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Home » Arab Awakening » Tom Friedman: Environmental, Population and Climate Factors in the Arab Awakening

Tom Friedman: Environmental, Population and Climate Factors in the Arab Awakening

Thomas Friedman at the New York Times penned a great piece for the Sunday paper titled “The Other Arab Spring.” In it, he sheds light on some of the oft-ignored “environmental, population, and climate stresses” that have contributed to unrest in the Arab world, along with the political and economic factors we have all heard about. When he turns to the issue of tensions over land, water and food, Friedman cites our recent article in Climate Progress and AlertNet (“Syria: Climate Change, Drought and Social Unrest), highlighting the humanitarian crisis precipitated by one of the worst droughts in the country’s history, which NOAA has partly attributed to climate change. Here’s the excerpt:

All these tensions over land, water and food are telling us something: The Arab awakening was driven not only by political and economic stresses, but, less visibly, by environmental, population and climate stresses as well. If we focus only on the former and not the latter, we will never be able to help stabilize these societies.

Take Syria. “Syria’s current social unrest is, in the most direct sense, a reaction to a brutal and out-of-touch regime,” write Francesco Femia and Caitlin Werrell, in a report for their Center for Climate and Security in Washington. “However, that’s not the whole story. The past few years have seen a number of significant social, economic, environmental and climatic changes in Syria that have eroded the social contract between citizen and government. … If the international community and future policy makers in Syria are to address and resolve the drivers of unrest in the country, these changes will have to be better explored.”

From 2006-11, they note, up to 60 percent of Syria’s land experienced one of the worst droughts and most severe set of crop failures in its history. “According to a special case study from last year’s Global Assessment Report on Disaster Risk Reduction, of the most vulnerable Syrians dependent on agriculture, particularly in the northeast governorate of Hassakeh (but also in the south), ‘nearly 75 percent … suffered total crop failure.’ Herders in the northeast lost around 85 percent of their livestock, affecting 1.3 million people.” The United Nations reported that more than 800,000 Syrians had their livelihoods wiped out by these droughts, and many were forced to move to the cities to find work — adding to the burdens of already incompetent government.

“If climate projections stay on their current path, the drought situation in North Africa and the Middle East is going to get progressively worse, and you will end up witnessing cycle after cycle of instability that may be the impetus for future authoritarian responses,” argues Femia. “There are a few ways that the U.S. can be on the right side of history in the Arab world. One is to enthusiastically and robustly support democratic movements.” The other is to invest in climate-adaptive infrastructure and improvements in water management — to make these countries more resilient in an age of disruptive climate change.


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