Narrow Media Coverage of Study linking Climate Change to Syria Conflict Misses Fractious Debate on a Field's Scholarship

By Keith Kloor
Mar 5, 2015 3:04 AMNov 20, 2019 3:27 AM


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This week a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) received widespread media coverage. The paper's takeaway was tweeted by all those reporting on it.

The drought that sparked Syria’s civil war has been linked to climate change. My story: — Eric Holthaus (@EricHolthaus) March 2, 2015

New study, out today, provides strongest links yet between global warming and conflict — Andrew Freedman (@afreedma) March 2, 2015

Climate change helped spark Syrian war: — National Geographic (@NatGeo) March 3, 2015

Climate Change Helped Fuel The Syrian Conflict, New Paper Finds — Kate Sheppard (@kate_sheppard) March 2, 2015

That's just a small sampling, but you get the picture. Now before we go any further, it's important to note that this asserted climate change component to the Syrian civil war made the rounds in 2013, argued most strongly by a Washington D.C .-based think tank. It got more play last year after Showtime's Emmy Award-winning documentary on climate change did a segment on the Mideast, featuring a famous globe-trotting New York Times columnist. One scholar/journalist with an expertise in Middle East water issues and who lived in Syria between 2006-2010 has countered:

focusing on external factors like drought and climate change in the context of the Syrian uprising is counterproductive as it diverts attention from more fundamental political and economic motives behind the protests and shifts responsibility away from the Syrian government.

Similar points were made in this 2013 paper by two other researchers:

While invoking drought as a destabilizing force in Syria is intuitively appealing, it overlooks the ways political and social structures determine the impact of environmental pressures. When one delves into the details, drought as an external factor recedes and political economy takes center stage.

The larger subject of climate change-driven conflict is also hotly debated in scholarly circles. The sparring got so contentious a few years back that one academic called for peace. These cleavages in the field are still there; so are major uncertainties about cause and effect relationships involving climate change and war. That is why the latest IPCC report, which included an assessment on climate change and human security, was cautious and carefully nuanced, as this analysis in the journal Political Geography explains. Given this state of affairs, I was a bit surprised by the media response to the recently published PNAS study on drought and Syria's uprising. Henry Fountain of the New York Times tweeted:

People have argued this for a while, but this study appears to nail it: Linking a Conflict to Climate Change — Henry Fountain (@henryfountain) March 2, 2015

And his story was one of the few that bothered to include a dissenting researcher. Seth Borenstein's dispatch for the Associated Press also carried an important cautionary note from a Middle East expert. Both of these pieces, as well as others, had necessary qualifiers about drought's placement in the hierarchy of causes responsible for Syria's civil war. But there's no doubt that climate change was the hook for all the stories. Thus, it would have been nice to see background context on the unsettled--and to some extent--controversial climate/conflict literature. Reporters, had they taken more time to delve into the topic, would have found no shortage of respected researchers taking issue with the PNAS study.

@EricHolthaus Over-reach. Climate change is bad in ways we haven't even grasped. Syria is grasping at geopolitical straws. — Paul Robbins (@PaulRobbins15) March 3, 2015

@EricHolthaus@PaulRobbins15 I have to go with Paul on this. Nearly all climate-conflict work is problematic right now, even in peer review — Ed Carr (@edwardrcarr) March 3, 2015

In part two of this post (appearing tomorrow), I'll explore some of the main problems scholars have with climate/conflict research, including the PNAS study that has captured the media's attention this week. UPDATE: I missed one story, by Lisa Friedman of ClimateWire, which is unfortunately behind a paywall. It has the larger context, including an important critical voice, that I think is lacking from much of the other coverage:

Andrew Solow, a senior scientist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution who has written on disputes within the community of researchers who study conflict and climate change, and has called for more robust research, also praised the authors. But he questioned the report's assertion that, based on climate model simulations, the severity of drought was more likely with than without greenhouse forcing. "This is the state of the science in this area. Of course, it doesn't mean that this drought would not have occurred without climate change, only that the frequencies of such droughts is greater under climate change," he said in an email. At the same time, Solow argued, while it is "plausible" to claim that the violence in Syria can be attributed in part to the drought, another prime reason is simply the decades of geopolitical instability in the region. He cautioned that the research, while "valuable," could draw too much attention to climate change at the expense of other factors like poverty, inequality and corruption. "To put it another way, it is hard to argue that, in the absence of this drought, there would have been no civil war in Syria," he wrote. "To be clear, I am not saying the authors are wrong, only that the case is not strong."

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