Drilling Down into the Connection Researchers are Making Between Climate Change and Conflict

By Keith Kloor | March 5, 2015 1:41 pm

The Carbon Brief, a UK website created in 2011, is a destination for many seeking non-partisan information and analysis on climate change related news and research. I like the neutral tone of the articles and the comprehensive perspective it offers on controversial issues, such as the state of the science on polar bears and, in a similar vein, the growing body of research explaining the “hiatus,” a term commonly used to describe a slowdown in the rate of the earth’s surface warming.

Here’s how a Carbon Brief article on one recently published study begins:

This month will see the civil war in Syria reach an inauspicious fourth birthday. Since the uprising in 2011, over 220,000 people have been killed and almost half the Syrian population have fled their homes.

Evidence suggests the conflict was triggered by a complex mix of social, political, economic and environmental factors. But new research finds that human-caused climate change could also have had an influence.

The study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, suggests a severe drought that began in 2006 was a catalyst for the conflict, and that climate change has made such droughts in the region more than twice as likely.

In my previous post, I discussed how this new study was broadly covered in the media. I felt that many of the news articles did not critically examine the paper, much less inform readers of the contentious climate/conflict research field it is situated in. The Carbon Brief article, however does a nice job contextualizing the study, while also providing a flavor of the field’s conflicting views.

Likewise, the UK Climate & Migration Coalition says the new paper adds to a body of contradictory research:

There is currently a raging academic debate about whether a hotter planet will lead to more armed conflict. (We’ve explored this debate in previous blog posts). A number of research papers have found a powerful connection between various climate impacts and armed conflict. Other papers have found a much weaker connection – or no connection at all. Some even found a decrease in violence. Making global generalisations is difficult. However it is a useful exercise to establish whether, in general, climate change will lead to more armed conflict.

How “useful” is the paper? We’ll return to that question in a minute. First, I want to point to an article on the study that did feature a critical take and a window into the complexities of the climate/conflict scholarship. Mark Zastrow, reporting in Nature:

The research adds to a fierce debate over whether climate change influences human conflict. In 2009, a study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found evidence that warming contributed to the incidence of armed conflict in Africa. A 2013 analysis in Science looked at 60 studies and found that climate change was linked to conflict over a broad span of time periods and geography. But no study has yet described a mechanism by which climate change leads to conflict, a sore point for political scientists who argue that a complex stew of factors drives social unrest.

To understand why all the media attention lavished on recent climate change/conflict research is a sore point for some scientists, read this longish post by Ed Carr, a geographer at the University of South Carolina, where he directs the Humanitarian Response and Development Lab (HURDL). Previously Carr was the climate change coordinator for the Bureau of Democracy, Conflict, and Humanitarian Assistance at the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). He has also been a review editor for the IPCC. In that 2013 post, Carr writes:

So, climate change and conflict is back in the media, seemingly with the strength of science behind it. I’ve been a rather direct, harsh critic of some work on this connection before, at least in part because I am deeply concerned that work on this subject (which remains preliminary) might disproportionately influence policy decisions in unproductive or even problematic directions (i.e. by contributing to the unnecessary militarization of development aid and humanitarian assistance).

Last November, my colleague and friend John Horgan expounded on these concerns–and engaged with inconsistencies in the climate/conflict literature–in several posts at his Scientific American blog.

Carr, who we will hear more from momentarily, is still a sharp critic of much published research that suggests climate change has sparked violence and instability in some countries, such as the recent paper on Syria’s drought contends.

To quickly recap: This new study that has gotten huge media coverage is careful not to overstate climate change-influenced drought as a factor in the rural upheaval that contributed to Syria’s uprising. As the paper’s authors write:

Whether it was a primary or substantial factor is impossible to know, but drought can lead to devastating consequences when coupled with preexisting acute vulnerability, caused by poor policies and unsustainable land use practices in Syria’s case and perpetuated by the slow and ineffective response of the Assad regime.

