Syria, the First Domino?

Writing in The Guardian, Nafeez Ahmed explicitly points to climate change as a component of the humanitarian disaster that is the Syrian civil war.

Syria’s dash for gas has been spurred by its rapidly declining oil revenues, driven by the peak of its conventional oil production in 1996. Even before the war, the country’s rate of oil production had plummeted by nearly half, from a peak of just under 610,000 barrels per day (bpd) to approximately 385,000 bpd in 2010.

Since the war, production has dropped further still, once again by about half, as the rebels have taken control of key oil producing areas.

Faced with dwindling profits from oil exports and a fiscal deficit, the government was forced to slash fuel subsidies in May 2008 – which at the time consumed 15% of GDP. The price of petrol tripled overnight, fueling pressure on food prices.

The crunch came in the context of an intensifying and increasingly regular drought cycle linked to climate change. Between 2002 and 2008, the country’s total water resources dropped by half through both overuse and waste.

Once self-sufficient in wheat, Syria has become increasingly dependent on increasingly costly grain imports, which rose by 1m tonnes in 2011-12, then rose again by nearly 30% to about 4m in 2012-13. The drought ravaged Syria’s farmlands, led to several crop failures, and drove hundreds of thousands of people from predominantly Sunni rural areas into coastal cities traditionally dominated by the Alawite minority.

The exodus inflamed sectarian tensions rooted in Assad’s longstanding favouritism of his Alawite sect – many members of which are relatives and tribal allies – over the Sunni majority.

Since 2001 in particular, Syrian politics was increasingly repressive even by regional standards, while Assad’s focus on IMF-backed market reform escalated unemployment and inequality. The new economic policies undermined the rural Sunni poor while expanding the regime-linked private sector through a web of corrupt, government-backed joint ventures that empowered the Alawite military elite and a parasitic business aristocracy.

Then from 2010 to 2011, the price of wheat doubled – fueled by a combination of extreme weather events linked to climate change, oil price spikes and intensified speculation on food commodities – impacting on Syrian wheat imports. Assad’s inability to maintain subsidies due to rapidly declining oil revenues worsened the situation.

The food price hikes triggered the protests that evolved into armed rebellion, in response to Assad’s indiscriminate violence against demonstrators. The rural town of Dara’a, hit by five prior years of drought and water scarcity with little relief from the government, was a focal point for the 2011 protests.

More at the link. The author of the article is executive director of the Institute for Policy Research & Development, and author of A User’s Guide to the Crisis of Civilization.

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  1. This looks like a pretty thin connection to CC to me. It may be a "component" but hardly a major one.

    Nor would it be "the first domino". There's an extensive literature on all this; see for example

  2. very informative link, thanks!

    Ahmed, via the Amazon link I provided in his biographical information, "argues that financial meltdown, dwindling oil reserves, terrorism and food shortages need to be considered as part of the same ailing system. Most accounts of our contemporary global crises such as climate change, or the threat of terrorism, focus on one area, or another, to the exclusion of others. Nafeez Ahmed argues that the unwillingness of experts to look outside their specialisations explains why there is so much disagreement and misunderstanding about particular crises. This book attempts to investigate all of these crises, not as isolated events, but as trends and processes that belong to a single global system."

    I think this way of looking at things is fair.

    It does appear that local drought and global price increases in subsistence foods are in fact important factors in the current situation in Syria and elsewhere in the middle east. Neither of these can be directly attributed with certainty to global physical changes, but neither can properly be addressed while ignoring that factor.

  3. Yes, conflict over scarce water and food has been around for a couple of decades. Teenagers with guns and fashion icons too. Climate change makes everything more difficult, especially where resources are already dodgy (fear, fire, floods).

  4. Susan Anderson writes, "Yes, conflict over scarce water and food has been around for a couple of decades." For decades, read millenia.

    Dr. Tobis,you keep doing the same thing and expecting a different result. There's a term for that. 'Waste' and 'overuse' have nothing to do with climate change. Reduction of government revenues by 75% from oil has nothing to do with climate change. 'Government corruption' has nothing to do with climate change.

    You learned nothing from the exchanges you had with myself and others regarding Egypt. You learned nothing from the exchanges you had with myself and others regarding Pakistan.

    Gee. One part of the world famous throughout history as being just as prone to drought as the American Southwest has a drought (!) and you label it climate change. What a surprise.

    I'm almost pleased that my access to the blogosphere is limited by the attentive nature of Chinese regulators of information traffic. I have to see much less of this ignorant drivel.

  5. Pingback: Syria, the First Domino? | evolveSUSTAIN

  6. This is always going to be the problem when someone discusses climate change as a component of any given example of international tensions - there is always another, more proximate cause that can be pointed to. But climate change is the most obvious increasing contributory cause of the problems, with the possible exception of population - which is of less interest when it comes to discussing solutions. Tom Fuller predictably tries to exploit this below, ignoring the bulk of the argument and suggesting that Ahmed is saying something much more crude than he is.

