Newspapers have recently reported that research shows that Global Warming can now be assigned as a major contributor to the ongoing conflict in Syria. For example, The Independent:

Climate change was a key driver of the Syrian uprising, according to research which warns that global warming is likely to unleash more wars in the coming decades, with Eastern Mediterranean countries such as Jordan and Lebanon particularly at risk...

...the Syria conflict is the first war that scientists have explicitly linked to climate change. Researchers say that global warming intensified the region’s worst-ever drought, pushing the country into civil war by destroying agriculture and forcing an exodus to cities already straining from poverty, an influx of refugees from war-torn Iraq next door and poor government, the report finds.

The mainstream press seem convinced the link exists and similar stories have appeared in most newspapers. How confident can we be that the Syrian conflict was exacerbated by climate change as the media seem to claim? Is the science solid and is the newspaper interpretation of it sound?


The question is still badly worded. If the question is whether "the Syrian conflict was caused by climate change as the media seem to claim?" then the answer is clearly no, and the media article linked in the question does not actually even make that claim. To quote the author of the study from the Independent article:

“Added to all the other stressors, climate change helped kick things over the threshold into open conflict,” said report co-author Richard Seager, of Columbia University in New York.

In other words, it was a contributing factor, but it would be an exaggeration to claim it was the cause. This is also bourne out by a quote from another author:

“Whether it was a primary or substantial factor is impossible to know, but drought can lead to devastating consequences when coupled with pre-existing acute vulnerability,” said lead author Colin Kelley, who did the work at Columbia but is now the University of California, Santa Barbara.

Now there is another quote from Prof. Seager

“I think this is scary and it’s only just beginning. It’s going to continue through the current century as part of the general drying of the Eastern Mediterranean – I don’t see how things are going to survive there,” Professor Seager added.

However this is not a statement about the cause of the current conflict, it is a statement of how he thinks the climate will develop in this region.

As to whether the science is sound, there have been previous papers on this particular topic, with similar findings, e.g.

Peter H. Gleick, 2014: Water, Drought, Climate Change, and Conflict in Syria. Wea. Climate Soc., 6, 331–340. doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1175/WCAS-D-13-00059.1

Such replication, where different authors study the same issue and come to similar conclusions, is part of the process to scientific acceptance of an idea that only starts with the publication of a paper in a peer-reviewed journal. So I would say that the indications so far are that the science is probably sound. Of course there are some that are unwilling to accept the findings of studies based on computer models, however the use of such models is widespread in science (not just climatology), without raising similar objections.

Update: There are also indications in the most recent IPCC WG1 report that there are projected hydrological implications of climate change for the middle east, which would be in accordance with the two studies mentioned:

Annual surface evaporation is projected to increase as global temperatures rise over most of the ocean and is projected to change over land following a similar pattern as precipitation. Decreases in annual runoff are likely in parts of southern Europe, the Middle East, and southern Africa by the end of the 21st century under the RCP8.5 scenario.

and that this was not a new finiding for AR5

In the AR4, 21st century model-projected runoff consistently showed decreases in southern Europe, the Middle East, and southwestern USA and increases in Southeast Asia, tropical East Africa and at high northern latitudes. The same general features appear in the CMIP5 ensemble of GCMs for all four RCPs shown in Figure 12.24, with the areas of most robust change typically increasing with magnitude of forcing change.

Basically I think this is just another case of the media exaggerating a scientific story, but also of reading more into the media article than is actually there. This happens all of the time, because we are all subject to cognitive biases, such as confirmation bias.

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    I've corrected the language to make it clear that the claim is about exacerbation not single cause. But your argument appears to be that the idea is sound because at least one other paper has suggested it, which isn't very convincing. – matt_black Mar 7 '15 at 15:45
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    @matt_black If you read my answer more carefully you will find that I made it clear that replication is the start of the process to finding out whether science is sound, and that the indications are that the science is probably sound. UNless we have someone at SkepticsSE with expertise in regional climate, then it is unlikely that we will get much of a better answer than that, and therefore I expressed the proper degree of certainty. Science is rarely a binary matter of sound/unsound, science is provisional and progressive, always building on existing work. – Dikran Marsupial Mar 7 '15 at 15:50
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    I'm not trying to convince anybody that the science is right on this particular issue, I am trying to answer the question according to the available relevant evidence. – Dikran Marsupial Mar 7 '15 at 16:13
  • Amen to that. The only thing that needs to be convincing is your description of the evidence :-) – Sklivvz Mar 7 '15 at 16:46
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    No, that would be a mistake called the "p-value fallacy". If a result has a p-value less than some critical threshold (which depends on the nature of the problem, using p<0.05 is part of what is described as the "null ritual"), then the hypothesis is not "proven", merely we can continue promulgating it. The probabilities used by the IPCC are essentially subjectivist Bayesian and used to describe the strength of their interpretation of the evidence, rather than to "prove" or "disprove". They are not frequentist p-values. – Dikran Marsupial Aug 20 '15 at 7:06

After many edits for clarification, the title in the question can be answered succinctly:

Did global warming exacerbate the Syrian conflict?

