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Is Climate Change Causing Europe’s Refugee Crisis?

Is Bassar al-Assad causing all those Syrian refugees to flee? Well, yes, in a way — but also no. Science now has something to say of this though few have noticed: Chances are that climate change led to the war the refugees are fleeing. They lived in a region that both climate modeling and weather measurements say is drying up. Bassar al-Assad was just a brutal cog in a much larger brutal machine.

Oversimplified, the story goes like this: drought → chaos → war → flight. It is a story with a message: We may need to learn to handle a lot more of this.

Let’s track events. As I noted in a post on Syria some time ago it’s true that Western politics a hundred years ago led to al-Assad taking control in 2000. And yes, in 2011 he began the civil war by violently repressing protests in the small southern city of Daraa (Dar’ā). But how can we explain those protests spreading like wildfire in a population that was seemingly so cowed? An apparent answer is that these peoples’ afflictions weren’t purely political; they were impoverished and hopeless after suffering from three years of disastrous drought. A recent study set out to investigate its origins.

The study adds to a growing scientific literature connecting climate to conflict. It is published in the prestigious Proceedings of the Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. Five global-security scholars review events in the so-called Fertile Crescent―including Syria―where farming began some 12,000 years ago. The authors draw on records of agricultural conditions since 1900. They find a decrease in rainfall over the past fifty years. They look for its cause. They discover two trends: a drying trend and a warming trend. They say:

‘No natural cause is apparent for these trends, whereas the observed drying and warming are consistent with model studies of the response to increases in greenhouse gases. Furthermore, model studies show an increasingly drier and hotter future mean climate for the Eastern Mediterranean.’

They conclude: ‘We have here pointed to a connected path running from human interference with climate to severe drought to agricultural collapse and mass human migration.’ Many of those migrants crammed into Daraa.

The scholars make it clear that there is plenty of blame to go around. And causation is a tricky concept even in simple situations. But odds are, they say, the drought in the Fertile Crescent would not have happened without these climate changes.

What are the future implications? First, the drought in Syria is likely to get worse. The numbers of refugees seeking to leave the region are likely to increase before they decrease. And if Syria’s woes can move a million people in one year, climate change may soon be moving tens of millions world-wide. Not to mention that the West Antarctic Ice Sheet is now collapsing―and this is not even caused by climate change. Within the lifetimes of our children it will flood lands that are home to hundreds of millions. Many millions in the US State of Florida alone.

So we can see changes coming. Changes in water distribution―too little or too much―move people. canuteHistory shows we always try and always fail to stem such tides. More than a thousand years ago even King Canute the Great knew that the world needs a better answer. Europe’s current refugee crisis may prove to be (mixing my metaphors) no more than a warm-up for the main game. Can we, like Germany and Canada, find ways to transform the problem into an economic opportunity?

Even better, might it not cost less if we could intervene much sooner in that chain of: change → chaos → war → flight?


Colin Kelley et al. (2015), “Climate change in the Fertile Crescent and implications of the recent Syrian drought”, Washington: Proc. Nat. Acad. Sci. USA, vol. 112, p. 3241;

Image credit: Australian Government Department of Industry, Innovation, Climate Change, Science, Research & Tertiary Education,

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