At the same time, the authors found that the country’s severe drought in the mid-to-late 2000s was “more than twice as likely as a consequence of human interference in the climate system.” Based on this, they assert:

For Syria, a country marked by poor governance and unsustainable agricultural and environmental policies, the drought had a catalytic effect, contributing to political unrest.

The Nature article by Mark Zastrow stands out from the media pack for the criticism it included of the study:

Some argue that that these failures of policy — not climate change — had the greatest influence over the drought’s impact. Andrew Solow, an environmental statistician at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute in Massachusetts, says that the analysis adds little to the debate over the link between climate and conflict. “In the absence of this drought, would there have been violence? And that’s not a question you can answer,” he says. “We don’t have models like that.”

[Lisa Friedman of ClimateWire also interviewed Solow for her story, which is behind a paywall. I included an excerpt from it at the bottom of my previous post]

In an email exchange I had this week with Carr, he elaborates on what he believes are the study’s strengths and weaknesses:

The attribution of this drought to climate change is tricky, but the climate community is getting a lot better at attribution these days. From the IPCC’s SREX report to now, I would say that there have been interesting improvements in our ability to link the changing probability of particular types of events in particular places to climate change, which in some ways can then speak to the probability that any given event being the product of climate change. But this remains a probabilistic exercise, and we cannot take any one drought/tornado/hurricane and say “climate change!” At least not yet.

I don’t think the authors of this study go outside these lines, though I am not an expert on attribution in atmospheric science. Indeed, the attribution exercise seems to be the rigorous part of the article. I say rigorous part because I think the translation of this drought into conflict is pretty weak. Basically, they plumb the conflict literature to support really general statements like “The conflict literature supports the idea that rapid demographic change encourages instability.” No kidding – not sure a citation was needed there. But the causal change between climate change, drought, displacement, and conflict is long and crosses several bodies of data/evidence, all of which are uncertain. The compounding uncertainty in this causal chain is never addressed, so I can’t tell if it is offsetting (that is, some parts of the causal chain address weaknesses in other parts, thereby making the connection throughout the chain stronger) or compounding. I doubt the authors know, either. Basically, I don’t understand how you can get any real understanding of the likely contribution of climate change to this conflict via this mechanism.

I mentioned to Carr that I thought the paper did a good job laying out the socio-political triggers–such as Syrian government failures– for the country’s civil war. He responded:

I think the social stuff in the middle of the paper appears far stronger than it actually is. While there is a lot of interesting, concrete stuff on the Syrian context leading up to the drought, none of it means much of anything because there is nothing here but broad statistics and trends.

For example, let’s look at the claim that by “February of 2010, the price of livestock feed had increased by three fourths, and the drought nearly obliterated all herds.” I am willing to accept they have good data on this. But who was impacted by this? Who owned herds? Do rich people or poor people own herds? Rural or urban dwellers? Men or women? In short, this is a severe impact, but on whom? It probably did not have a cross-cutting impact on the entire population.

The same could be said for rising food prices. The rich probably managed this fine, but what of the rest? Were there herders and subsistence producers who were able to strategically de-link from markets and weather this fairly easily? Again, who took the hit from this? Even cutting fuel subsidies principally hurts those who own vehicles or those who use them often – so the wealthy and middle class, and principally the urban. Unless they are closely tied to some sort of commodity price impacts, the cutting of subsidies probably had attenuated impacts on the poor in rural areas.

Basically, it is just a list of stuff happening in Syria, with the presumption that the confluence of events somehow constituted a trigger for the conflict inside a vague, “Syrian” population. But of course not all of Syria rebelled, and not all that rebelled did so at once. The paper doesn’t even go into the origins of the conflict – who rebelled first and where? How were these first rebels affected by all of these trends? Wouldn’t this be the easiest pathway to identifying the climate-to-conflict connection here? Yet the authors don’t do this at all. It’s all just overgeneralized, semi-circumstantial evidence on the social side.

