What do Syria, Yemen, Libya have in common?
World leaders gathered in Paris to address climate change under the shadow of recent attacks by the Islamic State (ISIS). Yet, as they think about climate issues, they should remember that the connection between climate change and ISIS — and more broadly, between climate change and political instability — is not just a coincidence. It may be the key reality of the 21st century.
The rise of ISIS was a direct result of the failure of the Syrian regime, as it was beset by urban uprisings in 2011. Yet those uprisings did not come out of nowhere and were not merely inspired by protests in Tunisia, Libya and Egypt. Syria was an increasingly prosperous country in the 1990s with its various ethnic and religious groups working together in cities.
Yet from 2006 through 2009, Syria was crippled by its worst drought in modern history. A recent article in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences showed that the drought was not natural. Rather, hotter temperatures and the weakening of winds that bring moisture from the Mediterranean were likely the region’s reflection of rising greenhouse gas emissions, according to computer simulations.
Combined with poor water management and government neglect of farm conditions, the drought caused a collapse of farming in north-eastern Syria. Three-quarters of Syria’s’s farmers suffered total crop failure and 80% of livestock died. About 1.5 million farming families migrated to cities to look for work and food, joining millions of refugees from the Palestinian territories and Iraq.
The added burden the refugees placed on Syria’s cities and the distress of the farmers who lost their lands due to the drought helped spread rebellion against the Assad regime.
To be sure, climate change is never the single most important cause of conflict; it is what academics call a “structural threat”. Governments that can respond to such threats — because they have popular and elite support, have resources to respond to challenges, are willing to deploy those resources to distribute food and aid to the needy, and have diversified economies that can produce jobs — are not going to be shaken because of climate change.
Today, the world is seeing an epidemic of failed states: Libya, Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Afghanistan, Nigeria, the Central African Republic, Somalia and Mali have all lost control of parts of their territory. In every case, the weakening of state authority has created space for militants, and particularly for ISIS, to recruit followers and conduct operations. The conflicts have sent massive waves of refugees to Europe, which is unprepared to handle them.
Think now of a world in which the population under age 24 in Africa has increased by 500 million people and the populations of Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, the Palestinian territories and Yemen have increased by more than 100 million people. That is the United Nations’ projection for 2050. Add a combination of severe droughts, devastating floods, crop failures and massive migrations that create collisions and heightened competition among ethnic and religious groups struggling for land, resources and incomes.
Then think of how the governments of these regions could and would respond to such crises and whether Europe and other safe havens could absorb even a tiny fraction of the resulting refugees.
If such a world exists one day, the crisis in Syria and the actions of ISIS terrorists may be multiplied many fold.
World leaders in Paris should therefore focus on their opportunity to remove one of the key drivers of potential state breakdowns and terrorism in the future, by adopting vigorous measures to halt global warming.
To accommodate necessary growth in energy use in Africa, vital to making the countries of Africa more resilient and better able to provide jobs and security to their growing populations, the world must move quickly on two fronts. The major emitters must find ways to quickly reduce their carbon output. And they must develop low-carbon pathways for economic growth so the rest of the world can develop without creating new structural threats for political crises.
These goals can be met. If the United States, Europe and China reduced their carbon emissions by 20%, developing countries could increase their carbon emissions by almost one-third without an increase in world carbon output.
That should be the goal for the next ten years.
Terrorism thrives among weak and failed states and among displaced people. If we are to reduce both in the future, we need to make sure that our climate does not further deteriorate.
If we fail to prevent continued climate change, the rise in political temperature may far outstrip the warming of the weather outside.