Brit-Yank journalist & environment consultant.
Fellow @ Center for Climate & Security, TED fellow, Reporting @NatGeo, @NYT, @bbc etc
The Syrian civil war has raged for almost a decade now, and in the climate security community it can feel as if we’ve spent at least that long arguing about its causes. For every claim about the impact of extreme drought in the lead up to 2011, there’s been blowback, with some scholars arguing that the climate angle has been exaggerated at the expense of other causes of the conflict. And for every argument about rural-to-urban migration, there have been suggestions that its impact in precipitating protests has been overstated. Amid some overly forceful media assertion about the significance of climate change—and valid fears that invoking the environment might be seen as absolving guilty parties, despite efforts to highlight the regime’s ultimate culpability—climate security analysts have struggled to fully pinpoint climate’s precise contribution to the conflict. Cue uncertainty, controversy, and sometimes fierce academic polemics.
But although the now decade-old war in Syria has most publicly laid bare this failure, it is, in some ways, just the latest example of the difficulty in articulating—and proving—the nature of climate risks. You can conduct all the quantitative analysis in the world, but that won’t necessarily yield much when climate change can cut in such small, often imperceptible ways. You can conduct groundwork, but that can be tricky when the hardest hit areas are inaccessible or prohibitively dangerous. And even then much of the best evidence can be anecdotal. In the absence of sufficient scientifically rigorous ‘proof,’ it’s only natural that skepticism over climate change’s full destabilizing potential persists.
Some of this trouble is at least partly rooted in rhetorical limitations. Most security experts recognize climate change as a fan of existing flames rather than a fire starter; that ‘threat multiplier’ framing, while useful, can make the causal mechanism between climate and conflict extra tricky to isolate—and hence extra mysterious to the lay reader. How, one might ask, can you stress the nature and gravity of climate risks when we cloak them in such cold, amorphous terms? We are, in some ways, suffering from our own inadequate terminology.
Yet this failure or inability to fully spell out the relationship between climate and conflict goes much deeper than that—and arguably gets at the true peril of climate risks. Because while climate change may very well inflict some of its greatest damage as an accelerator of other drivers of conflict, this threat multiplier formulation doesn’t do justice to the range and depth of ways in which climate stresses interact with—and propel—those other drivers at every step of the way. In other words, by compartmentalizing climate change, we are in some instances inadvertently downplaying some of its most devastating ramifications.
We talk, for example, about weak governance as a frequent source of instability, but sometimes disregard the impact of environmental degradation on poor state decision-making—and vice versa. We struggle to chart the ways that simmering climate shocks, like drought, can undermine individual, communal, and state resilience over time, and thereby weaken conflict prevention mechanisms. And so on. The reality is that climate change, in its application of pressure across society’s most glaring fissures, can’t be untangled from the mess of overlapping grievances, ‘greed,’ and mismanagement that collectively cause most conflicts, as a number of scholars have suggested.
Over years of environmental reporting, mostly across the Middle East and North and East Africa, I’ve attempted to capture at least some of the complexity of climate and environment’s relationship to insecurity. Through frequent return visits to war-torn communities across Iraq, Syria, and other climate and violence-battered landscapes, I’ve tried to understand precisely how a fast-changing natural world can provide some of the driest, most dangerous kindling for potential conflict, even when the climate angle isn’t obvious. And, crucially, how these changes are merging with other, better understood drivers of conflict. Below are a few brief and very non-exhaustive examples of how climate change can contribute to violence in ways well beyond those that are commonly discussed.
The notion that past or present conflict can fuel future instability is, of course, nothing new. It’s as true of conflict in general as it is of climate-related disorder. But it is, perhaps, a measure of climate’s all-consuming nature that even its most debilitating recent manifestations can, in the wrong hands, be recast as extensions of pre-existing violence. Iraq has become a grim case in point. After years of heightened sectarianism since 2003, some Sunni villagers in central, northern, and western governorates proved particularly susceptible to suggestions that their water woes were a consequence of Shia malfeasance. ISIS took full advantage.
In the run-up to the group’s surge in 2014, one farmer remembered an ISIS-affiliated preacher saying that the rains weren’t falling as they used to because of cloud-seeding in neighboring Iran. Other ISIS recruiters suggested that irrigation canals weren’t flowing at necessary levels because the Shia-dominated government in Baghdad was redirecting water away from Sunni areas. Even the dust storms, which have been getting more frequent and more intense, were a deliberate government ploy to impoverish the Sunni heartland, another argument went. Whether people truly believed these absurd explanations scarcely mattered. With mounting desperation, many were only too willing to suspend disbelief and direct their fury at a familiar foe.
Climate stresses can also stoke old resentments or forge new ones, as has happened across parts of the Middle East and the Sahel. By hammering agrarian communities, whose livelihoods are generally bound up with increasingly perilous growing conditions, climate shocks have accentuated the gap—or the perceived gap—between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have nots,’ while fueling many villagers’ pre-existing grievances about their inferior service provision. In Iraq, for example, communities around Mosul had long harbored grudges against urbanites on account of their slightly less conservative social mores and snobbish attitude toward villagers. But a further deterioration in farmers’ financial fortunes over the past decade brought the economic divide between them into even sharper relief– and seemingly contributed to what appears to be a massive over-representation of peri-urban villagers (i.e., the cross-section of the agrarian poor that are most likely to have interacted with city-dwellers) within ISIS’ ranks.
