10/26/2012 01:30 pm ET Updated Dec 26, 2012

Climate Change and Mideast Insecurity: The Hidden Connection

The remarkable silence of this year's presidential candidates on the issue of global warming was all the more notable during Monday's debate on foreign policy. For all the talk of violent threats to American security in Syria and North Africa, neither candidate connected them to a powerful contributing cause: climate change.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration concluded in 2011 that "human-caused climate change [is now] a major factor in more frequent Mediterranean droughts." That helps explain why Syria for the past five years has experienced what one expert called "the worst long-term drought and most severe set of crop failures since agricultural civilizations began in the Fertile Crescent many millennia ago."

An important article published by the Center for Climate and Security this year notes the drought -- which was compounded by government mismanagement of water resources -- plunged more than a million Syrians into extreme poverty and hunger. The famine prompted hundreds of thousands of people to flee their villages for the cities, at a time when the country's social infrastructure was already burdened by the strain of housing hundreds of thousands of Iraqi refugees.

The Assad regime's inept response to this social crisis helped fuel political protests that led to the country's civil war when the government rebuffed them with force. "Indeed," the authors note, "the rural farming town of Dara'a was the focal point for protests in the early stages of the opposition movement last year -- a place that was especially hard hit by five years of drought and water scarcity, with little assistance from the al-Assad regime."

Similar factors contributed to the earlier eruption of social protests across North Africa that produced the "Arab Spring," according to a study by researchers at the New England Complex Systems Institute (NECSI). They found a powerful correlation between high food prices and mass riots. As they pointed out, "widespread unrest does not arise from long-standing political failings of the system, but rather from its sudden perceived failure to provide essential security to the population."

Sure enough, the protests that swept the Arab world began as the Food and Agriculture Organization's world Food Price Index peaked at nearly 240 in the winter of 2010-11, up from about 150 in 2009 and the low 100s earlier in the decade.

More trouble may be brewing in coming months if this explanation is correct. The historic U.S. drought this summer, combined with droughts in Russia and neighboring food exporters, have spurred soaring food prices. The FAO's index hit 216 in September.

Any index reading over 210 represents a dangerously high level, according to the NECSI study. "Such a threat to security should be a key concern to policymakers worldwide," it warned. "While some variation in the form of unrest may occur due to local differences in government, desperate populations are likely to resort to violence even in democratic regimes."