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Is Climate Change Driving Conflict in the Middle East?

Recent years have witnessed the outbreak of multiple wars in some of the hottest and driest regions on earth, leading to increasingly authoritative suggestions that climate change will be a major driver of conflict throughout the 21st century. In fact, some researchers have argued this is already the case, finding evidence of climate-induced wars across the Middle East and Africa. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the United Nations, and the US military have all issued stark warnings on the security implications of climate change. However, despite these fears, a closer look at the current conflicts in Syria and Yemen suggests that the often generalized picture of climate-induced conflict is not so clear-cut.

The science behind climate change is now widely accepted, with governments acknowledging that action needs to be taken to curb its profound implications. After striking reports from the IPCC in 2001 and 2007, along with major global conferences in Copenhagen in 2009 and Paris in 2016, climate change is now a politicized issue guaranteed a position of heightened importance on the international agenda. As the issue has risen to prominence it has increasingly been framed in security terms, with world leaders and international organizations contending that climate change is a direct cause or major contributing factor in explaining patterns of contemporary and future conflict.

The public debate was driven by US military predictions from as early as 2003, suggesting that climate change had the potential to cause widespread conflict. In a 2007 report, a group of prominent former US generals described climate change as a ‘threat multiplier’ which could exacerbate instability in some of the planet’s most volatile regions, whilst UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has warned of its potential to destabilize the entire African continent. More recently US Secretary of State John Kerry has blamed climate change for “intensifying political unrest’’ in the Middle East, while President Obama has stated that climate change will entail more “severe weather events” leading to “displacement, scarcity and stressed populations” which will “increase the likelihood of global conflict.”

Several academic studies have lent further weight to these arguments. In 2013, climate researchers Solomon Hsiang and Marshall Burke led a project which analyzed 60 previous investigations into the link between climatic variations and the outbreak of violence, concluding that higher temperatures and reduced precipitation often correlates with a greater incidence of conflict. A 2014 study into the links between political marginalization, climate change, and conflict in the African Sahel region added a layer of complexity to this assertion.

Clionadh Raleigh’s findings indicated that climate-induced disasters such as drought have a particularly negative impact on marginalized communities in developing states; whose greater exposure to environmental changes further increases their vulnerability and heightens the risk of conflict. These results have been corroborated through a recent statistical analysis of conflicts between 1980 and 2010 undertaken by researchers at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, finding that climatic disasters enhance the risk of conflict breaking out in ethnically fractionalized countries, resulting in resource scarcity and fueling inter-communal violence.

Across the various studies, a remarkably similar causal chain has been articulated. Firstly, it is suggested that climate change will lead to more severe weather events such as heatwaves, flooding, and drought, which will cause widespread famine, population displacement, and a decline in agricultural activity across the developing world. In turn, this will lead to a scarcity of the basic resources necessary for survival, pushing groups to fight over the remaining resources and triggering large-scale migration from rural to urban areas. These predictions entail a grim future scenario in which climate change will fuel resource disputes, heighten inter-communal tensions and exacerbate conflict.

However, there is a danger of environmental determinism and over-simplification when discussing the effects of climate change on contemporary conflict. Whilst many policymakers, researchers, analysts, and media commentators paint a bleak picture of climate-fueled conflict on an almost incomprehensible scale, an empirical analysis of the ongoing conflicts in Yemen and Syria demonstrates that caution must be applied.

Firstly, the civil war currently raging in Yemen has complex political and economic origins: its foundations date back to the 2011 Arab Spring, which fueled historical animosity between tribal groups and led to the resurfacing of long-held grievances against the state. The war has since become increasingly complicated, involving an array of international actors including Saudi Arabia, and terrorist groups such as al-Qaeda. However, a recent report from the Center for Climate and Security highlights a more basic tension underlying the conflict: water. The report suggests that a regional drought brought on by climate change, along with failed water management strategies, have exacerbated the country’s instability in an already fragile environment of high youth unemployment and active terrorist organizations.

The report contends that the drought in Yemen led to water shortages for up to 16 million people – two-thirds of the population – exacerbating grievances, increasing rebel recruitment, and significantly worsening the conflict. Whilst it is clear that water insecurity has played a role in Yemen’s downward spiral, the extent to which this is the case remains difficult to determine: the conflict has complex origins and is firmly rooted within Yemen’s domestic politics and the geopolitics of the wider region.

Secondly, the Syrian Civil War has often been cited as the most prominent example of climate-induced conflict to date. A 2015 study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences produced considerable evidence to support the theory that the war was largely a consequence of the Middle East’s worst-ever recorded drought. The drought, which began in 2006 with a period of extreme hot and dry weather, caused crop yields to fall by one-half to two-thirds, pushing more than 1 million Syrians into food insecurity and prompting 1.5 million of the rural population to migrate to cities, where violence first erupted.

The ensuing civil war – sparked by the Arab Spring protests which swept across the region – has left more than 400,000 people dead over the past five years, and has complex roots stemming from a toxic mixture of political, economic, and social grievances. Whilst the drought is far from being solely responsible for the ongoing violence, it may well have contributed to the early social unrest through creating unemployment, famine, and water scarcity, meaning fewer economic opportunities for many marginalized citizens, who may have seen little other option but to take up arms in Syria’s struggle.

The tangled roots of violence in Syria and Yemen have increasingly been blamed on the impacts of climate change and natural calamity. However, it must be acknowledged that these conflicts have extremely complex historical, political, social, and economic foundations, meaning that climate change should only be considered an exacerbating factor – rather than a direct driver – of conflict in the Middle East. Other parts of the region – such as Iran and Turkey – have also experienced the negative impacts of drought across the same timescale but have not descended into armed conflict, suggesting that other factors weigh more heavily.

Yet the security implications of climate change should still be taken seriously: research and empirical evidence indicates it is likely that climate change will adversely affect already-marginalized groups and economically-deprived areas in developing countries, with extreme climatic events worsening poverty, heightening grievances, and adding to the risk factors for the outbreak of conflict. Therefore global or regional-scale generalizations should be avoided, as the impacts of climate change on conflict risk remain dependent on pre-existing political, economic, and social variables in country-specific contexts.