Why Syria is the canary in the coal mine for a new era of world conflict

Dec 8, 2015

Photo Credit: Islamist rebel fighters ride on a motorbike along a deserted street in Idlib city April 6, 2015. REUTERS/Ammar Abdullah

By Michael Renner

It is sheer coincidence that Paris was struck by terrorists on the eve of a key climate conference known as COP 21. To some, the attacks may appear like an unfortunate distraction in the face of efforts to meet a civilizational challenge like no other. Yet there are important cross-connections between security and climate concerns.

Runaway climate change will impose growing stress on natural systems and human societies, and it could well usher in a whole new age of conflict. We live, after all, in a world marked by profound disparities in wealth, social and demographic pressures, unresolved grievances, and a seemingly endless supply of arms of all calibers. Far from being a separate concern, climate change is certain to intensify many existing challenges. More frequent and intense droughts, floods, and storms will likely play havoc with harvests and compromise food security. Extreme weather events, sea-level rise, and spreading disease vectors could undermine the economic viability and long-term habitability of some areas. The result could be escalating social discontent, mass displacement, and worse.

In fact, such scenarios are no longer mere conjecture. Consider Syria. Several consecutive years of severe drought in the country’s agricultural heartland had fateful consequences as underground water sources ran dry, livestock herds died, and farmland turned to desert. Close to three-quarters of farming households in Syria’s northeast experienced total crop failure. Some 2-3 million people fell into extreme poverty. A number of factors are behind this calamity, including climate change, overexploitation of groundwater due to subsidies for water-thirsty crops like cotton and wheat, inefficient irrigation systems and overgrazing.

The drought led to an exodus of perhaps as many as 1.5 million people from rural to urban areas. But Syria’s cities were already under economic stress, in part because of the influx of refugees from neighboring Iraq following the U.S. invasion of 2003. Growing numbers of destitute people found themselves in intense competition for scarce jobs and social services. Francesco Femia and Caitlin Werrell of the Center for Climate and Security point out that “the role of disaffected rural communities in the Syrian opposition movement has been prominent compared to their equivalents in other ‘Arab Spring’ countries.”

Of course, Syria’s civil war is the product of several factors. Deep-seated popular discontent over decades of repressive rule, heightened by Assad’s violent reaction to peaceful demonstrations, surely was a major driver. The rise of extremist groups financed and armed by the Gulf States was another. But this is the important point: the repercussions from environmental degradation do not occur in a void; they interact with a cauldron of societal pressures and unresolved political problems.

Though the precise circumstances and dynamics will vary from place to place, Syria’s experience illustrates the danger of major upheavals if environmental and resource pressures go unresolved. A recent scientific paper warns that due to climate change, some population centers in the Middle East “are likely to experience temperature levels that are intolerable to humans” by the end of this century. Elsewhere, melting glaciers, sea-level rise, highly variable rainfall, and parched farmland could have potentially dire consequences.

Violence captures the headlines, but there are other worrisome impacts, too; population displacements, for example. In 2008-2014, floods, storms, and extreme temperatures displaced a cumulative 158 million people globally — though the annual figures have fluctuated from a low of 13.9 million to a high of 38.3 million. No comparable data exist for slow-onset disasters such as drought.


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16 comments on “Why Syria is the canary in the coal mine for a new era of world conflict

  • @OP – Runaway climate change will impose growing stress on natural systems and human societies, and it could well usher in a whole new age of conflict.

    It looks like some progress is being made here:-

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-35040478
    The European Union has formed an alliance with 79 African, Caribbean and Pacific countries in a final push for agreement at the climate summit COP21.

    The new alliance has agreed a common position on some of the most divisive aspects of the proposed deal.

    They say the Paris agreement must be legally binding, inclusive and fair – and be reviewed every 5 years.

    The EU will pay 475 million euros to support climate action in the partner countries up to 2020.

    The alliance has also agreed that the Paris text must include a “transparency and accountability system” to track nations’ progress on their climate pledges, and share best practice.

    “We are working to find the language to accommodate 1.5 degrees within the agreement,” Mr Canete said.



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  • 3
    hisxmark says:

    We were warned decades ago that climate change was going to result in social upheavals. Just think what is going to happen when it seriously impacts China, India, Pakistan, and other members of the nuclear club.



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  • What is missing from any of this analysis is the possibility that at least some of the climate change may be being artificially induced and that the whole climate change thing may itself be a scam or pretext used to secure geopolitical advantage. Also for the most part, the crisis in Syria and the MENA region is due to outside meddling rather than the actions or inactions of the inhabitants. And the countries of Africa concluding agreements on climate change with some of the greatest polluters, whilst to be supported, is nonetheless a little ironic, especially if those agreements end up limiting Africa’s economic growth or progress while doing nothing to ultimately significantly reduce the negative effects of climate change, as I suspect they will.



