In a telling exchange during the first Democratic primary presidential debate earlier this month, the candidates were asked to articulate the greatest threat to US national security. “It’s certainly the chaos in the Middle East,” answered Lincoln Chafee, the former senator and governor of Rhode Island who later dropped out of the race. Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders responded to the question by citing the “global crisis of climate change.”
Whether you agree with either candidate’s assessment, it’s a mistake to talk about global conflict and climate change without highlighting how the two phenomena are inextricably linked. Extreme weather and resource scarcity exacerbated by climate change are worsening the effects of war, from the Middle East to sub-Saharan Africa, with civilians often bearing the brunt of the consequences.
In Syria, for example, four years of war have displaced nearly 12 million people. Prior to the uprising in 2011, the country suffered the worst drought in the instrumental record from 2007 to 2010, which has been linked to climate change by a study from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The triggers of the Syrian civil war are difficult to untangle, and to blame climate change rather than president Bashar al-Assad’s failure to respond to the ensuing humanitarian disaster would be a mistake.
Still, a growing body of literature suggests the drought was at the very least a “threat multiplier” that made a bad situation much worse. As crops failed, food prices skyrocketed and farming families were forced to migrate to cities. “The total urban population of Syria in 2002 was 8.9 million but, by the end of 2010, had grown to 13.8 million, a more than 50% increase in only 8 years,” according to the National Academy of Sciences. The urban population influx exacerbated the mismanagement of resources throughout the country and further straining the country’s weak infrastructure.
Now, many observers say Iraq—which suffered a massive heatwave this summer—is facing related challenges.
“Though we cannot be sure that the recent heat waves are a result of climate change, studies suggest that these kinds of heat waves are made more likely by climate change,” Francesco Femia and Caitlin Werrell, co-founders of the Center for Climate and Security, said in an e-mail. They add that the drought in Syria also effected parts of Iraq, so the country “is certainly experiencing water stress, which is in part driven by a changing climate, and in part by a lack of governance.”