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Study Challenges Warming Link to Syrian Civil War

Former President Obama, former Secretary of State John Kerry, Al Gore, and numerous pundits cite a 2015 study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) as proof that climate change is a “threat multiplier” endangering U.S. national security. The PNAS study argues that severe drought linked to climate change was an important factor triggering the Syrian civil war. The grisly conflict, now in its seventh year, has a reported death toll of 465,000.

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) claimed the PNAS study shows that “climate change is directly related to the growth of terrorism.” The PNAS authors argued more cautiously, noting that “civil unrest can never be said to have a simple or unique cause. The Syrian conflict, now civil war, is no exception.” However, their study purports to show that by intensifying drought, climate change increased the likelihood of agricultural collapse, population displacement, overcrowding and joblessness in urban centers, and, thus, instability and conflict.

In Climate Change and the Syrian Civil War Revisited, a study accepted for publication in the journal Political Geography, University of Sussex professor Jan Selby and two colleagues challenge the PNAS study’s assessment. Here is the Abstract:

For proponents of the view that anthropogenic climate change will become a ‘threat multiplier’ for instability in the decades ahead, the Syrian civil war has become a recurring reference point, providing apparently compelling evidence that such conflict effects are already with us. According to this view, human-induced climatic change was a contributory factor in the extreme drought experienced within Syria prior to its civil war; this drought in turn led to large-scale migration; and this migration in turn exacerbated the socio-economic stresses that underpinned Syria’s descent into war. This article provides a systematic interrogation of these claims, and finds little merit to them. Amongst other things it shows that there is no clear and reliable evidence that anthropogenic climate change was a factor in Syria’s pre-civil war drought; that this drought did not cause anywhere near the scale of migration that is often alleged; and that there exists no solid evidence that drought migration pressures in Syria contributed to civil war onset. The Syria case, the article finds, does not support ‘threat multiplier’ views of the impacts of climate change; to the contrary, we conclude, policymakers, commentators and scholars alike should exercise far greater caution when drawing such linkages or when securitizing climate change.