For hundreds of years, the root causes of war could be attributable to a combination of factors: ideological change, self-determination and national control, battles over natural resources, and struggles over territory, including control of part of a particular country or the whole nation. Now, in the 21st century, historians, economists, and environmentalists have begun to recognize that climate change may be a significant factor in the instigation of high-intensity conflict and war.
The effect of climate change on civil unrest and forced migration may be most strikingly observed in Syria. The Syrian civil war began in March 2011, when government security forces opened fire on and killed several pro-democracy demonstrators. Over the next four months, hundreds of thousands of Syrians took to the streets, demanding the resignation of President Assad. The conflict escalated, as Syrians - many of whom were part of the country’s Sunni majority - banded together to form rebel groups opposed to the Assad government and Assad’s Shia Alawite sect. In the ensuing 5 years, an estimated 500,000 people have died in the war, with more than 11.5% of the Syrian population having been killed or wounded. Significantly, in the five years preceding the start of its civil war, Syria experienced one of the worst droughts in recorded history. This drought coincided with the Assad government’s misguided decision to subsidize water-intensive crops like cotton and wheat. Approximately 75% of Syria’s farmers lost all of their crops, and farmers in northeastern Syria lost about 80% of their livestock. Those losses forced millions of Syrians to move into Syria’s cities, which were already experiencing economic upheaval because of the dramatic increase in Palestinian and Iraqi refugees.
In all, more than 4½ million people have escaped from Syria since the civil war began, mainly women and children. An additional 6½ million people have been forced to migrate within Syria.
Even traditionally conservative institutions are beginning to acknowledge that climate change will have a deleterious impact not only on the environment, but also on global security. In a report released in October 2014, the Pentagon recognized global warming as a significant strategic threat, stating that it could cause “instability in other countries by impairing access to food and water, damaging infrastructure, spreading disease, uprooting and displacing large numbers of people, compelling mass migration, interrupting commercial activity, or restricting electricity availability.” The Pentagon went on to observe that such disturbances could “create an avenue for extremist ideologies and conditions that foster terrorism.”
In March 2015, a landmark study, Climate Change in the Fertile Crescent and Implications of the Recent Syrian Drought, was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. The study noted, “Before the Syrian uprising that began in 2011, the greater Fertile Crescent experienced the most severe drought in the instrumental record. For Syria, a country marked by poor governance and unsustainable agricultural and environmental policies, the drought had a catalytic effect, contributing to political unrest.” In remarking on the significance of this study, Solomon Hsiang, a University of California, Berkeley professor who has conducted research on the role of climate change in violence, stated: “Up until now we’ve understood and established that changes in climate may affect human conflict in the future. But everything until now has stopped short of saying climate change is already having an effect.”
Caitlin Werrell, a co-founder of the Center for Climate and Security, has described climate change as “a ‘threat multiplier.’ The way it combines with water or food can take an existing conflict and make it worse, or take a stable situation and make it worse.”
Acknowledging and addressing the devastation caused by climate change is essential to ensuring the safety and well-being of the world’s populations.