Climate change will create more violent extremism, if we let it

Climate change will create more violent extremism, if we let it

The protests and violent conflict in Syria that began in 2011 originally took U.S. security analysts by surprise. Early in the Arab Spring, the State Department had ranked Syria near the bottom of a list of Middle East and North African nations most likely to experience upheaval. Five years later, we have a hopelessly war-torn country, land occupied by Isis, and the biggest refugee crisis since World War II.

They shouldn’t have been surprised. Three years earlier, a Syrian bureaucrat had issued a stark briefing to U.S. and U.N. officials warning of a “perfect storm” of conditions that could undermine his country’s stability.

Syria’s President Bashar Assad had stifled human rights, democracy, and economic opportunity for many years (with the complicit support western goverments) — but that’s not what was worrisome. The truly destabilizing factor was drought. Beginning in 2006, northern Syria plunged into the worst drought in its modern history — its unusual length and severity likely caused by the planet’s changing climate. Exacerbating the drought’s effects, the government had for years grossly mismanaged the country’s aquifer resources, encouraging water-hungry cash crops and allowing groundwater levels to deplete. Poor farmers were left with nothing after crops failed. Agriculture collapsed.

At the time, Abdullah Bin Yehia, Syria’s representative to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (Unfao), begged for more aid to assist farmers in the northeast. In a classified cable on Wikileaks, a U.S. State Department official in Damascus wrote to the Cia and U.S. Defense Department: “If Unfao efforts fail, Yehia predicts mass migration from the northeast, which could act as a multiplier on social and economic pressures already at play.” Yehia predicted such “social destruction” would lead to political instability in Syria’s major western cities, Damascus and Aleppo, the cable said.

Hindsight is 20/20, but Yehia was prescient. No, neither climate change nor drought caused Syria’s war (or Isis, as Senator Bernie Sanders tried to claim, saying, “climate change is directly related to the growth of terrorism”) — corruption, human rights abuses, and poverty did that. But the drought in Syria took tensions that had been simmering for decades and ramped them up very quickly.



Date: December 2015

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