Showtime, Syria, and the Faces of Climate Change

By Keith Kloor | April 21, 2014 1:44 pm

Twenty years ago, a hugely influential article by Robert Kaplan titled “The Coming Anarchy,” was published in The Atlantic magazine. Kaplan argued that the environment would be the “national security issue of the early twenty-first century.” He predicted that resource scarcity and ecological degradation would be destabilizing forces in the developing world, “making more and more places like Nigeria, India, and Brazil ungovernable.”

Such predictions have not come to pass, as one reappraisal of Kaplan’s piece has noted. But in the mid-1990s, the Clinton Administration was spooked enough by world events to take Kaplan’s thesis very seriously.  Scholars were much less impressed. They noted at the time that he painted with a broad brush, extrapolating from the world’s most desperate, war-torn regions. Geoff Dabelko, an environmental security scholar, wrote in a 1999 essay in The Wilson Quarterly:

Kaplan’s “anarchy thesis” suffered an obvious logical flaw. While poverty and environmental destruction were grievous problems in the less developed countries, most of them remained far from the complete collapse suffered in Haiti and West Africa. “The Coming Anarchy” looked to many critics like little more than a perverse form of travel journalism with intellectual window dressing. It certainly was no guide to the world’s future.

Ah, but a powerful narrative was born, which other authors were soon to build on and popularize. One of the stickiest memes to emerge from the resource scarcity-leads-to-conflict narrative was the idea of “water wars,” which has turned out to be a myth. In recent years, legitimate climate change concerns have combined with legitimate global environmental concerns to form the media-driven “climate wars” narrative.

Which brings me to a segment in the first episode of Showtime’s “Years of Living Dangerously,” a new, much-discussed documentary that aims to chronicle present-day, real-world impacts of climate change. This particular segment, as the Guardian wrote, featured New York Times op-ed columnist Thomas Friedman traveling “to the Turkish border with Syria to look at how climate change and drought is fueling war.”

Some quick background: A drought in northern Syria between 2006 and 2010 devastated over a million farmers and herders, many who eventually poured into Syria’s major cities. Near the end of the drought, a civil war commenced, tearing Syria apart. So Friedman is sent over there by Showtime to investigate the climate change connection. To his and their credit, they don’t downplay the tenuous linkage.

At one point in the segment, Friedman asks a farmer who joined with rebels seeking to oust the government: “When they write the history of this revolution, how important will the drought be?” The farmer-turned-fighter explains that the revolution started because the government turned its back on the country’s farmers. As Friedman said to CBS in an interview, “the simple story is that the Assad government did nothing for them, as that farmer in northern Syria tells us.” Friedman adds: “The drought didn’t cause the revolution, but when the revolution came, all these farmers and herders could not wait to join.”

An excellent 2014 article by Francesca de Châtel in the journal Middle Eastern Studies makes the same point. The piece is titled, “The Role of Drought and Climate Change in the Syrian Uprising: Untangling the Triggers of the Revolution.” The author writes:

I will argue that it was not the drought per se, but rather the government’s failure to respond to the ensuing humanitarian crisis that formed one of the triggers of the uprising, feeding a discontent that had long been simmering in rural areas.

So if the proximate cause of Syria’s civil war cannot be pinned on drought or climate change, why then is the Showtime documentary spending 20 minutes on a weak case study? A clue comes later in the segment, when Friedman interviews Susan Rice, President Obama’s National Security Advisor:

Friedman: How much do you feel that stress in Northern Syria where you had this region afflicted by drought from 2006-2010 right on the eve of the revolution there contributed to it?

Rice: That’s very hard to quantify. However, we all know that where there is drought, where there is insecurity, when there is poverty, hunger, poor governance, repressive policies, it may make the tinder in the box more readily ignitable.

Friedman: In other words, if a drought is bad enough it can help push an already stressed society to the breaking point.

And that’s where climate change is implied, since there are studies that suggest global warming is making droughts in some regions of the world more severe and longer lasting. This has been the logic used in the last few years by those who have invoked climate change as one of the contributing factors in Syria’s civil war. But it is arguably misleading, some scholars have countered. In an article posted last year, Jeannie Sowers and John Waterbury wrote:

While invoking drought as a destabilizing force in Syria is intuitively appealing, it overlooks the ways political and social structures determine the impact of environmental pressures. When one delves into the details, drought as an external factor recedes and political economy takes center stage.

