Flashback 2014: ‘Why Climate Change Had No Impact on the Syrian Uprising’

syriaSerious people speculated that climate change had ravaged Syria and was behind the drought that preceded the uprising. No matter that the reality is that those who attribute any one disaster to climate change are on ground no firmer than Councillor David Silvester in meteorological terms. But in Syria to speculate about climate change was to create a mystery where none existed.

Despite an abundance of water, between 2006 and 2010 there was a serious drought, which displaced more than 1.5 million subsistence farmers, depriving them of ninety percent of their income. The major cause was a depletion of groundwater. In the new “open” economy after Bashar al-Assad succeeded his father, the regime’s retainers were freed of restraint; they drilled more water than was sustainable to enhance their short-term gain. This happens in partially transformed economies where the monopolised corruption of the State becomes decentralised.

In short, as in Sudan, a focus on climate change exculpates the regime.

The “frequency of droughts had not increased over the last 20 years,” Ms. Chatel notes, and it was “not the drought per se, but rather the government’s failure to respond to the ensuing humanitarian crisis” that led to trouble. The regime had also in part causing the drought by over-drawing water:

[T]he desert naturally adapts to droughts and wet periods. … Experiments carried out over a period of ten years … in the eastern desert conclusively showed that the mismanagement and overexploitation of resources lay at the root of desertification, not drought or climate change.
To blame overpopulation or water-scarcity, as the regime does, is to actively mislead.

In January, a paper published by Francesca de Chatel, a Dutch specialist on water issues in the Arab world, vindicated this view. “[T]here is very little solid evidence” that climate change “will lead to more frequent and harsher droughts, [or] higher temperatures and lower and more unpredictable precipitation levels.” Indeed,

The only available evidence that global warming will lead to more extreme weather events relies on modeling. Data do not really sustain this hypothesis so far.

Moreover, where there are so many other evident causes of the current conflict, it seems unproductive to focus on the possible role of climate change.

As Ms. Chatel so pithily concludes:

“The possible role of climate change in this chain of events is not only irrelevant; it is also an unhelpful distraction.”

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