And the flight from the land has been linked with the beginning of civil unrest in Syrian cities. This argument has been invoked by, among others, former US President Obama, Prince Charles of Great Britain, the World Bank and Friends of the Earth.
Not so, say the scholars in Political Geography. They argue that though the drought was severe, it was not necessarily caused by man-made climate change driven by profligate combustion of fossil fuels, and that although drought contributed to migration to the cities, this would have involved not 1.5 million people but no more than 60,000 families. Economic liberalisation in any case may have been the more important factor, they say.
“Droughts are a factor that add fuel to flames that are already burning”
“Our paper finds that there is no sound evidence that global climate change was a factor in sparking the Syrian civil war. Indeed, it is extraordinary that this claim has become so widely accepted when the scientific evidence for it is so thin,” said Jan Selby, who directs the Centre for Conflict and Security Research at Sussex University in the UK.
“Global climate change is a very real challenge, and will undoubtedly have significant conflict and security consequences, but there is no good evidence that this is what was going on in this case.
“It is vital that experts, commentators and policymakers resist the temptation to make exaggerated claims about the conflict implications of climate change. Overblown claims not based on rigorous science only risk fuelling climate scepticism.”
But the link between climate and violence remains. European researchers report in the Journal of Environmental Economics and Management that they studied the pattern of rioting recorded in sub-Saharan Africa between 1990 and 2011, and found a systematic link between sudden depletion of water resources and the outbreak of unrest.
They used statistical reasoning to find that droughts raised the risk of rioting from 10% to 50% in a given month in any region. There were other factors: density of population, the presence of lakes and rivers and the local ethnic mix could all contribute to the probabilities of conflict. That did not mean that droughts “cause” conflict.
“In order of importance, it is political, economic or social causes that create tension,” said Jérémy Lucchetti, a professor in the University of Geneva’s economics and management faculty, who led the study.
“Droughts are a factor that add fuel to flames that are already burning.” – Climate News Network, 11 October 2017
Tim Radford, a founding editor of Climate News Network, worked for The Guardian for 32 years, for most of that time as science editor. He has been covering climate change since 1988.