Almost certainly

Syrian demographics took a sharp turn in 2005-2007 as drought pushed a lot of the rural communities into cities. Now, we have overflowing cities and less food in them. This was known at the time, I remember about 2007-2008 there was talk about this possibly causing discord in Syria, which us Israelis take seriously, especially as it was only shortly after our 2006 problems with Lebanon. Sure enough, war in Syria broke out. Now, the "real spark" of the violence was in Daara a few years later due to political oppression, but things had been simmering for years and during that time the drought did not abide by much.

Did climate change cause the drought? This is looking more and more certain. Did the drought move people into the cities? Yes. Did the drought mean that less food was available? Yes. Did less food and crowded cities mean that people were more willing to oppose their oppressors? That might be a long stretch, but it's plausible.

By the way, the current war in Syria has nothing to do with the war that started in Daara. But it was an evolution, I personally place the border between the two stages of the conflict when the Libyans started going to Syria to fight.

In short, climate change did not cause the war, but it was a major factor in setting up the pretext for war. The other major factors include government oppression (the start of conflict) and displaced Libyans who could not continue fighting in Libya (the current conflict). As in most major conflicts, there was not a single cause but rather a series of causes that built up over the course of years.

Some of the information contained in this post requires additional references. Please edit to add citations to reliable sources that support the assertions made here. Unsourced material may be disputed or deleted.

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    So an area whose entire recorded history has seen many droughts has "certainly" seen an impact from climate change on the current drought. I think I would need to see strong, referenced evidence which you don't provide. For example, strong statistical proof that this drought is different to everything else that has happened in the region in human history. – matt_black Dec 3 '15 at 21:03
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    " For example, strong statistical proof that this drought is different to everything else that has happened in the region in human history." that would be absurd, there have been natural changes in climate that have caused severe problems for particular societies. Just because these changes were natural in the past, doesn't mean the best explanation for them now is not anthropogenic. There is a limit to what you can learn from statistics, and to go further you need physics. Note there is no such thing as "statistical proof". – Dikran Marsupial Dec 4 '15 at 15:19
  • Statistical evidence isn't proof, but it can provide some insight into whether today's droughts are different from the past. That is a basic step when claiming they have a different cause. I don't see how physics helps unless you have a perfect simulation of climate, which is even more absurd. – matt_black Dec 4 '15 at 18:03
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    @matt_black: Thank you for mentioning your objection. In fact, the recent drought in Syria is worse (i.e. lower precipitation, higher temperatures, longer lasting) than any in recorded history for the area. Additionally, it is widely attributed as part of a pattern of similar phenomenon occurring globally which is directly attributable to rising CO2 in the atmosphere, which in scientific communities (not political communities) attributed to human activity. – dotancohen Dec 6 '15 at 10:20
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    @Oddthinking, I think it is reasonable to conclude that climate change is likely to have made this drought worse than it would otherwise have been, so you could argue it was a cause of the drought, but perhaps not the cause. I do think this answer rather overstates the case. – Dikran Marsupial Dec 7 '15 at 9:02

There is plenty of scientific uncertainty about whether climate change has had a significant effect on conflict

Newspaper headlines and climate change campaigners will latch onto stories about wars being caused by climate change because they make good stories and those stories sound good in driving campaigns. As pointed out in other answers, scientists tend to be more circumspect.

But there is plenty of reason to be skeptical of some of the cautious results scientists have published that claim some degree of influence.

A paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences criticises previous work and casts doubt on some of the previous results.

To date, the research community has failed to reach a consensus on the nature and significance of the relationship between climate variability and armed conflict. We argue that progress has been hampered by insufficient attention paid to the context in which droughts and other climatic extremes may increase the risk of violent mobilization.

The study is not entirely dismissive that there may be some effects but it tends to show they are smaller and less significant than perviously thought:

We find less evidence that the occurrence or duration of drought significantly affects the risk of new conflict breaking out, even in the most likely subset of agriculturally dependent or politically marginalized ethnic groups in countries with very low economic development. Accordingly, although some research has suggested that a severe drought contributed to the onset of the Syrian civil war (3), our results do not indicate that this case is representative of a large number of contemporary conflicts.

Although this study provides insight regarding a more nuanced and conditional climate–conflict dynamic, it is clear that drought explains a small share of the observed variation in conflict involvement, implying that the substantive effect is modest compared with central drivers of conflict...

...Based on the most comprehensive and theoretically consistent assessment of its kind to date, we conclude that the impact of drought on conflict under most circumstances is limited.

The authors are more skeptical than many previous studies, but not entirely dismissive of some small link. But they are clear that other factors matter far more and that focussing on climate as a factor is distracting as other actions can have a far larger influence on what happens that anything that can be done about climate.

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