The news today was grim – again. By the latest count, more than four million Syrians have now fled the chaos and killings in their homeland, and crowded into camps in Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon, or onto leaky boats headed for Europe’s distant shores. Worse, perhaps, another 7.6 million have fled the violence but cling to life within Syria’s perilous borders.
That’s a total of 11.6 million living souls, in desperate conditions far from home. In a country of 23 million people, fully half of Syrians can’t go home any more.
It’s hard to fathom what a country would look like with half of us fleeing for our lives. In the US, imagine all the residents of our 15 largest cities – from New York and LA down to Indianapolis and Columbus – living in camps or under overpasses on either side of our borders. That’s what it would be like, except for this: You’d need six times more people.
We struggle to translate this crisis into terms we can grasp. The UN Refugee Agency offers this simple graphic, with the searing reality that two more of Syria’s children are forced to flee their homes every minute of the day and night.
And this is particularly galling for Christians and others who regard the Bible as God’s word. Throughout its pages, sacred scripture consistently identifies three classes of people as deserving our special care and protection: widows, orphans, and sojourners. Sojourners – or displaced migrants and refugees. Here’s a country where half of the people are sojourners.
And so, it’s understandable that we might be getting angry. Who’s to blame for all this suffering? Who turned all these people into homeless sojourners?
If you listen to the cable news, plenty of political aspirants have an easy answer: It’s President Obama, who wouldn’t listen to the hawks and send in American soldiers to set things right. On the other side, many blame Cheney and Bush, for destroying the comparatively benign social order imposed in neighboring Iraq by its former strongman, Saddam Hussein.
But increasingly, our researchers and military commanders are pointing to another, less obvious suspect. Changes in the climate of the Middle East have created a perfect storm of conditions for civil war. A killer drought has driven hunger and mass migration into Syria’s urban slums. Sectarian, tribal and political differences always threatened Syria’s stability, but the unprecedented drought lit the fire in this tinderbox.
A war caused by drought? It’s more likely than you may think. From 2006 to 2009, Syria suffered the worst multi-year drought since record-keeping began. The parched farmland produced nothing, and crop failures drove 1.5 million mostly-Sunni farmers off their dusty farms and crowded them among Alawite/Shiite urban dwellers. President Bashir al-Assad’s resulting social policies favored his sectarian Alawite base, leading to massive discontent among the majority Sunnis, and resulting in the 2011 uprising against his regime. And with many of Iraq’s former soldiers on the run from the newly Shiite-dominated Iraqi army, all the conditions for the rise of a powerful, radical Sunni Syrian movement were in place.
Syrian child in Lebanon camp. Credit: UNICEF
Start with a crushing drought destroying the breadbasket of the country; drive a flood of farmers into urban slums; throw in age-old sectarian distrust; upend the order of the largest neighbor; and add a heavy dose of presidential corruption and repression – and you’ve got the smoldering ruins of today’s Syria.
Earlier this year, researchers published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences a study that concluded that the severity of Syria’s drought could only be explained against the backdrop of manmade climate change. In fact, they concluded that human factors made the odds of a drought this severe 2 to 3 times more likely than natural variability alone.
And this isn’t the first study linking manmade climate change to aggression, war and mass migration. In 2013, researchers published in the journal Science a study concluding that increasing temperatures raise the risk of all kinds of conflicts, from interpersonal spats to civil wars and societal collapse. Using results from over 60 studies covering 12,000 years, they found that climate disruptions have increased the likelihood of civil war by 14% in human history.
In recent history, the genocide in Darfur has been called the “the first climate change war,” as perpetual drought drove nomadic Sudanese herdsmen into conflict with settled agrarian communities, aggravating tribal and religious conflicts. But Scientific American cited a 22-year study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences finding that long before Darfur, sub-Saharan Africa suffered from wars most often during unusually warm years. They concluded that one degree C warming will increase the chances of civil wars by 55 percent, causing almost 400,000 additional battlefield deaths over two decades.
The drying climate of Sudan drove herdsmen and Darfur farmers into conflict. Credit: Georgina Cransto
Of course, not everyone agrees that the causal linkage between climate disruption and war has been adequately proven, and that’s part of the normal discourse of science. But among the many that have been persuaded are the commanders of the US Armed Services. In the Quadrennial Defense Review in 2014, they warned that the impacts of climate change could “increase the frequency, scale, and complexity of future missions, including defense support to civil authorities, while at the same time undermining the capacity of our domestic installations to support training activities.”
These soldiers are really alarmed about climate-change and conflict, calling it a “threat multiplier” all over the world. “As greenhouse gas emissions increase,” they wrote, “sea levels are rising, average global temperatures are increasing, and severe weather patterns are accelerating…. The pressures caused by climate change will influence resource competition while placing additional burdens on economies, societies, and governance institutions around the world. These effects are threat multipliers that will aggravate stressors abroad such as poverty, environmental degradation, political instability, and social tensions – conditions that can enable terrorist activity and other forms of violence.”
Do these warnings remind us of anything we’re seeing today? In Syria, this sounds just like what we’re dealing with right now. So if we’re angry about the countless suffering refugees from the Syrian war, and if we’re worried about the horrors of ISIS, what if our best course is to take personal and national steps to counter the rise in planet-warming gases? Because with another one or two degrees of warming, we could be dealing with 20 or 30 Syria-level disasters.
Or has it even occurred to us that we could be among the homeless ourselves?