I wondered if Carr was drilling down too deeply at a granular level. He shot back:

Well, granular is where stressors get translated into responses!

At this point, Daniel Abrahams, who is pursuing his PhD. in the geography department at the University of South Carolina, joined the dialogue. Abrahams works in the Humanitarian Response and Development Lab (which Carr oversees). His research focuses on the interactions between environmental degradation and violent conflict. He chimed in on the Syria drought study’s merits:

I agree with the premise that the drought contributed to the ongoing conflict in Syria. What is unknown, and really unaddressed here, is how much. And what can be done about it.

Getting good data on the mechanisms that cause conflict is a real challenge for the field. Where climate is most likely to affect conflict (Syria, Yemen, Somalia, etc) are the places where humanitarian and development organizations are the least likely to have access. That is to say nothing of researchers. This presents a bit of a catch 22 for the research community, the places that need to be looked at are the one’s we have the least access. This does not mean there aren’t other ways to do the research, but we need to be explicit about this shortcoming.

As it relates to my research, the people* I have interviewed have been explicit: we understand there is a logical connection between climate change and conflict, we agree with the general themes of the Arab Spring research, but what are we supposed to do about it? Development, humanitarian, and adaptation as sectors are very interested in addressing this issue. But noting simply that drought in Syria affected the conflict does nothing for them operationally.

*Abrahams: “My interviews have been with a range of people either directly involved with, trying to influence, or doing research on policy as it relates to climate change and security — mostly from a US perspective. This includes people working from a defense/intelligence, diplomatic, humanitarian assistance, development, and environment perspective. It is roughly evenly split in terms of those working directly for the USG and non-governmental actors.”

So where do we go from here? Abrahams completed his thought:

What is needed, really, is a deeper understanding of the social mechanisms that can translate a climate impact into increased likelihood or severity of conflict. And within that, identification of possible inflection points and/or means to build resilience to these events. That requires linking broader climate impacts to a specific biophysical event (which this paper does well) to a social phenomena (migration, resource issues, etc) to a conflict. They glazed over that last step. I understand why from a research perspective, but they need to be way more explicit about why–and that they did. Likewise, I don’t think the defense actors I have interviewed could do much with this information either, as they are looking for work that is far more operational.

Getting at the social aspects of this work will require a far deeper understanding of a place (ideally multiple places), to understand how drought or other biophysical events can trigger a phenomena and how that phenomena can affect conflict, or for that matter, cooperation. They cannot allude to this side of the work if they didn’t explicitly do it. From a policy perspective this really matters. By waving at the social side of things in a non-methodologically sound way, this [paper] calls this work into question, which by proxy calls other’ work on this issue into question. Unfair, yes, but clear that this has happened based on my interviews [about similar climate-conflict research published in recent years].

Finally, and what I have been dancing around, is this offers very little to the communities that want to act on on this issue. Yes, we need to know where and how the biophysical events might happen (the contribution of this paper), but we also need to know where to take it from there. I would guess policy makers see this paper as a distraction; something that fills their inbox with people tangentially paying attention to climate issues. We know from a conceptual standpoint how climate change can interact with conflict, what we don’t know, and what this paper doesn’t answer, is what, if anything, can be done about it.

My takeaways from this exchange with Carr and Abrahams:

1) The social science elements of climate/conflict research lacks rigor; 2) The recently published study linking climate change-related drought to Syria’s uprising suffers from this methodological flaw; 3) As a consequence, the environmental security field risks not being taken seriously by policymakers; 4) Getting solid on-the-ground data to understand the climate/conflict relationship is very difficult because of the unstable and dangerous nature of the countries in upheaval; and lastly, 5) It remains to be seen how this research can be applied.

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  • OWilson

    Well, it is clear that “Climate Change” is responsible for hostility around the world.

    The invectives hurled at sceptics (deniers) alone are, in many cases, sufficient to inflame and incite even the most cordial among us.

    Not to mention the threatening letters that politicians are writing to our employers.