The inclusion of environmental factors in our understanding of political and social upheaval adds valuable context that was often missing from earlier analyses, but we need to be careful about the kind of causal stories we construct. Invoking climate change as an external stressor is intuitively appealing but analytically inadequate. Ultimately, a society’s vulnerability to environmental stressors is mediated by its social and political institutions, which marginalize some people and privilege others through laws and informal rules regarding ownership and access to resources.

When terms such as ‘stressor’ or ‘threat multiplier’ are applied to drought, shifting rainfall patterns, floods, and other environmental events in the Middle East, they often obscure rather than illuminate the causes of uprisings and political change. There is perhaps no better illustration of this dynamic than Syria, where a closer examination shows that government policy helped construct vulnerability to the effects of the drought during the 2000s. State policies regarding economic development, political control in rural areas, and water management determined how drought impacted the population and how the population, in turn, responded.

I understand that such nuances are probably not appreciated by well-intentioned climate communicators who are eager to put a human face on climate change. But Thomas Friedman has spent a lifetime studying the complex politics and problems of the Mideast. He has won the Pulitzer Prize three times for his reporting and commentary on foreign affairs. I’m betting he recognizes when someone is being used as a prop to advance a noble cause.

  • bobito

    You say “To his and their credit, they don’t downplay the tenuous linkage.”

    Perhaps within the show, but all the advertising about this show has been doing nothing but playing UP the linkage. This is the blurb from Showtime’s site about the show, and this message is what was portrayed on all the advertising for the show (which I’m sure has a larger audience than the show does):
    “This groundbreaking documentary event series explores the human impact of climate change. From the damage wrought by Hurricane Sandy to the upheaval caused by drought in the Middle East,”

    Since when is it “sciency” to link an individual hurricane and an individual drought to Climate Change?

  • Tom Scharf

    I’ll quote from the denier’s bible:

    IPCC AR5:

    “In summary, the current assessment concludes that there is not enough evidence at present to suggest more than low confidence in a global-scale observed trend in drought or dryness (lack of rainfall) since the middle of the 20th century due to lack of direct observations, geographical inconsistencies in the trends, and dependencies of inferred trends on the index choice. Based on updated studies, AR4 conclusions regarding global increasing trends in drought since the 1970s were probably overstated. However, it is likely that the frequency and intensity of drought has increased in the Mediterranean and West Africa and decreased in central North America and north-west Australia since 1950”

    How can you claim climate change caused the Syria conflict (this is just plain silly) when you can’t even say climate change is making droughts worse?

    The chain of causation is just ridiculous on its face. So…..0.8C over the past 100 years “caused” the Syria war? And if not for this, the Syrians would be happy? There would have been no drought but for the 0.4C rise over the past 50 years?

    I just love it when the advocates make absolutely crazy statements like this. They read the news, find the disaster du jour, and then try to dream up a climate change link. The very serious people who shake their head in agreement here are f.o.o.l.s. How can anyone take this seriously?

    And this of course leads to the most obvious conclusion:

    A carbon tax in the US would have prevented the Syrian conflict. Right? Or something….the wheels have truly fallen off the bus here.

  • Common Sense

    The interesting thing about this “documentary” is that they started working on it 3 years ago. Then last month (right before this thing airs) the IPCC finally concedes that they have low confidence that droughts and hurricanes are made worse by climate change. Tough break guys. James Cameron has gone around insisting that we listen to the experts. Now the experts say that he is wrong.

  • Common Sense

    It will be interesting to see the ratings on this “documentary.” My prediction very few people will watch and it will only air a few times. It wouldn’t surprise me if a lot of people cancel their Showtime. People are fed up with this propaganda.

  • Tom Scharf

    This just in….Climate Change caused George W. Bush.

  • Matt B

    Good to see Tommy noting “tenuous” linkages to extreme weather & climate change, he wasn’t always this careful. From sillier days in 2008:

    “We are the first generation of humans who will have to think like Noah, coming up with strategies to save the last pair of more and more species,” Friedman said.

    http://www.marinij.com/ci_10860005

    Wouldn’t Noah and Emzara be the first generation to think like Noah? And can we infer from this that Friedman is a Creationist?

