Did Global Warming Really Create ISIS?

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Michael Bastasch DCNF Managing Editor
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It’s a familiar refrain: global warming caused the drought that sparked Syria’s bloody civil war which led to the creation of ISIS. But is it true?

Scholars and media pundits have been debating the question ever since the rise of the Islamic State. Did global warming intensify a drought that caused enough anger among the people they rebelled when the Assad regime failed to act?

Or did the drought simply exacerbate already existing tensions between the Syrian people and the authoritarian regime of President Bashar al Assad?

Furthermore, is it fair to attribute one drought to global warming, especially when it’s been admitted that no single weather event can be blamed on a changing climate?

Is Global Warming To Blame?

The claim has been parroted for years by academics and media pundits. A new study by a researcher at the University of California in Santa Barbara has once again ignited the debate over global warming’s role in the Middle East’s recent turmoil.

UCSB’s Colin Kelley says that Syria’s record drought from 2006 to 2010 was likely made worse by man-made global warming and set the stage for mass discontent and migration that sparked the Syrian uprising.

Kelley, however, is careful not to say that global warming was the cause of the war — but media pundits have been playing up the alleged link between global warming and conflict.

ThinkProgress ran with the headline “Human-Caused Warming Helped Trigger Current Syrian Conflict And Rise Of ISIS” and Slate reported that one “of the most terrifying implications is the increasingly real threat of wars sparked in part by global warming.”

Both ThinkProgress and Slate connected the global warming-induced drought to the rise of ISIS.

“It’s a pretty convincing climate fingerprint,” retired Navy Rear Adm. David Titley told Slate, adding that years of shoddy water management meant “there was no resilience left in the system.”

“It’s not to say you could predict ISIS out of that, but you just set everything up for something really bad to happen,” said Titley, a meteorologist now teaching at Pennsylvania State University. “[Y]ou can draw a very credible climate connection to this disaster we call ISIS right now.”

The claims come after a slew of research postulating that global warming will exacerbate conflict in the world’s most vulnerable areas. The New York Times even claimed that global warming has toppled governments — a statement which was quickly deleted from the article.

The Syrian civil war has become the test case for the hypothesis that global warming-induced weather is already sparking major conflicts. In the case of Syria, researchers argue that global warming caused the worst drought in recorded history which caused widespread unrest, which turned into full-fledged rebellion when the government failed to act. In the ensuing chaos, ISIS was able to gain power.

“Yet the four-year drought evoked little response from Bashar al-Assad’s government,” wrote Charles Strozier, a history professor at the City University of New York, and Kelly Berkell, an attorney and researcher with the Center on Terrorism at John Jay College of Criminal Justice.

“Rage at the regime’s callousness boiled over in 2011, helping to fuel the popular uprising,” the academics wrote. “In the ensuing chaos, ISIS stole onto the scene, proclaimed a caliphate in late June and accelerated its rampage of atrocities including the recent beheadings of three Western civilians.”

Assad Underwrites ISIS

But did ISIS really “steal onto the scene”? Reporters covering the conflict have documented at length the extent to which Assad regime policies directly led to the rise of ISIS.

The Assad regime, in fact, made a conscious decision not to engage ISIS early on during the Syrian civil war, instead letting the Free Syrian Army and Islamic State wear each other out. Also, right as the civil war started, Assad released several high-valued prisoners it was holding for terrorism — many of them ended up leading Islamic extremists in the civil war.

“In May 2011, after the first protests broke out in Syria, the Syrian government released from the Sadnaya military prison some of its most high-value detainees imprisoned for terrorism, the first in a series of general amnesties,” The Wall Street Journal reports. “At least nine went on to lead extremist groups in Syria, and four currently serve the Islamic State, statements from the extremist groups and interviews with other rebels show.”

The WSJ also notes that Assad viciously bombed moderate strongholds and ignored those of the extremists, all while guzzling heartily from ISIS’ oil stores.

The Daily Beast reports that Assad was likely to have facilitated ISIS for one main reason: to shift the West’s attention from his crumbling regime and the alleged war crimes it was perpetrating.

American attempts to arm rebels stalled because officials feared they would fall into the hands of extremists and that “the weapons will eventually be used against the West,” writes The Beast’s Jamie Dettmer.

Certainly decisions on the ground played a role in the rise of ISIS regardless of the weather.

Syrian Climate

Though it’s undisputed that the 2006 to 2010 drought was particularly severe, Syria’s climate is not altogether unexpected from its lifelong inhabitants.

“Drought forms an integral part of Syria’s (semi-)arid climate and is not an exceptional phenomenon,” writes Francesca de Châtel, a researcher at Radboud University in the Netherlands.

Syria has experienced frequent droughts in the last half century, according to research. The country spent 40 percent of the time between 1961 and 2009 in drought — a total time of 25 years.

“Countries in the region such as Iraq, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon and Palestine were also affected by drought in 2007/8, but only Syria experienced a humanitarian crisis, with large-scale migration of populations and widespread malnutrition,” de Châtel writes. “I will argue that this can be explained by the fact that the humanitarian crisis in fact predated the drought.”

De Châtel argues that economic liberalization and cuts to state subsidies before the drought were already causing upheaval in Syria. She argues the country had been sinking into poverty as early as 2000 because of failed government plans to boost agricultural production — plans that simply wasted natural resources and increased water scarcity.

“The drought that struck in 2006 merely formed a final coup de grace,” de Châtel writes. “It was not a sudden, catastrophic event; it merely exacerbated an already disastrous situation. It did not trigger a humanitarian crisis; it merely highlighted the rising poverty levels and accentuated a series of trends that had been taking shape for decades.”

So Syrians were likely being hurt by Assad regime policies before the drought even hit. But there’s another point to consider: can the recent drought be blamed on global warming?

Climate scientists, along with environmentalists and liberal politicians, have argued that global warming will only make extreme weather more likely. Scientists have said things like hurricanes, droughts and even snow storms will become more intense as the Earth warms.

But empirical evidence suggests there has been no uptick in extreme weather despite warnings from academics and activists.

In fact, the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change said in its most recent assessment that “that there is not enough evidence at present to suggest more than low confidence in a global-scale observed trend in drought or dryness (lack of rainfall) since the middle of the 20th century due to lack of direct observations, geographical inconsistencies in the trends.”

The IPCC also says that “[l]ong-term trends in economic disaster losses adjusted for wealth and population increases have not been attributed to climate change, but a role for climate change has not been excluded.”

A 2012 study published in the journal Nature found that “there has been little change in drought over the past 60 years.” Another 2012 study found that “there is no necessary correlation between temperature changes and long-term drought variations, which should warn us against using any simplifications regarding their relationship.”

Research by University of Colorado climate scientist Dr. Roger Pielke has also found that droughts have not gotten worse on a global scale in the last century because of global warming.

“It is misleading and just plain incorrect to claim that disasters associated with hurricanes, tornadoes, floods or droughts have increased on climate timescales either in the United States or globally,” Pielke told the Senate in 2013. “It is further incorrect to associate the increasing costs of disasters with the emission of greenhouse gases.”

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