a stable country, there was a large-scale environmental and human disaster happening,” Femia told “Moyers & Company.”

“Climate change primarily manifests itself through water,” Femia added. “But it varies; different kinds of water, different ways. It can lead to more extreme weather events: either a drought or a major storm or an amount of rainfall that’s unusual and leads to flooding. It’s not just scarcity, it’s too much, too little and unpredictably.”

“Climate change is going to have security implications across the globe and conflict is just one area of concern,” Femia said.

Researchers have recently began paying more attention to the effects that global warming has on international relations and its impact on violent conflicts. One recent study argues that shifts in the earth’s climate have historically been associated with violent conflict and global warming could exacerbate the potential for conflict across the world.

However, there is still little consensus among military experts regarding global warming’s impact on violent conflict.

“There is no consensus in the scholarly or policy communities as to what factors specifically contribute to, much less cause, conflict,” said William Martel, associate professor of international security studies at Tufts University.

Jeff Kueter, president of the Marshall Institute, authored a paper that argued environmental factors rarely incite conflict, but instead such factors often breed cooperation.

Kueter argues that for environmental factors to help incite conflict there needs to be things like “repression, longstanding or simmering conflicts between two countries, [and] competition over other types of territory.”

Femia also acknowledged that it’s still too early to clearly connect global warming to causing conflict.

“We still have yet to disentangle the line from climate and drought, to displacement, to conflict,” he said. “We’re not making any causal claims about climate change causing conflict, but it certainly is what the security community calls a ‘threat multiplier.’ It makes other threats to human security worse, and in this case we see it fast at hand.”

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