    • Blade Avuari

      (Derail)
      I think this implies the exact opposite. This sounds more like he is saying that there was no Noah, and that we are the first to think like was thought in the story of Noah. Although I can’t say that this would prove him to be anything at all.

  • JH

    We’ll never know how many fewer people would have died had the Obama Admin not implied support for a revolution in Syria almost immediately.

    Libya, Egypt, Syria, Ukraine… Lots of dead people everywhere Obama sticks his finger in the pot, but no real change. So much for the audacity of hope.

    • http://cendax.wordpress.com/ Norbrook

      Oh, if you look at Syria, the Assad family has done quite well at killing off people wholesale for decades. The major difference is that the “strong conservatives” just sat back and watched, and the media never reported it. Those countries would all have had – and have had – issues long before President Obama. Of course, if you want to go that route, you could point out how peaceful Iraq was before Bush decided to stick his finger in the pot and kill off a few hundred thousand people.

      • Ravi32

        Clinton killed 500,000 Iraqi infants, and that is those only between 0-5 years old, with his WMD in Iraq unending sanctions regime.

      • JH

        The estimates are over 100K killed and 2 million refugees in the current war. I’m not defending Assad. The question is this: is the average Syrian is better off now than before this conflict started? :( ‘Fraid not.

        No defense of Bush either. The Iraq war was a total waste of money and lives. You’d think Obomber would have learned from that.

        I give Obomber credit for his vigilance against AQ in Yemen and Africa. Perhaps he should stick to that.

        • http://cendax.wordpress.com/ Norbrook

          And Obama had very little to do with starting it. I might note that any shift from a dictatorship (or absolute monarchy) to a democracy has had numerous fits and starts. I would argue that Obama actually cut the potential death toll by “sticking his finger in” those other countries, given the example from Syria.

          • JH

            “Obama had very little to do with starting it.”

            A US President claiming “Assad must go” isn’t encouraging a revolution? Please.

  • J M

    Syria and the adjoining regions used to be called the Fertile Crescent. Cradle of agriculture, as well as of organized warfare.
    I doubt that climate had much to do with the excursions of Hittites, Persians, Alexander, Romans, Arabs, Crusaders or Mongols there.

  • Ron C.

    Film industry notice regarding “Years of Living Dangerously”

    Showtime Presents: Years of Living Dangerously
      Working Title: “The Sky is Falling” series

    Disclaimer: This could be the scariest science fiction production of all time, created by Sci Fi masters James Cameron and Arnold Schwarzenegger. Docudrama style could be confusing to people unfamiliar with the scientific realities.

    Warning: Some content is inappropriate for:

    Viewers with IQ over 85:
      People with any critical intelligence watching this stuff will have an unpleasant, possibly nauseating experience
      
      Viewers with IQ under 85:
      Impressionable people will be misled and should be protected by rational and calm adult supervision.

  • Bob K

    “Years of Living Dangerously” had a pathetic number of viewers for its premier and now statistics are coming in for the 2nd week.

    “Showtime’s “Years of Living Dangerously” aired Sun, Apr 20, at 10:00 PM and didn’t even make the top 100 cable TV shows this week and was beaten in its time slot by a re-run episode of the animated cartoon Bob’s Burgers. Ouch!”

    http://wattsupwiththat.com/2014/04/22/multi-million-dollar-global-warming-disaster-epic-years-of-living-dangerously-beaten-in-tv-ratings-by-bobs-burgers-reruns/

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Collide-a-Scape is a wide-ranging blog forum that explores issues at the nexus of science, culture and society.

About Keith Kloor

Keith Kloor is a NYC-based journalist, and an adjunct professor of journalism at New York University. His work has appeared in Slate, Science, Discover, and the Washington Post magazine, among other outlets. From 2000 to 2008, he was a senior editor at Audubon Magazine. In 2008-2009, he was a Fellow at the University of Colorado’s Center for Environmental Journalism, in Boulder, where he studied how a changing environment (including climate change) influenced prehistoric societies in the U.S. Southwest. He covers a wide range of topics, from conservation biology and biotechnology to urban planning and archaeology.

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