    • Mike Richardson

      Threatening letters such as? Please, I’d like some examples, especially to see what you consider threatening. Promising fines for violating the Clean Air and Water Act doesn’t count, alright?

      • OWilson

        Mike, you’re either a shill, or drastically uniformed.

        Anyways, here ya go!

        “”A Shameful Climate Witch Hunt – POLITICO
        By Rich Lowry – February 25, 2015

        Let the climate inquisition begin. The ranking Democrat on the House Natural Resources Committee, Raúl Grijalva of Arizona, has written to seven universities about seven researchers who harbor impure thoughts about climate change.

        One of the targets is Steven Hayward, a blogger, author and academic now at Pepperdine University (as well as an occasional contributor to National Review). As Hayward puts it, the spirit of the inquiry is, “Are you now or have you ever been a climate skeptic?”

        Grijalva’s letters were prompted by the revelation that Wei-Hock Soon, a scientist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics whose work has been critical of the climate-change “consensus,” didn’t adequately disclose support for his research from energy interests.

        Soon’s lapse aside, the assumption of Grijalva’s fishing expedition is that anyone who questions global-warming orthodoxy is a greedy tool of Big Oil and must be harried in the name of planetary justice and survival.

        Science as an enterprise usually doesn’t need political enforcers. (For whatever reason, Aristotle left that part out in his foundational work a couple of millennia ago.) But proponents of a climate alarmism demanding immediate action to avert worldwide catastrophe won’t and can’t simply let the science speak for itself.

        In fact, for people who claim to champion science, they have the least scientific temperament imaginable. Their attitude owes more to Trofim Lysenko, the high priest of the Soviet Union’s politicized science, than, say, to Gregor Mendel, the founder of modern genetics whose work was shunned by Lysenko for ideological reasons.

        Consider the plight of Roger Pielke Jr. of the University of Colorado, Boulder, who has done work on extreme weather. He, too, is on the receiving end of one of Grijalva’s letters.

        At first blush, Pielke seems a most unlikely target. It’s not that he doubts climate change. It’s not that he doubts that it could be harmful. It’s not that he doubts it is caused by carbon emissions. It’s not even that he opposes implementing aggressive policies — namely a carbon tax — to try to combat it.

        Pielke’s offense is merely pointing to data showing that extreme weather events haven’t yet been affected by climate change, and this is enough to enrage advocates who need immediate disasters as a handy political cudgel.””

        • Mike Richardson

          Wow. You post an editorial as the source, and it talks about questioning the ethics of Soon, who was pretty well covered in the Imageo blog last week. And I’m still trying to see where an actual threat came in, unless asking for transparency in funding sources for ethically questionable work is what you consider a threat. Of course, if someone pointing out wrongdoing constitutes a “threat” in the minds of the far right, it does go a long way towards explaining their apparent paranoia in seeing threats everywhere. Better luck next time.

          • OWilson

            Your joking right?

            From the Wall Street Journal, March 4, 2015, a quote:

            “”Mr. Grijalva’s letters convey an unstated but perfectly clear threat: Research disputing alarm over the climate should cease lest universities that employ such individuals incur massive inconvenience and expense—and scientists holding such views should not offer testimony to Congress.””

            As for paranoia, when we have Lois Lerner and her pals crashing their hard drives, and Hillary setting up her own email server, and your President nominated for liar of the year, “Not a smidgeon of corruption”. one can only laugh (or more appropriately cry) at your one sided concern with “transparency”. :)

          • Mike Richardson

            The Wall Street Journal, that bastion of unbiased, middle-of-the road reporting? And I’m sorry, but implying that there’s a threat that’s unstated is kinda paranoid. I get by pretty good on that principle. If you’re going to threaten me, it better be stated. And you’d better be in another country. So far, I’ve never run across anyone stupid enough to cross that threshold. And I think a lot of folks would do well to follow that concept, rather than seeing threats or implying threats that haven’t been made. Otherwise, you are running the risk of looking a little paranoid.

