Sunday, November 15, 2015

Syria, climate change and the horror in Paris

As the world mourns those who died in Paris last week in a killing spree for which the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has claimed responsibility, reporters and commentators have been discussing the motivations behind the attacks. I'm not sure that any so far has considered whether one can draw a straight line from a severe drought in Syria to these mass killings. My own answer is that if the line is there--and I think it is--then it has taken many twists and turns before arriving in Paris.

Even so, it might be worthwhile for those who will soon be gathering in this bereaved city in order to negotiate a new worldwide climate treaty to understand any such connection. For in the background behind these events, there is a Syria starved of water almost surely because of climate change.

A study released earlier this year suggested that the first link in the causal chain that led to the current conflict in Syria was a severe drought lasting from 2006 through 2009, a drought that yielded some of the strongest evidence yet for the link between climate change and increasingly extreme droughts.

As The New York Times reported last March:

Some social scientists, policy makers and others have previously suggested that the drought played a role in the Syrian unrest, and the researchers addressed this as well, saying the drought "had a catalytic effect." They cited studies that showed that the extreme dryness, combined with other factors, including misguided agricultural and water-use policies of the Syrian government, caused crop failures that led to the migration of as many as 1.5 million people from rural to urban areas. This in turn added to social stresses that eventually resulted in the uprising against President Bashar al-Assad in March 2011.

So, climate change is not a sufficient explanation for the Syrian conflict nor for the ugly and brutal attacks on French civilians. In fact, ISIS had been threatening France long before the French military joined the conflict in late September. Nevertheless, climate change appears to be the first link in a long chain of events involving a myriad of groups and countries that ultimately led to the attacks in Paris, attacks believed to be in retaliation for French airstrikes on ISIS.

It is not that climate change causes people to be violent so much as it exacerbates their violent tendencies. Lack of water and the failure of harvests can make people very, very angry--angry and susceptible to those who promise revenge against the perceived perpetrators of their problems.

But, one cannot fight climate change with guns. So, when the guns come out, they get pointed at people for reasons few trace back to climate change. Simmering grievances, old and new, can find their expression, it seems, in armed conflict when the heat from global warming is turned up this high.

The paramount concern in Paris now is for the safety of those thousands of scientists, policymakers, businesspeople, reporters and world leaders who will be descending on the city for the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change between November 30 and December 11. Will it enter the attendees' minds that the savage attacks in Paris are in some way linked to climate change? Will the broader public worldwide see the link?

We humans have a natural proclivity to fight over things we want and need such as water, food, and energy resources. Climate change will make our ability to obtain all of these in sufficient quantities either more difficult (food and water) or more problematic (greenhouse gases from fossil fuel energy resources).

More conflict over these basics that is linked to climate change cannot be far in the future. And, that means that the upcoming climate talks in Paris will not just be about climate. They will also be about conflict and peace. Without substantial progress on climate change we are likely to see ever more conflicts that begin with deprivation brought on by climate change, but which quickly spiral into wars with ideological, ethnic and religious dimensions that engulf entire regions.

Many readers may know the old adage about the relationship between peace and justice: "If you want peace, work for justice." To that we must now add a new variation: "If you want peace, you must work for policies and practices that seriously address climate change."

May the Paris negotiators find the courage to do just that.

Kurt Cobb is an author, speaker, and columnist focusing on energy and the environment. He is a regular contributor to the Energy Voices section of The Christian Science Monitor and author of the peak-oil-themed novel Prelude. In addition, he has written columns for the Paris-based science news site Scitizen, and his work has been featured on Energy Bulletin (now, The Oil Drum,, Econ Matters, Peak Oil Review, 321energy, Common Dreams, Le Monde Diplomatique and many other sites. He maintains a blog called Resource Insights and can be contacted at


Dan McShane said...

The USDA called this problem out back in 2008:

Ugo Bardi said...

We can all fight terrorism, but we need to fight it the right way. I have a modest suggestion, here:

We must go to the root of the problem, and the root of the problem is fossil fuels.

Kurt Cobb said...

Thanks to Bart Anderson for spotting this piece in The Hill posted just 30 minutes after my own in which Bernie Sanders outlines an almost identical argument:

ChemEng said...


Thank you for a well-written article, particularly the line, “. . . one cannot fight climate change with guns.”

As I read the history to do with that part of the world, particularly the Hebrew Bible and various Greek histories and myths, I am struck by the persistent violence that has been going on in that area for millennia (and most other parts of the world, of course). One reason for this may be that writers tend to focus on war because it is generally much more interesting and dramatic than peace. But, still, war and violence in that region are hardly new.

Rather than seeing climate change as being “first link in the causal chain that led to the current conflict in Syria” I would be inclined to say that climate change is just yet another factor in the causes of conflict and war.

Juandonjuan said...

Certainly the drought and the stresses on the population were major factors, but do we know how many Iraqi refugees/displaced persons have been adding their weight to a fragile (and semi-arid) landscape? As I recall, in 2004-07 there were 500,000 plus Iraqis in the eastern regions of Syria- mostly Sunni- who were reluctant to return to a nation that was increasingly sectarian rather than secular. Which, oddly enough, begins to look like a feature of American foreign policy rather than a flaw.
And, no doubt, the perpetrators of the Paris attacks found it quite useful to point out the history of the colonial period(Post Ottoman). The fact that France has a large Muslim minority as a legacy of Algeria probably made it easier to hide in plain sight.

Anonymous said...

So...if Europe gave 3B euros to Syria to build desalination facilities along it's coast, instead of providing those funds to Turkey to stem the flow of illegal migrants, everything would be wonderful and nobody would be happy, because Europe would also have to stop buying the cheep illegal oil stolen from Syria and Iraq, which along with the migrant flow, is supplied by Turkey.

In this conflict, climate pressure may have provided the trigger point, but an appropriate environmental response has become the first victim, maybe not because of religion or sectarian unrest, but the more fundamental constituent of the Human condition. Greed!

Let's face it, it's simply easier to take others resources, when the military means is there and the political will is to turn a blind eye. The take home message is water is a more essential resource than oil for life and peace, but not wealth, control and economic growth and especially not war!

Maybe the contrived oil glut we are experiencing is a tacky cover for the conflicts we see today, but lets not pretend to not know the reasons why.