    The Fight Entropy link above also leads me to another question about the limitations of a scientific approach to questions such as this. The discussion there is about two different approaches to assessing evidence, the 'quant' and the 'qual', but both seem inherently conservative to me. Is it realistic to look at past evidence and use it to make predictions that are likely to be representative of a future with very different conditions? That's not to say there is nothing to be gained from such analysis, just that it seems possible, perhaps likely, to underestimate the future impacts.

  7. I should have said, increased difficulties with access to water and food at an accelerating pace, particularly obvious in the Arab Spring. Since the problem did not go away, the conflict continues no matter who is in charge.

    We all want somebody or something to blame, other than our profligate habits honed to extremes over the last little while (counted in centuries or individual years). But unless we get a grip, it will only get worse.

    The mechanisms whereby climate change due to global warming caused by heat-trapping greenhouse gases, and enhanced by increased water vapor, have been well explained in many loci. Claiming that doesn't work or is false accomplishes nothing except doubt and delay in the uninformed and politically motivated. But as has been said, nature has the only seat at the table in the end, and all this politicking will only cause harm.

  8. I will repeat my basic message. By inventing false effects of current climate you are acting as the boy who cried wolf. This makes it all but impossible to prepare rationally for very real effects we will experience due to anthropogenically caused climate change in the future.

    You and Dr. Tobis are doing the world a huge disservice and I wish you would stop. The IPCC and the rest of mainstream science agrees that we will begin experiencing the effects of climate change some time after 2040. What we are seeing in Syria, Egypt, Pakistan and Moscow over the past few years--and Texas, too, Dr. Tobis--is weather. Period.

    You are acting as Monckton's wet dream, making silly claims that are easily refuted.

  9. "The IPCC and the rest of mainstream science agrees that we will begin experiencing the effects of climate change some time after 2040."

    I believe this to be untrue and indeed implausible. Why should there be a clear onset?

    Please provide evidence if you choose to follow up.

    Consider AR4 section 3.2 for instance:

    "Pronounced long-term trends from 1900 to 2005 have been observed in precipitation amount in some places: significantly wetter in eastern North and South America, northern Europe and northern and central Asia, but drier in the Sahel, southern Africa, the Mediterranean and southern Asia. More precipitation now falls as rain rather than snow in northern regions. Widespread increases in heavy precipitation events have been observed, even in places where total amounts have decreased. These changes are associated with increased water vapour in the atmosphere arising from the warming of the world’s oceans, especially at lower latitudes. There are also increases in some regions in the occurrences of both droughts and floods."

  10. Again? "Confidence in projecting changes in the direction and magnitude of climate extremes depends on many factors, including the type of extreme, the region and season, the amount and quality of observational data, the level of understanding of the underlying processes, and the reliability of their simulation in
    models. Projected changes in climate extremes under different emissions scenarios5 generally do not strongly diverge
    in the coming two to three decades, but these signals are relatively small compared to natural climate variability over
    this time frame. Even the sign of projected changes in some climate extremes over this time frame is uncertain."

    P. 11, IPCC SREX, found here:

    Please read the document, Dr. Tobis. Susan, it might help you, too.

    Muscovian Heatwaves? Middle of century. "The 1-in-20 year extreme daily maximum temperature (i.e., a value that was exceeded on average only once during the period 1981–2000) will likely increase by about 1°C to 3°C by the mid-21st century and by about 2°C to 5°C by the late 21st century, depending on the region and emissions scenario (based on the B1, A1B, and A2 scenarios). [3.3.1, 3.1.6, Table 3-3, Figure 3-5]

    Pakistani Floods? End of century. "s. Based on a range of emissions scenarios (B1, A1B, A2), a 1-in-20 year annual maximum daily precipitation amount is likely to become a 1-in-5 to 1-in-15 year event by the end of the 21st century in many regions. ...Projected precipitation and temperature changes imply possible changes in floods, although overall there is low confidence in projections of changes in fluvial floods."

    Hurricane Sandys every week? No. "Average tropical cyclone maximum wind speed is likely to increase, although increases may not occur in all ocean basins. It is likely that the global frequency of tropical cyclones will either decrease or remain
    essentially unchanged."

    Droughts? Probably, but they don't know. They really don't. "There is medium confidence that droughts will intensify in the 21st century in some seasons and areas, due to reduced precipitation and/or increased evapotranspiration."

    And I don't have time to track it down but either TAR or AR4 specifically said that impacts would be limited until about 2040.

