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Commentary

Refugees And Climate Change

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Aasif Iqbal J
/
Flickr Creative Commons

The pictures of people fleeing chaos in the Middle East and risking their lives to cross the Mediterranean Sea are disturbing. Do these image represent a view of the future? World leaders are meeting in Paris right now to try to prevent climate catastrophes that could push people out of their homes. Commentator Bob Brecha looks at the links between refugees and climate change during this week’s Climate Commentary.

So far in the presidential campaign, climate change has really only been an issue discussed by Democratic candidates.  I can only hope that this will change, since a matter of science that bears on society should not be limited to one party.  At least two Democratic candidates have mentioned climate change as being one of the gravest national security threats for the United States.  More specifically, there have been claims made that somehow climate change can be implicated in the Syrian civil war and refugee crisis.  

The chaos we see in the Middle East has come about for a lot of reasons and the human toll is enormous, as witnessed by the spillover effect of the largest migration of people in Europe since the end of World War Two.  My own slight contact to this crisis comes through my mother-in-law in Germany. She’s been essentially working a half-time job simply to help out one family that received asylum status after fleeing Syria.  The breakdown of society there had resulted in threats to the family because they had enough money to be a target for kidnappers.  After that harrowing experience, they left their home and country behind to make the risky trip to Europe.

We know about the brutal al-Assad regime, which is now in its second generation. But how can climate change be considered a factor in the outbreak of civil war?  Over the past several decades, and without regard to longer-term environmental sustainability, the Syrian government worked to increase domestic food production to become independent of imports.

While this might be a laudable goal in principle, in practice it has led to over-extraction of ground water from aquifers, among other things.   Now, as it turns out, Syria has been going through the worst drought it has seen in over a century. When drought strikes, and especially over several years in succession, the farmers reliant on rainfall have no alternative and lose their crops.  With groundwater resources stressed, there is no buffer for dry years to increase water flowing to those farmers with irrigation canals.  The situation quickly becomes worse when you realize the population of Syria has grown by a factor of five over the past fifty years.

Internally, it has been estimated that as many as 1.5 million people were displaced from agricultural areas to the outskirts of already overcrowded cities.   Add to that an equal number of Iraqis fleeing to Syria from the chaos in their own country, and it is clear that the urban areas will be under stress. Conflict soon follows.  

These factors might all be put down to mismanagement, external interference and natural circumstances. But recent research has also shown that the increasingly severe droughts in the region are exactly what is projected from climate models, and even that the atmospheric mechanisms leading to increasing dry years in Syria can be identified.  As usual, it is not possible to identify with 100% certainty the link between one extreme event like the drought, for example, with climate change.  Scientists have increasingly been able to estimate the likelihood of such linkages.

The key here, and this is what both Democratic presidential candidates and Secretary of State John Kerry have said, is that climate change is certainly not the sole factor leading to the Syrian conflict.  However, climate change can act as threat multiplier. That’s something the U.S. military also has discussed.  

We are witnessing a preview of the troubles that can arise when the impacts of climate change, mainly caused by wealthy countries, take their toll on poorer countries. That’s especially true in places already under stress from many other factors.  One can only hope that this does not represent the start of a “new normal” for the world. But the current crisis in Syria raises important questions for us as Americans and our responsibility to both work hard to mitigate the worst of future climate change, and to step up to help in a serious way when problems start to arise.  Are we each willing to take care of integrating a family fleeing a hopeless situation?

For further reading:

Bob Brecha is a professor of Physics and Renewable and Clean Energy at the University of Dayton, and Research Director UD's Hanley Sustainability Institute.  Follow him on Twitter: @BobBrecha