The lessons ought to be profound. It’s not so much a climate-induced increase in poverty that necessarily constitutes a security risk as the resentments that intensifying desperation and changes in relative affluence can unleash. That’s a worrisome development as climate change undermines agriculture-dependent rural communities, even as state assistance for these hardest hit areas continues to badly lag cities in the Middle East and other regions.
Corruption poses a similar-ish risk in devastated rural areas. Often isolated, starved of political support, and routinely exposed to kickback-heavy institutions, such as highway checkpoints, many villagers have long suffered disproportionately from bribe-seeking officialdom. Some are coming to the end of their tether as climate stresses bite. The worse the growing conditions, the less tolerant people appeared to be of illicit official demands, I found in interviews across both Syria and Bangladesh. The more the environmental hardships, the angrier agrarian communities have become with state agricultural provision that they feel has deteriorated precisely because of corruption. Simply put, many farmers appear less willing to countenance these kinds of abuse as their incomes waver, no matter the consequences.
In northeastern Syria, farmers around Hasakeh say that they were particularly poorly equipped to combat drought in the run up to 2011 because officials had saddled them with poor quality seeds and fertilizer. If only these state institutions hadn’t laced their fertilizer with sawdust or sold their fresh seeds to private traders—while distributing older ones instead, perhaps they’d have been better placed to cope with erratic rainfall and poorly-conceived land and subsidy reforms, a number told me. Among myriad other grievances, the sense among farmers that they were being set up to fail by unscrupulous officials and broken institutions at their time of greatest need was a bridge too far for many. They were only too keen to throw their weight behind anti-regime protests.
Then there’s the impact of climate on conflict resolution mechanisms. That climate stresses can worsen services and add to the general burden on already failing and desperately unpopular governments is also nothing new. It might ultimately prove to be the single most dangerous consequence of climate change. Less studied yet no less devastating, however, is the impact of climate stresses on structural resilience at a more local level. These ‘safeguards’ are breaking down in many of the places that have been worst afflicted by climate stresses—and so are, in some instances, most in need of them. Again, the ramifications for already fragile states could be perilous.
Having found living off the land all but impossible, many villagers from Egypt to Papua New Guinea are trying their luck in cities in ever greater numbers. In doing so, they’ve further stretched infrastructure, housing, and sometimes urban social fabric—as plenty of commentators have pointed out. But for those who remain behind, the impact of these migrations can be even more profound. Deprived of many of their most established families, these communities can lose the equilibrium and tight bonds that enable them to peacefully manage intense societal pressures. In one northern Nineveh village, the out-migration of some of the area’s most respected figures left its youth exceptionally vulnerable to jihadi entreaties, according to security officials. Tribal elders across southern Jordan told me that petty crime had proliferated as unfamiliar pastoralist families moved in, familiar faces moved out, and as some villages lost the critical mass in numbers to support small businesses. This ought not to be a surprise. Societies with less social capital can be less resilient, so as communal ties weaken, so too does their ability to withstand climate-related hardships.
Most amorphous of all are the psychological consequences of all of this. A climate security peril that seldom seems to warrant mention, but that frequently crops up in interviews is the increasingly weird and sometimes destructive behavior exhibited by many of those in the eye of the climate storm. For farmers, fishermen, pastoralists and others, life has never been easy, but at least there was a predictability to many of their struggles. No longer. Droughts are more frequent and more severe, giving an unfamiliar hue to age old troubles. Temperatures and seasonal variations are often horribly out of whack, among other challenges. Together, these new and unexpected conditions seem to be fueling what can only be described as a kind of devil-may-care attitude in which those collapsing family, community, tribal structures are even less likely to keep people in check.
In some war-ravaged communities, residents appear genuinely mystified as to how their brothers or cousins ever could have sided with the most vicious of militias, or why a previously peaceful neighboring community would have triggered a feud, to no obvious personal advantage. It’s madness, they suggest, temporary insanity brought on by desperation and the loss of their lives’ few constants. Sometimes these people might be genuinely unwell. Up to one in five in war zones may have a mental health condition, according to the World Health Organization. The fact that many states are unwilling, or perhaps unable, to even pay lip service to these crises appears to be amplifying anti-statism, even among people who’ve seldom had much expectation of their governments. Because why, interviewees sometimes ask, would one bother toeing the line when everything’s going to hell anyway? Like a termite, climate change can eat away at the supports that inhibit societies’ worst or most troublesome instincts.
Some of this might smack of semantic gymnastics at a time when climate security is beginning to make real headway. But it does matter. This continuing difficulty in illustrating the precise pathways through which climate change fuels instability makes it harder to impress upon security actors the full range of climate risks, not least due to the uniqueness of these interactions in different contexts. It creates the appearance of enduring controversy where really there ought to be none, as in Syria. Most importantly, it might be stifling action. For as long as climate change comes across as this wishy-washy threat, as opposed to a clear and present danger, there will be no rousing policymakers to the degree necessary to precipitate a sufficient response.
None of this is to say that there’s an easy answer to redressing this apparent mismatch between climate risks and the language and research capabilities we deploy to describe and assess them. Complexity often conspires against satisfying definitions—and the impact of a changing natural world on our societies is nothing if not complex. But until we fare a little better, we’ll likely continue to underestimate climate’s capacity to wreak havoc in some scenarios. The stakes are enormous.