Climate Change Helped Fuel The Syrian Conflict, New Paper Finds

03/02/2015 03:43 pm ET | Updated Mar 02, 2015
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An unprecedented climate change-fueled drought contributed to the political unrest in Syria, a new paper published Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences concludes.

The Syrian drought, which began in late 2006, dragged on for three years and was the worst on record. The researchers conclude that the drought worsened existing water security and agricultural woes, and prompted up to 1.5 million rural Syrians to migrate closer to urban areas. This migration helped spur demographic changes that fed instability in and around cities. In addition, the drought contributed to rising food prices and more nutrition-related diseases in children, which exacerbated the turmoil.

While natural weather variations can cause droughts, the researchers conclude that the Syrian drought was made much worse by climate change. Climate models and observed trends "strongly suggest that anthropogenic forcing has increased the probability of severe and persistent droughts in this region," they wrote. Human-caused climate change made it two to three times more likely that a drought of this magnitude would occur compared to natural variation alone, the paper finds.

"This drought was an essential factor in what happened," study co-author Mark Cane, a professor of earth and climate sciences at Columbia University's Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, told The Huffington Post.

"There was a really bad drought that lasted 3 years. People can survive a year, maybe two. Three [years], forget it," said Cane, noting that the drought destroyed the livelihoods of many Syrians and pushed the region to a tipping point. "You had this pretty stable, functioning agrarian society, and everybody left, went to the outskirts of the cities where there was nothing for them, and a government that did nothing."

The Syrian conflict began in March 2011, with protests against the regime of President Bashar Assad. The Assad government responded with a violent crackdown on protesters, and four years later, various armed factions -- ranging from moderate U.S.-backed rebels to the extremist Islamic State group -- are fighting for control of the splintering country. An estimated 200,000 people have died in the conflict, and the United Nations estimates that 7.6 million have been internally displaced.

"We’re not saying the drought caused the war," Richard Seager, a climate scientist at Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory and another co-author of the paper, said in a statement. "We’re saying that added to all the other stressors, it helped kick things over the threshold into open conflict."

Military and national security experts have already warned that climate change can contribute to conflicts around the world, in many cases exacerbating already existing conditions. But while most predictions about climate change's impact on conflict look far into the future, this latest research finds it is already happening, at least in the case of Syria.

"Here's a case where climate change has increased the risk of something happening," said Cane. "That should factor into the way people think about the more immediate future."

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