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  • Ipse Dixit
    Dec 9, 2015 at 5:56 pm

    What is missing from any of this analysis is the possibility that at least some of the climate change may be being artificially induced

    Which is actually supported by evidence to very high levels of probability, given the figures on global carbon burning and the addition of THAT fossil carbon to the atmospheric CO2.

    and that the whole climate change thing may itself be a scam or pretext used to secure geopolitical advantage.

    But only those conspiracy theorists, scientific illiterates, and the stooges of the carbon industries actually believe that at the present time.

    Also for the most part, the crisis in Syria and the MENA region is due to outside meddling rather than the actions or inactions of the inhabitants.

    There is little doubt that Syria’s war is instigated, armed and financed by interfering foreign powers.

    And the countries of Africa concluding agreements on climate change with some of the greatest polluters, whilst to be supported,

    Africa is acquiring green technologies, some of which have been manufactured by using polluting industries, but those obsolete energy sources will be reduced in time as new ones come on stream.

    is nonetheless a little ironic, especially if those agreements end up limiting Africa’s economic growth or progress

    There is no reason to suppose that the development of solar, wind and hydroelectric power will do anything but help with economic progress. Projects like cheaply available solar cookers, reduce deforestation by those seeking fire wood, as well as reducing disease by pasteurising drinking water.

    while doing nothing to ultimately significantly reduce the negative effects of climate change, as I suspect they will.

    They will only fail to tackle climate change if they are foolish enough to invest in obsolete carbon polluting technologies in areas with a wealth of sunlight.

    Even the oil rich Arab states are paradoxically investing in massive solar projects, to power their oil extraction rather than using some of the oil to fuel the process!

    http://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2015-07-08/world-s-largest-solar-heat-plant-backed-by-oman-to-produce-oil

    Oman’s largest oil producer ordered work to begin on what will be one of the biggest solar plants in the world, establishing the technology as an alternative to fossil fuels for coaxing crude out of the ground.



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  • Being incapable of understanding the science I accept what I am told by those who understand such things better than I, regrettably they are not the people who are doing the talking it follows that I am very skeptical of the people who are in Paris promising money that isn’t theirs to give.
    Not because they are inherently evil, quite the opposite, they believe they are doing the right thing for humanity.
    When one looks a little closer at what they are doing the sinking feeling that you are being had is a reasonable response, for example, our Prime Minister Mr Turnbull has promised 1 billion towards the fund to assist poorer countries deal with the results of climate change. What hasn’t been in the headlines is 800 million of that is coming from the overseas aid budget.
    So instead of providing tents and assistance in disaster zones, or education facilities in nations that need such assistance we are sending the cash to a UN beast.
    Call me a suspicious sod but I really doubt that much of the coin will end up were it is needed. I read that there are 40,000 people at the climate conference all sleeping in nice rooms, drinking a dashing plonk to wash down some nice French cuisine it looks like rent seeking to me. Legions of consultants with their noses at the trough whilst millions die of malaria.



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  • It is a constant source of amazement to me that in this age of wall-to-wall information, there are still some people who will persist in denying what is staring them starkly in the face.

    Mass cognitive dissonance.

    Last week, RD explained to us about the misinterpretation of the term ‘theory’ with respect to evolution. He suggested that instead of prevaricating over the explanation of the term, that we perhaps should be more forthright and simply state that evolution is FACT. I totally agreed with his view, as I would. But I also feel that this view also extends beyond the precincts of secularism/atheism and religion.

    Global warming is FACT. That Fukushima Daichi is unleashing irradiated water into the Pacific on a daily basis is FACT. That the worlds oceans are becoming more acidic is FACT. If one chooses to search far and wide enough these environmental facts are readily available for all to see.

    There is a growing body of people across the world who are actively involved with promulgating these facts. Like more who are turning away from religious dogma, there are likely as many, coming to the realisation that we have reached the point of no return.

    If there is one thing that the studies of evolutionary science, paleontology, geology etc has brought to light, it is that of Mass Extinction Events. Bottlenecks in evolution caused by massive die-offs of specie. We are now in what is widely regarded by academics as the Sixth MEE. Massive die-offs of specie are taking place on a daily basis. What the sciences also teach us, is that it is the largest creatures that perish first – The vertebrates, in other words us and all other large bodied organisms.

