Over the past two weeks, news of the plight of a swelling wave of refugees fleeing to Europe has filled the mainstream media. We looked on in horror at reports of innocent human beings fleeing destabilized countries in the Middle East, of people suffocating while stuffed into the backs of trucks, of drowned children washed up on the shores of nations their families had hoped would care for them.
It’s all a part of a growing global mass migration. A tragic dislocation and diaspora. But this time it’s not only birds, or polar bears, or fish, or walruses, or insects, or plants that are being forced to move by habitat and food loss, by toxified environments or by increasingly dangerous weather. It’s human beings too.
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“Everything I was Dreaming of is Gone”
(Dead Syrian toddler is not only a victim of conflict. He is a victim of a destabilized climate. Video source: Here)
In the above video we are rightfully compelled to compassion for a drowned boy and his family. A family suffering in a country ripped apart by conflict. A country fractured by insurgent forces that will use any form of brutality to gain and secure power. And in this very narrow frame we are provided with a perpetrator — ISIS — and an-all-too innocent victim. The call for warfare against the human monsters that make up ISIS is clear. But the conditions that created the monster in the first place, as happens all too often with climate change, are completely ignored.
Climate Change as Threat Multiplier in Syria
Syria was never a stable country. At least not so long as colonial and post colonial powers inhibited its development as a functional state. There was always a reason for interference in Syria’s affairs and for a related exploitation of its resources. As the fossil fuel age dawned, such interference became even more intense. Powerful nations and empires wanted Syria’s oil. And when Syria’s oil was gone and the country left suffering from the bitter after-effects of that resource’s deleterious curse, those same powers wanted Syria to remain both stable and weak. To remain sidelined so as not to influence the flow of oil from nearby countries. Countries like Iraq where the West has conducted an ongoing war since the early 1990s.
We justified this under such international relations terms as the realism-based ‘rational self interest of nations.’ And it was this self interest paradigm that national and international businesses — primarily oil companies — used to justify an ongoing exploitation of an increasingly fractured land, its people, and of a resource itself whose continued burning would make an ugly situation far, far worse.
“Rising global temperatures, changing precipitation patterns, climbing sea levels and more extreme weather events will intensify the challenges of global instability, hunger, poverty, and conflict. They will likely lead to food and water shortages, pandemic disease, disputes over refugees and resources, and destruction by natural disasters in regions across the globe.”
What he failed to mention, however, was that for Syria and ISIS it had already happened.
The Drought that Forged ISIS
Before there was ISIS, there was drought. A three year long drought beginning in 2007 and finally ending in 2010. A drought so severe and intense that it basically wiped out Syria’s farming industry. The farmers, mostly family farmers, were faced with a situation in which water use was terribly constrained (due to the combined drought severity and the short-sighted policies of the Syrian government). Farm after farm failed. By 2011, more than 1.5 million people had migrated from the ruined and desiccated rural farms to the cities. Cities that, in turn, became hot-beds of unrest and insurgency.
(Map published by NOAA in its 2011 report on Mediterranean drought during 2005 to 2010. In a related finding, Syria experienced its worst drought on record during 2007 to 2010 resulting in the mass loss of farmland and the displacement of 1.5 million people to urban centers. Image source: NOAA — Climate Change Probably A Factor in Syria’s Civil War.)
A scientific report published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in March found that Syria’s epic 2007-2010 drought had been developing over the course of a century of warming. That the drought was both spurred and made more severe by human forced climate change. And that the increased intensity of drought added by human forced warming likely pushed Syria’s rural farms past the breaking point. The report noted:
There is evidence that the 2007−2010 drought contributed to the conflict in Syria. It was the worst drought in the instrumental record, causing widespread crop failure and a mass migration of farming families to urban centers. Century-long observed trends in precipitation, temperature, and sea-level pressure, supported by climate model results, strongly suggest that anthropogenic forcing has increased the probability of severe and persistent droughts in this region, and made the occurrence of a 3-year drought as severe as that of 2007−2010 2 to 3 times more likely than by natural variability alone. We conclude that human influences on the climate system are implicated in the current Syrian conflict.
The drought, therefore, led to desperation, hunger, anger, and unrest. It provided a mass of displaced persons who had lost the means to provide for themselves and their families. It provided both the trigger and the means for the development of what would later become ISIS (for more on how the Syrian drought helped destabilize the country you can read this brief, but very informative, comic strip). Threat multiplier indeed.
Worst Heatwave in 130 Years Forces Russian Crop Failures, Spurs Arab Spring
As is well known, the flood of refugees coming to European shores are not solely Syrian. Libya, Egypt and a broad number of African and Middle Eastern countries now face destabilizing unrest, violence, and growing numbers of internally displaced persons seeking asylum in other countries. It is this now endemic instability and displacement that can be primarily linked back to two events — drought-spurred crop failures in 2010 and the related food riots that ignited what is now known as the Arab Spring.
