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Published online 20 February 2019
New research supports the impact of drought on triggering the Syrian war, but the full picture is more complicated.
A new study1 supports the notion of a link between drought, the Syrian war and the subsequent wave of refugees, demonstrating how climate change can force migration. But research into the links between climate change, conflict, and migration is challenging and contentious, and experts caution against accepting simple, straightforward explanations.
The idea that climate change causes violent conflicts emerged as a policy concern and research topic in the late 1980s, particularly following the 1987 publication of Our Common Future by the World Commission on Environment and Development. Though the three decades since have seen an outpouring of research on the topic, consensus has remained elusive. “That’s not least because there are various research agendas in the mix and they’re not all compatible,” says Simon Dalby, an environmental security researcher at Canada’s Balsillie School of International Affairs. “However, most of the research does suggest that while climate is clearly a problem for many people, it’s the social situation in particular places that shapes whether responses are violent.”
This nuanced view is echoed by the findings of the latest study. Researchers, led by Raya Muttarak of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis in Austria, gathered data on asylum applications from 157 countries between 2006 and 2015, drought severity data from the UN, and battle-related death statistics from the Uppsala Conflict Data Program. They incorporated the data into three equations that modelled how climate affects conflict, how conflict affects the likelihood of asylum seeking, and finally how that translates into the number of asylum seekers.
“The idea for this paper started with the European migration crisis back in the summer of 2015,” says Muttarak. Many media outlets were linking it to climate change, but without any evidence for the link, she explains. “So my starting point was: let’s look at the data to see if it does or doesn’t support that.”
A local phenomenon
Narratives about the Syrian war echo descriptions of the 2003-2005 conflict in Darfur, which former UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon said2 “began as an ecological crisis, arising at least in part from climate change,” blaming drought for increased tension between Arab herders and black farmers. In 2007, Syria’s worst drought on record began, which experts attributed to anthropogenic climate change. Commentators claim the resulting agricultural crisis drove rural populations into cities, exacerbating urban overcrowding, unemployment and inequality, eventually leading to political unrest and conflict.
The new analysis did not find a global association between climate, conflict and migration in the period from 2006 to 2010, but there was one for the period between 2011 and 2015. When the team analysed the data again for the period from 2010 to 2012 with a specific focus on Western Asian and North African countries, they found a strong climate association. “From this we learned that the effect of climate-induced conflict on migration is a local phenomenon,” says Muttarak. “It applies only to certain countries and certain time periods. It’s not universal.”
From this we learned that the effect of climate-induced conflict on migration is a local phenomenon
The researchers explain that climate change only drives asylum seeking in countries undergoing political transformation in which the population is unhappy about the government’s response to climate shocks, such as drought or crop failure.
But Jan Selby, an international relations researcher at the UK’s University of Sussex and director of the Sussex Centre for Conflict and Security Research, who was not involved in the study, notes that “at the moment, their explanation is an assertive claim rather than one they’ve actually tested. It would be interesting to think about how they could substantiate that and test it.”
This context dependence is at odds with studies that have found a universal effect of climate on conflict, such as a 2017 paper3 that reported a universal correlation between temperature and asylum seeking in the period from 2000 to 2014. The findings also challenge the conclusions of studies from earlier decades, which Simon Dalby summarized in 2013 by writing4 that “new field research in potential conflict zones in the 2000s has again demonstrated that droughts and other climate disruptions are, at least so far, minor contributors to contemporary conflict”.
The lack of consensus is at least partly due to differences in the definitions and measurements used when encoding data; for example, what is considered ‘conflict’, which kinds of migration are included, and how climate change is measured. The findings also reflect the complexity of the question. Climate change could affect conflict or migration directly or indirectly, through countless potential causal mechanisms involving a plethora of variables.
Perhaps the problem isn’t so much that there is ‘no consensus yet’, but that there will be ‘no consensus ever’
To Muttarak, the mixed findings reflect ongoing development. “At some point, the field will develop in the sense that there might be a more systematic way of measuring things and more data. I think it will probably take 15 or 20 years before there will be concrete conclusions on this topic.”
To Selby, the inconsistent findings are signs of a fruitless research program. In a 2014 critique5 of efforts to link climate change and conflict he wrote that, “Perhaps the problem isn’t so much that there is ‘no consensus yet’, but that there will be ‘no consensus ever’?”
The challenges of researching complex questions
Part of Selby’s critique is his contention that quantitative research – which investigates social complexity by isolating a number of variables, reducing them to numbers, and then looking for relationships between those numbers – is the wrong way to approach these questions. Instead, he advocates a qualitative approach, which doesn’t limit the number of variables and combines documentary analysis, interviews, and ethnography to analyse the reasons why people do things and why things happen, in all their complexity.
Despite their rigor, “No scientific analyses of drought and the Syrian conflict address the economic liberalization of Syrian society and its profound effects even prior to the drought, or how drought and economic liberalization interacted,” says Selby. “None of them talk about the impacts of rising fuel prices in 2007/8 on agricultural activity in the northeast of Syria.”
His analysis of the Syrian war6 showed that herding in Syria’s northeast wasn’t especially dependent on grazing but rather on transporting animals to locations with food. “They were, in many ways, much more dependent on access to cheap fuel than access to greenery made possible through rain,” Selby explains, leading him to conclude that the agrarian crisis in the run-up to the Syrian war resulted from structural and political factors rather than climate change.
We don't live in a stable situation to which climate change adds stress. We live in a dynamic changing economy, and climate is one more factor in the mix
The institutional and policy framework guiding this research may also constrain which questions are investigated. For example, Selby notes that research has focused solely on environmentally induced conflicts, rather than the consequences of our efforts to mitigate climate change. There is no discussion, he says, on the conflict and security implications of adaptations to a changing climate, such as dam building, or of decarbonization efforts that would compel countries with fossil fuel-driven economies to leave those resources untapped.
Research linking climate and conflict also tends to focus on crises in the global South, particularly in rural areas. The resulting policies, Simon Dalby writes, “may provide conveniently familiar justifications for military action in Africa and Asia on the part of Northern states,” stressing that such an approach treats the symptoms of climate change rather than the causes, which are based in metropolitan consumption.
To Selby, this reflects a more profound problem with research on climate change and security, which he says has “very strong resonances with racist science and racist public discourse.” By ignoring the political, economic and historical contexts of societies in Syria or Darfur, climate-conflict research essentially treats them as unchanging societies, untouched by history and lacking agency, simply responding to their environment rather than shaping it. The resulting narratives “almost give the impression that Darfuris and Syrians were not economic or political actors at all and had no economic history. I find these representations deeply troubling.”
The political importance of both climate change and migration makes thorough, rigorous research into the link between them imperative but also extremely challenging. Muttarak argues that this research can offer policymakers a sound statistical basis for decisions. For example, her findings identify circumstances where “building adaptive capacity and helping vulnerable sub-groups of the population cope with climate pressures can potentially reduce conflict over a scarce resource.”
Links between climate change and conflict should always be considered in the context of “the larger political economy of rural transformations in the contemporary world,” says Dalby. “We don't live in a stable situation to which climate change adds stress. We live in a dynamic changing economy, and climate is one more factor in the mix; admittedly one that seems to be increasing in importance.”