    Many argue that because we are humans, because we have evolved high-order intelligence are able to manipulate our surroundings through our technology and science that we have some sort of exemption ticket from this inevitable outcome. We do not. In fact, because of our proliferation upon the surface of this planet, we are not only high on that list, but directly culpable in its compilation. And I do not even need to mention the impact of war or socio-political upheaval etc…

    We are racing towards the CO2 ‘tipping point’. Like many of my peers, I believe that no matter what we do from here on in, we are unlikely to be able to reverse the trend. Moreover, we continue to utilise unsafe energy systems, that not only are extremely toxic today, but will remain so for the remainder of this epoch/period. This will compound the ability for life to prevail, certainly within this time frame.

    The worlds aquifers are drying up. The weather patterns are becoming more chaotic. Changes to the chemical balance of the oceans and the physical changes to ocean currents are taking place. This has all happened before in the run up to past MEE’s. The difference being, that in the past it was other ‘natural’ vectors that lead to these MEE’s and that it often took hundreds of millions of years to eventuate. We on the other hand, have managed to precipitate massive environmental and atmospheric change within the last two hundred thousand years, the acceleration of which has merely taken place over the past two hundred years…

    The deniers of any of the above aside, even those who are convinced that these environmental changes are taking place, live in the misplaced belief that we can change, that by adhering to agreements, treaties and ‘protocols’ we will somehow halt the very real mechanism of positive feedback.

    When those methane clathrates finally start to disseminate, the end, certainly of civilisation, may well be swifter than anyone might predict. We have never experienced massive methane release, yet that process has been a major contributing factor in past MEE’s. Methane is some forty times more potent a green house gas than carbon dioxide. Furthermore, in its conversion in the atmosphere it becomes carbon dioxide… A double whammy then.

    I liken our plight to those of the great land dwelling creatures of past periods. The only thing that a sauropod did to contribute to global warming was perhaps to break wind… Given its population, this was unlikely to lead to its demise per se, but the fact that it had huge dietary requirements, it may well have contributed unwittingly to its ultimate extinction simply by hoovering up all its available nutrients.

    Well in a sense we are quite similar to the sauropod, though of course, we are not so ignorant of the facts at hand. We are however, far more prolific, more invasive, more destructive and most certainly the most dangerous creature to have evolved thus far. Therefore very likely to bring about our own extinction and those of most other vertebrates before this century concludes.

    We are living on borrowed time folks. The best thing we can do, is to make the best of our lives and be nice to each other, for mother nature will ultimately bat last.



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  • We are living on borrowed time folks.

    A well argued post Daryl. Agree with your sentiments. What made us great, our intelligence, will be the likely cause of our downfall. Smart enough to compete on the African Savannah against bigger, faster meaner life forms and triumph. That brilliant evolutionary brain has gone on to create all we see around us. But there is a difference between intelligence and commonsense.

    A fundamental law of nature is “Closed Systems Have Limits” We are intelligent enough to know this fact, but we lack the commonsense to live within the limits of our closed system, planet Earth.

    I fear for my grand children. There is no Planet B. I fear a future like that depicted in the move The Road.



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  • Daryl West
    Dec 9, 2015 at 8:32 pm

    When those methane clathrates finally start to disseminate, the end, certainly of civilisation, may well be swifter than anyone might predict.

    The carbonaceous denialists have plans for these!
    They intend to drill into the clathrates to extract, sell, and burn the methane!!!

    I liken our plight to those of the great land dwelling creatures of past periods. The only thing that a sauropod did to contribute to global warming was perhaps to break wind… Given its population, this was unlikely to lead to its demise per se, but the fact that it had huge dietary requirements, it may well have contributed unwittingly to its ultimate extinction simply by hoovering up all its available nutrients.

    Well in a sense we are quite similar to the sauropod, though of course, we are not so ignorant of the facts at hand. We are however, far more prolific, more invasive, more destructive and most certainly the most dangerous creature to have evolved thus far.

    I do not think the behaviour even requires the intelligence of a sauropod.

    The exploding human population is behaving like a yeast culture in a barrel of fruit juice. It is exploiting the resources until there is nothing left to exploit, and will then be pickled in its own waste-products!

    (A bit like the current inhabitants of Chinese cities) http://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/aug/14/air-pollution-in-china-is-killing-4000-people-every-day-a-new-study-finds
    Air pollution in China is killing 4,000 people every day, a new study finds

    Physicists at the University of California have found 1.6 million people in China die each year from heart, lung and stroke problems because of polluted air



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  • David R Allen
    Dec 9, 2015 at 9:26 pm

    A well argued post Daryl. Agree with your sentiments. What made us great, our intelligence, will be the likely cause of our downfall.