  11. Monckton's WD? Quite rude, and wrong as well. Why anybody should care what new mechanism that mountebank finds to further capitalize on spreading lies is beyond me. We can't stop it, but the "please stop" belongs there, not here. Making money on denial is about as immoral as it is possible to be, and people get away with it thanks to the delayed consequences. If there is evil in the world, the people funding and promoting this doubt and delay creation has a good lot to answer for.

    Your bias is sticking out all over you. Nonsense! I only trot out the whole complicated description to make it perfectly clear:

    climate change due to global warming caused by an increase in heat-trapping gases, resulting in an increase in energy and water vapor - well understood for quite a long time now. The person who should take stock is in the mirror.

  12. I'm unsure of the point being made here - the evidence provided appears to be supporting the argument being made by Ahmed. He says the conflict was exacerbated by a cycle of drought which had been linked to climate change. How strong that link is - and there is nothing in the quoted passages from the SREX that directly addresses the attribution of this particular drought cycle - is not central to the argument, which is rather that such long-term changes in weather patterns appear to be contributory factors to conflicts. There is good evidence, some examples of which Tom Fuller provides above, that we are likely going to see changes in long-term weather patterns over the course of the century, therefore we are likely to see increases in stresses leading to increases in conflicts.

  13. This is sort of typical.

    TF: "The document I read is better than the document you read and they disagree."

    mt: "Um no, they are perfectly consistent and both true."

    This is not the first time for this pattern. (Or "anti-pattern" as some geeks were, illiterately, calling such things a few years back. "Anti-pattern" was nomenclature for patterns in software code, practice or management that you see often, but should seek to avoid rather than to emulate. "Dys-pattern" would be better.)

    If lightning strikes and you actually want to try, contrary to past experience, to figure out how my point of view could possibly make any sense, Tom Fuller, here is the main clue I offer you.

    CLUE: In the present case your most prominent error is confusing "extremes" which by nature have volatile and problematic statistics, with more habitual "weather" which quite certainly has already changed substantially. :END_CLUE

    Proving statistically that the recent weather regime shifts are anthropogenic is itself somewhat tricky, but in fact that was pretty much considered a done deal by AR3.

    But supposing you don't buy that attribution. Obviously some people don't, though I don't consider them "lukewarmers".

    Even without statistically significant attribution, the changes we see are mostly consistent with what we expect from anthropogenic forcing. What's more, there are no other explanations on the table for these shifts. These shifts are rapid by the standards of the Holocene and thus in are need of explanation in their own right by now, though that was untrue at the time of AR3 when we were still talking about "detection" as well as "attribution".

    Two weird things are going on, and one is expected to cause the other. There is no third weird thing. So, exactly why should we not make the obvious presumption to guide decision making?

    As for certain specific expensive extreme events (as opposed to generic weather), I stand by my own conclusion as someone with some lingering expertise, that Moscow/Pakistan 2010, Texas 2011, Sandy 2012, and the ongoing decline of Arctic sea ice, are events with obvious physical/dynamical connections to our artificially altered climate. Obviously there is no way to show this using statistics, since these are, so far, unique events, but you can't use statistics to prove that I love my mother either. That doesn't mean I don't love her, nor that statistics are the best way to find out.

    You can have the last word. I hope you take the trouble to understand my points first, if you intend to disagree.

  14. Then you're a fool, Dr. Tobis. I am not making the arguments you say I am making. I am not saying my paper is better than your paper. You don't show a paper. I do. It's from the IPCC. It specifically says that extreme weather is not expected soon--mid century for some phenomena, end of century for others, never for some.

    Weather has not changed. Extremes have not happened in greater frequency or in extension of observed parameters. You talking as if it has plays into the hands of the most extreme skeptics such as Morano and Monckton.

    Because weather and extreme events will change for the worse in 30 or 40 years--with your wolf-crying now you are contributing to the sleepwalking phenomenon.

    Because there is a wolf.

    [ Readers, I pledged to give Tom Fuller the last word in this debate, though I cannot resist noting that, including the roundtrip to Shanghai, it took Mr. Fuller less than 14 minutes to read and understand my response sufficiently to reply, as well as to compose and post that reply. Alas, as usual, we are making no progress and matters are quickly becoming dull, but I do not wish to give him cause to argue about censorship. Please do feel free to comment on other aspects of the article. But please note that further replies to Mr. Fuller on this thread will be removed. -mt]

  15. I have actually asserted for some time that the whole Arab Spring movement was strongly influenced by resource constraints imposed by climate change effects. As others have noted other factors such as declining oil revenues and population growth are too large to claim that it was a primary effect.

    With Syria, due to the drought, the signal is larger and much clearer and this article neatly summarizes the impact. Next up on the dominoes list I believe is Pakistan which is still reeling from the 2010 drought and flooding. That was the first really clear example of the stalled jet stream effects we're seeing cause havoc in the North Hemisphere.

    Hopefully I'm wrong.

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