Climate Change Helped Create Conditions for War in Syria, Study Suggests

Rebel fighters of the Al-Sultan Murad brigade carry weapons as they move toward their positions in the Handarat area, north of Aleppo, Syria, on March 1, 2015. Hosam Katan/Reuters

Does climate change lead to the eruption of violent conflicts? The Pentagon has warned that it could in future, and now a new study says it may have already happened, claiming that a severe drought brought on by climate change helped spark the war in Syria.

The study, conducted by the Earth Institute at New York's Columbia University and published Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, says that the fallout from a 2006-2010 drought caused more than 1 million farmers to flee to cities already feeling the strain of refugees from the Iraq War, which formed conditions ripe for a revolution.

"Rapid demographic change encourages instability," the report authors said in a statement. "Whether it was a primary or substantial factor is impossible to know, but drought can lead to devastating consequences when coupled with preexisting acute vulnerability."

Protests and the uprising in Syria began in 2011, months after the drought was over.

The drought affected the area known as the Fertile Crescent, which also encompasses parts of Turkey and Iraq. The area has warmed 1 to 1.2 degrees Centigrade and has seen a 10 percent reduction in wet-season precipitation since 1900, according to the study. But while Iraq and Turkey are experiencing a similar change in climate, they didn't implode like Syria. Iraq was already mired in conflict, and Turkey remains a more stable country.

"Syria was the country that was most poised to be destabilized," said Richard Seager, a professor at Columbia University's Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory and a co-author of the study.

Although the region is prone to drought and Syria has since seen dry seasons, the rise in temperature and the drop in precipitation is more than what is expected from regular weather patterns, said Seager.

"The Eastern Mediterranean was one area of the world where you could identify a reduction in precipitation due to a rise in greenhouse gases. That's a little bit hard to find across most of the world," said Seager.

The region is at greater risk from drought than any other region of the world, and a 2011 study from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said climate change is partly to blame for an increase in droughts there.

Syria was also vulnerable due to its enormous population boom, from 4 million in the 1950s to 22 million in the past few years, and the cultivation of crops that relied heavily on water. The drought led to the decimation of livestock herds and the doubling of cereal prices, while the country's agricultural production fell by a third.

Before the war in Syria spiraled out of control, killing more than 200,000 and leaving more than 12 million people displaced, data from the government, the United Nations and nongovernmental organizations showed Syrian farming families on the move out of rural areas. During the drought, farmers could just about survive for two years before being forced to move, said Seager.

But with around 1.5 million refugees from the Iraq War and 1.5 million farmers seeking a better life, already crowded cities were seeing services like health care and education stretched to the limit. "You're talking about 3 million more people being added to cities that in 2002 had a population of about 9 million," said Seager. "You're talking about a 30 percent or more increase in urban population."

The refugee crisis in Syria at the time, accompanied by rising food prices and a housing shortage, sounds similar to the region's refugee crisis today. Some 95 percent of the 4 million refugees from Syria live in five countries: Egypt, Jordan, Iraq, Turkey and Lebanon. In Lebanon, one in every five people is a Syrian refugee, according to the U.N.'s refugee agency.

"We used to be rather skeptical about the domino theory as it was applied to Communist states in the 1960s and 1970s, but here we're definitely seeing a domino effect that began with invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan and the way that that's been rippling from one country to another," said Seager. "Maybe the dominoes just became easier to topple over once you add climate change into the mix."

He added that it's possible that the war in Syria would have happened without the influx of farmers and refugees, but that "the way that it did happen was influenced both by the Iraq War and by the drought."