          • OWilson

            You mean, as opposed to some Chicken Little warmist like you on some basically anonymous internet blog?

            Anyways I’m done with your prevarication and dissembling., But, before I go, here’s the Washington Post and the American Meteorological Society on the subject:

            “”

            As The Post’s Joby Warrick reported earlier this week, Rep. Raul Grijalva (D- Ariz.), the ranking member of the House Committee on Natural Resources, asked seven universities for detailed records on the funding sources for seven scientists, many of whom are unconvinced that humans are the driving force behind recent climate change.

            In a letter to Grijalva released this afternoon, the American Meteorological Society (AMS) — a scientific and professional society representing atmospheric and oceanic scientists — expressed strong opposition to the inquiry.

            “Publicly singling out specific researchers based on perspectives they have expressed and implying a failure to appropriately disclose funding sources — and thereby questioning their scientific integrity — ,” the AMS wrote.

          • Mike Richardson

            Alright, I’ll concede the Representative seems to have gone over the line, particularly if he’s only interested in the funding of those opposed to his viewpoint. And, as I’ve said to you in another post, funding for research and the research itself should not have be disclosed until the research has been completed. I don’t know if I’d feel all that threatened, but it does seem like harassment of the scientists. However, if their research is going to be cited in government policy debates in the future, at that point the funding and methodology should be open to the public, just the same with any of those whose research supports the overwhelming consensus view. Fair is fair.

          • OWilson

            At least consistency would be in order.

            One day your intrepid investigator might wonder who in the AGW industry gets George Soros’s billions.

            Or even if the Head of the IRS, and the Secretary of State should be allowed to destroy their emails, or keep them on a server in their basement.

            The priorities of Democrats are always a big laugh :)

          • Mike Richardson

            And I’m always pretty perplexed at the priorities of Republicans, such as polluters over the environment, the rich over the poor, the leisure class over the working class, appealing to prejudice instead of supporting equal rights, etc. But I digress.
            So in the spirit of bipartisan fairness, I’m guessing you must have really been raising a ruckuss over Ken Cuccinelli’s antics a few years back, when he was going after Michael Mann and others, right? Pretty much the same thing, though on the other side of the political spectrum.
            And as a stalwart defender of free speech, you were probably incensed at the news from the Florida Center for Investigative Reporting that Rick “The Fan Man” Scott was apparently telling the state’s environmental officials not to use the terms “global warming,” “climate change,” “sea level rise,” or even “sustainability” when speaking to the public. Of course, if I had tried to sell out to the oil industry in a state where sea level rise would immediately drown Miami, which practically sits at sea level, I’d be uncomfortable about bringing those topics up, too. But in the spirit of consistency, you’ve got to agree that’s just wrong, right?

          • OWilson

            No.

            The last time I checked, Miami was still there, and oceanfront property values were rising, as usual.

            As were the oceanfront property values in Cape Cod, Chappaquiddick, Martha’s Vineyard, Hawaii, Miami and Malibu, where your liberal “working class” hide their walled and gated palatial mansions away from their illiterate, poverty stricken, ghetto bound, voter base.
            I’ll forego my usual smiley, because the obscenity is no laughing matter.

          • Mike Richardson

            Well, there is some hypocrisy, but your irony detector must have missed it in your post. So I agree with you that a Democrat harassing anti-global warming researchers is wrong, but Cuccinelli doing the exact same thing to researchers whose work supports the science of global warming in Virginia is cool? And despite the indignant posts when you think someone’s limiting your expression, you’ve got no problem with Rick Scott doing just that to anyone in state government that might want to point out something of concern to people living at sea level? Well, the attempt at a consistent set of standards was pretty doomed from the start. When you’re wearing partisan blinders, it’s only wrong when the other tribe does it, right? Well, you did put forth your opinion, and it’s the effort that counts, so you DO get a smiley. :) Have a nice day!

