Did climate change spark Syria crisis?

We've noted before that numerous experts have linked the Darfur conflict to climate change, but now a less obvious climate connection to the Syria crisis is persuasively argued by Peter Sinclair of the blog Climate Denial Crock of the Week. As the name suggests, it is generally dedicated to shooting down climate change denialism, but in this Sept. 5 entry he attempts to trace the Syrian explosion—indeed, the entire Arab Revolution—to an atmospheric phenomenon. Sinclair reminds us that in the summer before the wave of revolution swept through Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen, Bahrain, Syria and beyond, Russia experienced a "1,000-year heat wave" (Bloomberg, Aug. 9, 2010) that shrivelled its crops and prompted Moscow to halt wheat exports (Washington Post, Aug. 6, 2010).

Sinclar links this to the devastating flooding in Pakistan that year; they apparently both had their roots in a single "blocking event" in the jet stream. It seems "a wave in the jet stream…got stuck in place for an extended period in July 2010, diverting moisture from Russia, and sending it plunging toward Pakistan." (Wired UK, Aug. 16, 2010) Sinclair cites Dr. Jeff Masters, science blogger for the Weather Underground, as saying "human-caused climate change…may have played a role" in this anomaly; climate models have "found it very likely (>90% chance) that human-caused climate change has at least doubled the risk of severe heat waves."

(Of course, we argue that whether climate change "played a role" is a dramatically wrong question; such phenomena are climate change. We've also noted research indicating that anthropogenic jet stream anomalies are linked to the increased strength of hurricanes in the Western Hemisphere. And we also noted the "peak wheat" fears in China in 2010, which was apparenlty affected along with Russia.)

It seems the entire Middle East had become more dependent on wheat imports following the failure of its own crop in 2008—and Syria was hit particularly hard. Sinclair links to a November 2008 Wiki-leaked US diplomatic cable on the need for emergency aid to Syrian farmers. (That same year, we noted the devastation of wheat crops across the Middle East and Central Asia by a wheat-eating fungus.) Sinclair argues that popular misery due to food shortages contributed significantly to the unrest in the following years—and it is certainly interesting to note that the worst crisis sparked by the Arab Revolutions has been in Syria, probably the country in the region most dependent on Russian imports.

Despite relentless attempts by Western media and political leaders to obscure the fact, economic grievances animated the protests in the Arab world from the very start—specifically, the December 2010 self-immolation of Mohamed Bouaziz, a Tunisian street vendor who had been harassed by the police. Even The Economist of March 17, 2012 noted (in a piece grimly entitled "Let them eat baklava"):

It is sadly appropriate that Mohamad Bouazizi, the Tunisian whose self-immolation triggered the first protest of the Arab spring, should have been a street vendor, selling food. From the start, food has played a bigger role in the upheavals than most people realise. Now, the Arab spring is making food problems worse.

They start with a peculiarity of the region: the Middle East and north Africa depend more on imported food than anywhere else. Most Arab countries buy half of what they eat from abroad and between 2007 and 2010, cereal imports to the region rose 13%, to 66m tonnes. Because they import so much, Arab countries suck in food inflation when world prices rise. In 2007-08, they spiked, with some staple crops doubling in price. In Egypt local food prices rose 37% in 2008-10…

The Arab spring was obviously about much more than food. But it played a role. "The food-price spike was the final nail in the coffin for regimes that were failing to deliver on their side of the social contract," says Jane Harrigan of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies.

Sinclair closes by invoking a 2010 Pentagon study finding that climate change will be a source of global instability in the coming years. (The National Intelligence Council and other such elite bodies have issued similar findings.) He remarks:

Now, today, we are in the midst of a national debate on whether the US should intervene in precisely the type of situation that the Pentagon warned about in 2010.  So far, the national media have not done a terribly effective job of putting this aspect of the problem in context.

Nope. And we will add a final irony: While we think that left-wing commentators' eternal quest for pipeline conspiracies to explain every US military adventure is especially oversimplified in the Syria case, certainly the proximity of the world's most strategic oil reserves—and the US imperative to keep them in domesticated hands—is critical to Washington's interests in this war. So, once again, the burning of the very resource at issue in the war is each day propelling us deeper into a planetary disaster that will breed more such wars… 

Thanks to Eco-Logic for the tip on this story.

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  1. Climate change threat to world food supply
    A leak draft of a report to be released next year by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change finds that climate change could reduce global food production by up to 2% each decade for the rest of the century. (NYT, Nov. 1)

  2. Ecological roots of Syria war

    The Ecologist on June 5 runs a piece by conservation biologist Gianluca Serra arguing that over-grazing and desertification in the Syrian steppe are the "root causes" of the war. Assuming an annoyingly told-you-so tone, he asserts that he had issued a paper in 2009 warning of "social turmoil and even for a civil war" for Syria if desertification was not checked. He says that the desertification process began in 1958 when the former Bedouin commons were opened up to unrestricted grazing. That led to a "wider ecological, hydrological and agricultural collapse," and then to a "rural intifada" of farmers and nomads no longer able to support themselves. He notes that with the enclosure of Bedouin grazing lands, their traditional system of hema"protected areas" excluded from grazing to preserve the steppe ecosystem—was abandoned. "It is therefore not a coincidence that the uprising in 2011 started in provincial towns rather than in the major urban centres of Damascus and Aleppo, Francesca De Chatel argues, aptly defining the rebellion as a 'rural Intifada'— one in which Bedouin tribes of steppe origin played a key role."

    The first protests in March 2011 were famously in Deraa, which can be considered a provincial city, but they quickly spread to Damascus and more central areas. Serra seems to be on to something, but we caution against being too deterministic about "root causes" and dismissing the overwhelming context of a brutal dictatorship.

  3. Ecological roots of Syria war questioned

    Jan Selby in MERIP takes a skeptical look at the notion that climate change “caused” the Syrian civil war. Of course the problem is ultimately with that deterministic word “caused”—even when modified as “partly caused.” Selby writes:

    These claims cannot be rejected entirely, if only because most phenomena are in one way or another connected, however indirectly, and because it is impossible to demonstrate the non-existence of causal connections. And yet…the Syria climate conflict narrative is deeply problematic.

    She does concede:

    There is no doubt that much of Syria and the eastern Mediterranean region experienced an exceptionally severe drought in the years before the onset of Syria’s civil war: the single year 2007–2008 was northeastern Syria’s driest on record, as was the three-year period 2006–2009.

    But Selby writes that ultimately is was “the post-2000 transformation of Syria’s economy [that] sparked agrarian crisis.”

    Within just a few short years, Syria embraced principles of economic liberalization, privatized state farms, liberalized trade and reduced price control levels. At the same time domestic oil production and exports fell rapidly, thus undermining the regime’s rentier foundations and its capacity to subsidize agriculture. The price of diesel did not just double, which is the level at which wheat and cotton production would become untenable across much of the country, but increased much more than that, with a subsidy cut equivalent to 7 percent of GDP. Strategic crop production inevitably fell as a result, and mass rural to urban migration followed. Irrespective of any drought impacts, these developments essentially occurred when the props that had until then artificially maintained an over-extended agricultural production system—oil export rents, a pro-agrarian ideology and their associated price controls—were suddenly and decisively removed.

    We must emphasize, however, that it isn’t an either/or. A role for the regime’s neoliberal reform in the roots of the conflagration does not exclude one for climate change. And neither excuses the regime’s brutality.