Most Americans' understanding of the root of the Syrian conflict boils down to something like this: Bashar al-Assad is a sociopathic maniac who'd rather mow down his own people than relinquish dictatorship. While that's undoubtedly part of the equation, there's obviously a lot more at play than that. And some of the blame, scholars argue, can be traced all the way to climate change.
As was the case with many of the nations touched by the Arab Spring, a large swath of Syria's citizenry wasn't just poor, oppressed, and disenfranchised by an authoritarian regime—they were starving, too. And they were starving because Syria had been stricken by a five year drought believed to be exacerbated by climate change. There was eventually too little rain to even grow crops or to feed livestock.
William Polk, an ex-US State Department advisor, has written a meticulously detailed account of the genesis of the conflict over at The Atlantic. As Digby writes at Alternet, "It is the most cogent recitation and analysis of the Syrian crisis that I've seen."
It is also an exceptionally detailed case study of how, exactly, climate change can directly influence—even precipitate—a violent conflict. Considering Syria's path to war, step-by-step, provides a powerful breakdown of what might continue to happen in the future, so as long as the globe continues to warm, the food system continues to be in thrall to commodity traders and market swings, and vast swaths of the global population remain impoverished.
"Syria has been convulsed by civil war since climate change came to Syria with a vengeance," Polk writes. "Drought devastated the country from 2006 to 2011. Rainfall in most of the country fell below eight inches (20 cm) a year, the absolute minimum needed to sustain un-irrigated farming. Desperate for water, farmers began to tap aquifers with tens of thousands of new well. But, as they did, the water table quickly dropped to a level below which their pumps could lift it."
Polk points us to these graphs, which show how dismal the rainfall levels were across the country. From 2007-2008, rainfall was 50 percent below normal across the vast majority of the country.
USDA Foreign Agricultural Service, Commodity Intelligence Report, May 9, 2008
According to a 2012 report from the Center of Climate and Security, "From 2006-2011, up to 60% of Syria’s land experienced, in the terms of one expert, 'the worst long-term drought and most severe set of crop failures since agricultural civilizations began in the Fertile Crescent many millennia ago.'"
Syria was going through the worst drought and the nastiest spate of crop failures in human history—both of which were almost certainly driven by climate change. In 2011, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration found that “human-caused climate change [is now] a major factor in more frequent Mediterranean droughts." This was one of them.
The CCS report also cites the Global Assessment Report on Disaster Risk Reduction (GAR), which found in 2011 that “nearly 75 percent" of the population "suffered total crop failure.” Meanwhile, "Herders in the northeast lost around 85% of their livestock, affecting 1.3 million people."
NOAA map of aridity in 2011.
Eventually, by 2011, between two and three million people were starving in a country with a total population of 10 million. That's nearly a third of Syria, starved by climate change. Because when these farmers can't grow crops, they can't afford to buy food, either. And the conditions for unrest ripens.
As Yaneer Bar-Yam's influential work with food prices at the Complex Systems Institute has shown, as the price of food rises—and millions of erstwhile subsistence farmers who've since flocked to cities to compete for low-paying jobs can't afford it—the prospect of riots and violence become increasingly likely. This is what happened in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya.
It's also what happened in Syria. The millions of farmers also immediately came into a crash course with the hundreds of thousands of already-existing refugees, which created an immense strain on the social fabric of nation.
This is the sort of situation that worries no less than the US Department of Defense. Military officials have gone on the record calling climate change a "threat multiplier" for a reason—when a population is poor and oppressed, add in the vagaries of a malevolent weather system and it's a recipe for disaster.
In Syria's case, the UN knew it, too—it saw the spiking food prices and its Food and Agriculture Administration announced in 2008 that Syria would require aid, or it would face "social destruction." The US's aid agency, USAID, denied the request at the time. In other words, the US had a chance to help alleviate Syria's suffering before the war broke out, and it decided not to.
And so, with food too expensive to buy, land too arid to till, and the government unwilling to lend a hand, the conditions for social unrest were ripe. Here's Polk again, on what happened next.
So tens of thousands of frightened, angry, hungry and impoverished former farmers flooded constituted a “tinder” that was ready to catch fire. The spark was struck on March 15, 2011 when a relatively small group gathered in the town of Daraa to protest against government failure to help them. Instead of meeting with the protestors and at least hearing their complaints, the government cracked down on them as subversives ...
And their action backfired. Riots broke out all over the country, As they did, the Assads attempted to quell them with military force. They failed to do so and, as outside help – money from the Gulf states and Muslim “freedom fighters” from the rest of the world – poured into the country, the government lost control over 30% of the country’s rural areas and perhaps half of its population.
And that's where we are today. Over a hundred thousand dead, no end in sight, acts of unspeakable violence occurring every day, and with the distinct possibility that everything is going to get worse. Reverse engineer this tragic mess, and you find that it starts with a warming globe, with scorched farmland, with hungry mouths, and then with the ruthless despot.
So this is our mess too. We're still cranking away at the carbon pump, and no nation is as culpable as the United States—and as long as we do, we'll be at least in some small part, responsible for the starving, rioting masses all the way across the globe. If we're so dead set on intervention, maybe we should be focusing less on missiles and more on clean energy.