  • Eli Rabett

    Syria warmed strongly between 1995 and 2010 If you think that was caused by the tooth fairy that is your problem.

    As a. comment elsewhere put it

    “Syrians are, of course, no longer that much concerned with catastrophic climate change. But at the beginning of the Syrian mess was a combination of overpopulation, global warming type super drought (with almost a million ruined and hungry farmers fleeing to the cities), and bad resource management by an incompetent/corrupted government.”

    So we have strong climate change driven warming which leads to increased evaporation coupled with an incompetent government and overpopulation. You can’t just pick one. Oh, sorry about that, of course you will.

    • Buddy199

      Droughts could play a part in conflict. But, according to the IPCC, there is no evidence of an increased world wide trend of extreme climate events in recent decades, including drought.

      • Eli Rabett

        Let us start from the top. The paper being discussed was about Syria. The Kelly, et al paper in PNAS (somehow the great name dropper forgot to drop those names) establishes that climate change was a major cause of the drought in Syria. Even Carr and Abraham accept that. The abstract includes the following:

        ” It was the worst drought in the instrumental record, causing widespread crop failure and a mass migration of farming families to urban centers. Century-long observed trends in precipitation, temperature, and sea-level pressure, supported by climate model results, strongly suggest that anthropogenic forcing has increased the probability of severe and persistent droughts in this region, and made the occurrence of a 3-year drought as severe as that of 2007−2010 2 to 3 times more likely than by natural variability alone”

        However, they appear to be living under a rock, because therehas been a complete discussion of the connection between the drought and the unrest which lead to the revolt in many place, including the <a href="http://www.nytimes.com/2014/01/22/opinion/friedman-wikileaks-drought-and-syria.html?_r=0"New York Times, You can google -Syria war drought and find enough papers that make the connection. Papers and discussions that should have been known to Carr and Abraham. Moreover, there was a simple answer to what could have been done: Send money, send enough money that enough got through to help the farmers.

        This is not rocket science. That takes two semesters.

        • JH

          Mr Rabbit: the fact that a paper *concludes* that climate change was a major cause of drought in Syria does not mean that the same paper *establishes* the conclusion as a fact beyond the question of the scientific community. :) I mean really.

        • Eli Rabett

          Establishes is a good word here. While one can parse “settled science” established science” is a much better description of what science does.

          Also note the probabilistic framework of the abstract, which again is science talk.

          Eli means really, here we have what everyone agrees is good (scientists are shy and don’t use excellent much) science that establishes a strongly likely connection between climate change and Syrian drought and the parsing starts.

          Now some, not Eli to be sure, might encourage you to do some further work to test the conclusion of the paper.

        • Tom Fuller

          ‘Establishes?’ Try ‘postulates’.

          • Eli Rabett

            Postulates is the statement of a thesis, as in “we investigate whether there is any probable connection between the Syrian drought and climate change”

            establishes is doing what this paper does through a review of the evidence as in “Century-long observed trends in precipitation, temperature, and sea-level pressure, supported by climate model results, strongly suggest that anthropogenic forcing has increased the probability of severe and persistent droughts in this region, and made the occurrence of a 3-year drought as severe as that of 2007−2010 2 to 3 times more likely than by natural variability alone”

            Glad to be of help

          • Tom Scharf

            I’ll call your bluff. How much do *** you *** think the probability of conflict in Syria was increased due to climate change? Not just climate, but the AGW delta of climate change in Syria?

            An order of magnitude would be acceptable. 0.05%, 0.5% 5% 50% ?

            Somehow all we get is trivially true statements that allow for plausible deniability later. It is trivially true that there is a chain of causality that biofuels contributed to the conflict in Syria, yes? How much of a contribution? …blah blah hand wave blah blah…(carefully constructed BS) “we are uncertain if it is a substantial or dominant factor (or no factor at all but we will conveniently leave this part out because we are oh so clever).

            Are we saying a butterfly can flap its wings in Asia and cause a hurricane in Miami, or are *** you *** saying that AGW is possibly a substantial or majority cause here?