For as Syria was experiencing its worst drought in a century, the most intense heatwave in at least 130 years was in the process of also crippling Russia’s agriculture. This terrible heatwave spurred fires, wrecked crops and resulted in the hothouse mass casualty deaths of over 50,000 Russian people. It was an unprecedented event that climate scientist Stephan Rahmstorf identified as 80 percent more likely due to human-forced warming of the atmosphere and oceans. An event that put Russia, typically a major grain exporter, in such a terrible food security situation that it was forced to halt grain exports entirely.
(Wildfires and pyrocumulous clouds over Russia during the great heatwave of 2010. A heatwave that killed 50,000 people and crippled Russia’s agricultural industry. Image source: Earth Observatory and Discovery News.)
By 2011, global food prices — spurred ever-higher by wide-ranging droughts and extreme weather — put millions of people in the Middle East and North Africa in a desperate situation. Food became less and less accessible. In Egypt, the plight of a child set off mass food riots. These food riots spread across the Middle East resulting in the collapse of Egyptian, Syrian, and Libyan governments. Setting in place the severe refugee situation we see today.
Climate Change as Trigger to Europe’s Refugee Crisis
In emerging threats terminology, given the scientific basis for climate change’s influence on extreme weather events related to the refugee crisis, related to the destabilization and collapse of nations, we can identify the Syrian and Russian droughts and heatwaves as precursor crisis influencing and trigger events. What the US Department of Defense terms threat multipliers. Climate change, in this instance, made the Syrian drought and the Russian heatwave worse. These impacts in turn increased desperation, displacement, and hunger in numerous countries spurring unrest and, in some cases, societal collapse.
In Syria, 1.5 million people were directly displaced as the result of a climate change worsened drought. In the Middle East as a whole, nations were indirectly destabilized due to a crop-destroying and climate change worsened heatwave in Russia which set off a wide-ranging food crisis. This destabilization, in its turn, led to still more internally displaced persons in places like Libya and Egypt. Many of whom eventually joined the rising flood of human traffic to the still greener shores of Europe.
And it is in this way that climate change is a root cause to Europe’s refugee crisis. For without climate change we remove the extreme weather amplifier which is a trigger to the whole growing disaster.
Refugee Crisis is Massive, Global, and Growing
Unfortunately, Europe, Africa, and the Middle East are not the only regions seeing growing bodies of internally and internationally displaced persons. This week, President Obama in a recent visit highlighted the plight of tens of thousands of Alaskan coastal dwellers whose 31 communities are being devoured by an increasingly stormy and rising Arctic Ocean. In Pakistan coastal farmers are fleeing inland as the fertile lands in the Indus River Delta are being tainted with salt. So far, the count of migrant climate change refugees due to farmland loss is 150,000 Pakistanis. But as seas continue to rise, the situation only worsens. In Bangladesh, cities are already overcrowded with tens of thousand fleeing a rapidly receding coastline. And in the Pacific, low lying island dwellers in the Maldives, Kirubati, and hundreds of other shrinking atolls are seeking homes in far-flung countries possessing lands well above the rising tides.
(Kivalina, Alaska is one of 31 communities now being devoured by the Arctic Ocean and Bering Sea due to a combination of sea level rise, permafrost thaw, and increased wave action due to loss of sea ice. Image source: The Union of Concerned Scientists.)
In total, around the world, 158 million people were displaced by extreme weather events related to climate change since 2008. The fires, floods, hurricanes, extreme droughts, heatwaves and other storms are all growing worse, more violent, more likely to destroy homes and livelihoods. And it’s due to the heat we’ve added into the Earth’s climate system that extreme weather is now a greater direct cause of displacement than even the terrible scourge of warfare.
Some of the persons driven from their homes by such worsening events are able to eventually return to their livelihoods. But some are bereft of necessary aid — living in regions or nations which lack the resources to help. Such persons eventually become tent dwellers or add to the ever-growing tide of people seeking refuge in other, more seemingly stable, countries.
Climate change, extreme weather, human displacement and related political instability are thus now linked in a broad web that spans the globe. And the situation keeps getting worse and worse. It’s a situation that won’t change anytime soon. And one that can only be abated by a concerted response by nations — all of which are now under threat — to both help those people put in this terrible situation and to stop worsening the damage through a rapid cessation of fossil fuel based carbon emissions. Otherwise, by failing to rapidly act, by focusing instead on broadening warfare and conflict rather than root causes, more and more nations and regions will fall under the threat of destabilization, mass impoverishment and collapse as this climate change spurred crisis grows in scope, breadth and intensity.