The gas attack in Syria on April 4 consumed the world’s attention and galvanized the Trump White House, leading to the launch of 59 cruise missiles on a small airport from which the regime of Bashar al-Assad has been bombing the fundamentalist rebels in Idlib province. The pictures of suffering children, Trump said, had touched him. Yet the president and most of his party are committed to increasing the daily release of hundreds of thousands of tons of a far more deadly gas—carbon dioxide. Climate scientist James Hansen has described our current emissions as like setting off 400,000 Hiroshima atomic bombs each day, every day of the year.
The Syrian civil war has left more than 400,000 people dead, among them graveyards full of children and innocent noncombatants. About half the country’s 23 million people have been left homeless, and of those, 4 million have been driven abroad (some of them contributing to Europe’s refugee crisis and its consequent rightward political shift). The war occurred for many complex reasons, including social and political ones. The severest drought in recorded modern Syrian history in 2007–10, however, made its contribution.
The mega-drought drove 1.5 million farmers and farmworkers off the land to the seedy bidonvilles ringing cities such as Homs and Hama. In the northeast, 70 percent of the farm livestock died in those years. These displaced and dispossessed day laborers, who seldom found remunerative new work in Syria’s stagnant urban economy, joined in the demonstrations against the regime. Some were later drawn into the civil war as militiamen. Others in the end fled their country.
Of course, Syria has had milder periodic droughts all through history. Moreover, some countries in the region, such as Israel, have been much better at water management than the decrepit Baath state in Syria. It matters how such crises are handled. A team of scientists writing in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences last year, however, found no natural explanation for how rapidly Syria has been drying out over the past century or for the withering severity of the latest drought. Human-caused climate change, which has raised the temperature of the planet 1.5 degrees Fahrenheit since 1880, they concluded, made this Frankendrought as much as three times more likely to happen than if our coal plants, factories, and automobiles had left Mother Nature alone.
A new paper by Professor Michael Mann of Penn State and colleagues comes to the alarming conclusion that human-caused climate change is messing with the jet stream, the thin band of powerful gales in the upper atmosphere that blow from west to east and sometimes loop north or south. Mann and his team found that as the earth has heated up, the jet stream sometimes gets stuck in a particular pattern, fixing weather extremes such as droughts in place for longer. This effect was in part responsible for the massive flood in Pakistan in 2010, which killed 2,000 people, made 20 million homeless, and for a time submerged a fifth of the country. If Trump is tenderhearted about dead children, perhaps he should consider those his beloved coal industry helped to drown at that time.