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.