    A key element of the problem, is that scientists, who have the brains to make great discoveries, are then required to hand over the information, technologies, and responsibilities, to the infantile brains of politicians, salesmen, and journalists!



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  • Rob Brighton
    Dec 9, 2015 at 7:04 pm

    Being incapable of understanding the science I accept what I am told by those who understand such things better than I,

    This issue that human CO2 pollution is causing rapid climate change is settled science which has been known for some time.
    The issues are now about reducing emissions to prevent making the problems worse.

    regrettably they are not the people who are doing the talking it follows that I am very skeptical of the people who are in Paris promising money that isn’t theirs to give.

    The politicians representing their countries now also have to sort out responsibilities for coping with the costs of problems which have already been caused – especially those caused by decades of wilful denial of the problems by people pocketing big profits from polluting.

    Not because they are inherently evil, quite the opposite, they believe they are doing the right thing for humanity.

    The right thing for humanity, is for those whose pollution caused the changes, to compensate those whose lives are being, (and going to be), badly affected by the changes the pollution has caused.

    http://www.nature.com/news/social-scientists-give-climate-talks-a-human-touch-1.18973

    Developing countries such as the Cook Islands want the agreement in Paris to include the establishment of a formal body within the UN climate convention to advance a more comprehensive approach to human movements. In addition to migration across international borders, this could include internal migration to farms to cities as well as displacement resulting from natural disasters.

    Although rising seas, higher temperatures and shifting rainfall patterns could eventually render many areas uninhabitable, social scientists’ work suggests that such projections are one of many factors that people consider when deciding whether and when to abandon their homelands in search of better opportunities.

    In surveys of more than 6,800 people from the Pacific island countries of Kiribati, Nauru and Tuvalu, most residents said that they are already experiencing events such as saltwater intrusions, floods and droughts. Warner and her team found that people who have immigrated from these countries over the past decade generally did so to pursue work and educational opportunities.

    But most of those interviewed said that migration will be necessary if environmental damages continue to mount. However, only 26% of the survey respondents believe that they have the resources they would need to migrate.

    If the Paris talks produce a climate deal that addresses climate migration, that could help developing countries to win international aid to begin planning for these population shifts as they adapt to climate change, says Walter Kaelin, envoy of the chairmanship of the Nansen Initiative, a government-led research organization created by Switzerland and Norway in 2012.

    The initiative studies human displacement driven by natural phenomena, without distinguishing between the effects of climate change and other types of natural disasters, such as earthquakes. In November, the organization estimated that 181 million people lost their homes between 2008 and 2014, mostly owing to extreme weather, and displacements have more than doubled since 1980.

    As the Earth and the atmosphere warms , becoming more energetic, extreme weather is going to become more common and more fierce! – In addition to climate belts moving towards the poles, with increased desertification , droughts and floods.

    Turnbull has promised 1 billion towards the fund to assist poorer countries deal with the results of climate change. What hasn’t been in the headlines is 800 million of that is coming from the overseas aid budget.

    Politicians are noted for their devious nature and sleight of hand!



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  • There are four dominating problems that are the roots of human dilemma:

    Population growth is still continuing. The world population is now over 7 billion and growing. It is the basic cause of global warming, ever decreasing available water, massive immigrations, and growing religions in so called “developing” nations. Continued growth reduces the possibility of building school and universities thereby increasing the number of uneducated people making them vulnerable to religious dogma.
    ALL Religions that make people believe in absurdities and commit attrocities. Religious leaders depend on people to remain ignorant and uneducated.
    Lack of good education. Educated people who are educated usually QUESTION AUTHORITY. This religious leaders hate with a passion. “Good” education does NOT mean Bible studies or memorizing passages from the Quran or any other religious book..
    Corruption. Many political leaders are corrupt and want only to increase their own wealth and power, so they do not want to spend money and resources on the betterment of their own populace (such as education). Both political and religious leaders are often corrupt.

    When people believe in absurdities as taught by charismatic religious leaders, then they will believe any absurdities and commit atrocities such as the brutal surgeries on women (female genital mutilation) and widespread murders of innocents. Poorly educated people have too any children and as a result we have war, diminishing resources, and global warming.



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  • Saw it, loved it. Left you a reply on the same thread. (Scroll down.) I will get back to you with answers soon, if I can find a spot for it. Maybe on the Saudi Arabia thread.
    (My comments on the Saudi Arabia thread aren’t so hot. I don’t know enough about it. Therefore, my extreme pessimism may be unwarranted.)
    Best,
    Dan
    P.S. I’m happy about this climate change “global” agreement. Happy is not really the right word.



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