            Quote yourself this time.

          • Tom Fuller

            Do you inflate grades the way you inflate statements? The paper says ‘strongly suggests’ and you equate that with ‘established.’

            Don’t drink the water in the South Bay, folks.

    • Tom Scharf

      Or more likely incompetent analysis.

      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”

      But you will ignore that, of course you will.

      There is a difference between droughts (climate) and the amounts droughts allegedly have changed (climate change). Asserting that the very smallish (if it even exists) AGW delta in droughts was the significant factor in this conflict, the tipping point, the straw that broke the camel’s back, is quite the stretch.

      But you will shamelessly conflate the two. Of course you will.

      If this theory was in fact true, we could then go to other areas with similar warming and find out how many civil wars have exploded at these locations. Let’s examine the temperature anomalies here and see if Syria stands out and where we expect more conflict to break out:

      https://climatedataguide.ucar.edu/sites/default/files/styles/node_lightbox_display/public/key_figures/climate_data_set/BEST_trend.png?itok=YwSl-_sj

      China, Russia, and those crazy erratic Canadians should be in brutal conflict…unless they aren’t.

      97% of geologists agree that Syria is mostly a desert which is prone to droughts.

      We could inquire the participants of this civil war for what they believe triggered the conflict, and analyze their statements to date for climate change linkage, but how could they possibly know better than academics locked in an ivory tower?

      Good thing we have such detailed long term records of Syrian droughts and temperature trends to make this analysis robust, otherwise we would have to use climate models to estimate these parameters which would introduce a whole new level of uncertainty….oh wait.

      Can you think of any reason grain prices went up in that time period? Any.at.all? Hint: Biofuels. Perhaps a study on how climate change policies caused the conflict in Syria should be performed.

      Given that we now know this inarguable linkage to conflict exists, it should be rather rudimentary to now predict where new conflicts will break out. Right? You can stop your arm waving now.

      If droughts are now “twice as likely” to occur in the region, we should see twice the number of droughts. Want to bet on this 100% increase that is allegedly already present today? Or is it possible someone is playing games with long tail statistics a la Hansen?

      • Eli Rabett

        a. We are not talking about global scale here, although global scale changes are emerging since the window closed on research considered for the AR5. However, even Kloor’s goto Carr agrees that the Kelly paper nailed the connection between climate change and drought in Syria

        b. You commit Kloorism by confusing the difference between contributed to and caused. The drought caused social unrest which contributed to the civil war starting. There were other contributions including a repressive and incompetent regime, and overpopulation. Absent any one of these including the drought the war may not have happened.

        • Tom Scharf

          I agree on the Kloorism comment, but it is really not from KK, it is from the media (mis) interpretation of the study. I only wish the advocate community was as quick to correct these “slight” misunderstandings as they are when questionable statements are made in the opposite direction. So go the climate wars … hmmm … maybe there is authentic linkage here … ha ha.

          There is no doubt environmental factors can stress society. The Dust Bowl, etc. I think the environmental determinism being assumed here is not supported by the history of conflicts or the facts in this specific case. I will now kick the dead dog of correlation is not causation.

        • Tom Fuller

          Trends in both armed conflict and conflict deaths have fallen dramatically since 1990. I believe the current mantra is that 14 of the warmest 15 years have occurred since 2000.

          But Summed War Magnitudes have fallen from 160 in 1990 to 80.

          And deaths from all conflicts have fallen from about 300,000 a year in 1987 to about 10,000 a year.

          https://thelukewarmersway.wordpress.com/2015/02/13/conflict-deaths-and-global-warming/

          • JH

            Please Mr. Fuller. These pesky facts aren’t relevant! The question is this: is there *any* evidence that there might be a remote possibility that HICC could possibly have been a contributor to the Syrian war (never mind Obama’s threat to bomb the shirt of Assad)?

