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On Syrian Refugees and Climate Change: The Risks of Oversimplifying and Underestimating the Connection

Syrian refugee camp on theTurkish border for displaced people of the Syrian civil war. Photo by Henry Ridgwell.

Syrian refugee camp on the Turkish border, 2012. Photo by Henry Ridgwell.

It unfortunately took the heart-wrenching image of a dead Syrian child on a Turkish seashore to fully alert the international community to an unfolding disaster: the greatest refugee crisis since World War II. As the crisis ensues, many in the public eye have been asking the question: What is behind this extraordinary exodus? Essentially, what is the proximate cause? The answer to that question is straightforward. A brutal civil war in Syria has left many people with little choice but to flee. Some commentators are asking another question, however, that seeks to illuminate “ultimate” causes of an unstable Syria, and the current crisis. Namely: What were the conditions that led Syria to collapse, and how can we prevent these crises in the future? And in that context, does climate change have anything to do with it? The answer to that is complex, of course. (more…)

Review: Two New Studies on Syria, Drought, Climate Change, Natural Resource Management and the Uprising


In February of 2012 (updated in our report The Arab Spring and Climate Change in 2013) we wrote about drought and natural resource mismanagement in Syria in the past decade, the displacement of about 1.5 million Syrian farmers and herders from 2006-2011, and the role climate change may have played. Our conclusion was that a combination of factors, including the Assad regime’s criminal mismanagement of land, water and food resources (and the subsequent displacement of peoples), an extended period of winter drying since 1973 (linked to climate change by a NOAA report in 2011), culminating in a severe five-year drought, contributed to the collapse of farmland and rangeland that led to this humanitarian crisis. We also concluded that more research was needed to further disentangle the lines of causality for this disaster, and how it might have contributed to the Syrian uprising. That research is beginning to trickle in with the publication of two recent peer-reviewed articles.


One-stop list of resources on Syria, drought, climate change and unrest

Syrian_Civil_WarOver the past week, as attention to the humanitarian crisis in Syria has heightened in the United States, the mainstream media has taken a closer look at some of the underlying factors that contributed to unrest in the country, including some of the environmental, climatic and natural resource security issues at play in the lead up to the revolution. This coverage has included interviews with us, commentary from William Polk and Nayan Chanda, and references to key documents and evidence. Below is a list of links to the news coverage, previous articles on the issue, and a few of the key documents cited (note: we are not responsible for any of the headlines!) (more…)

Can Authoritarian Regimes be Climate Resilient? Not Likely

Bashar_and_Asmaa_al-Assad_in_MoscowWilliam Goodyear of the Near East South Asia Center for Strategic Studies at National Defense University recently asked an excellent question in response to something we said in an interview on climate change and Syria. The question is: “Is Climate-proofing a Tool for Dictators?”

To get definitions out of the way, our use of the term “climate-proofing” referred to the practice of ensuring that one’s governance structures are able to anticipate and absorb current and projected climatic changes, without significant harm. Mr. Goodyear’s concern was that: “pursuing ‘climate friendly’ governmental policies could be used as tools for keeping dictators and tyrants in power.” (more…)

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