            That’s all we need here. We’re not interested in “comparisons” or – god forbid – *context*! /sarc

          • Tom Fuller

            Is there a possibility? Yes. Is there firm evidence? I don’t think so. Is it a reasonable conjecture? As an interesting theory, yes. As an explanation? No.

            As John Cleese put it, “Greece is collapsing, the Iranians are getting aggressive, and Rome is in disarray. Welcome back to 430 BC.”

  • Tom Scharf

    Interview at Yale360 with the author:
    http://e360.yale.edu/feature/how_climate_change_helped_lead_to_the_uprising_in_syria/2852/

    He goes out on a limb and predicts Yemen may be the next environmentally influenced conflict….groan.

  • David Skurnick

    Longer growing seasons and more CO2 in the air have contributed to a dramatic expansion in worldwide food supply. I wonder how many conflicts were averted thanks to these impacts of change.

    • GuestWhom

      Source please? Lots of farm areas in the USA have faced significant droughts and have made it difficult to keep crops alive so I question your statement. If in fact there has been a “dramatic expansion in worldwide food supply” I’m guessing it is because more areas are being farmed in other countries or due to better technology (irrigation, genetically engineered crops, etc), not because of global warming.

      • David Skurnick

        Here’s a chart showing that various grains more or less doubled between 1960 and 2010. http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/wonkblog/wp/2013/07/01/this-unsettling-chart-shows-were-not-growing-enough-food-to-feed-the-world/ There are many reasons for this wonderful expansion of food supplies. Higher levels of CO2 and longer growing seasons are good for plant growth, so these are two of the reason we have more food. (BTW this article is written in the usual melodramatic catastrophic style, but they don’t mention any food catastrophe today. That’s because we have enough food to feed the planet today. They have to project 40 years into the future in order to find something to worry about.)

  • mememine

    What else do you call 34 years of science’s 99% certainty without enough climate action to save the planet?
    History can only call it; 34 MORE years of of 99% certainty our kids are doomed to the greenhouse gas ovens of an exaggerated climate crisis.

    And get up to date;
    *Occupywallstreet now does not even mention CO2 in its list of demands because of the bank-funded and corporate run carbon trading stock markets ruled by politicians.

    • Mike Richardson

      I’ve seen this exact hyperbolic post in many other climate change discussion forums. Sure you’re not a bot, hmm?

  • Mike Richardson

    Well, I thought the five takeaways were perfectly reasonable. When making an argument on a controversial topic, you’d better be on solid ground. Of course, conducting in-depth research in a zone of conflict presents its own problems. Namely, that researchers would probably value their lives more than the prospect of conducting their studies in places where life expectancy is plummeting. It might be a better subject researched from a historical perspective, giving time for regional conflicts to conclude (optimistically assuming they do, of course). This doesn’t lend itself very well to prognostication or current analysis, unfortunately.

  • JH

    What’s the alternative hypothesis that’s being tested here? None? :)

    • Tom Scharf

      If one was to examine environmental journalism, there appear to be two theories for climate linkage to negative events that affect society:

      1. There is definite linkage.
      2. We don’t know yet.

      There is one theory for climate linkage to positive events that affect society:

      1. There is definitely no linkage.

      Actually I cannot recall a single article from the MSM on climate linkage to positive events. It’s gloom and doom all the way down.

      • JH

        Jeez, Tom, we know the rising crop yields don’t come from more CO2! Plants *can* grow faster with higher pCO2atm, but not if it’s morally corrupt CO2 produced by Greedy Big Oil companies motivated by PROFIT!!!. That’s BAD CO2 and that kind of CO2 only causes problems.

        Now, OTOH, if it was Morally Benevolent Environmentally Friendly Endangered-species-proliferating Greenpeace CO2, that would be different. Plants would like *that* kind of CO2 much better and grow much faster, diversify, provide habitat and protect endangered species and wipe out human beings. That’s what we want.

      • Thomas Fuller

        There’s a bit of a bait and switch going on here.

        People are working hard to make the case that the current drought in Syria contributed significantly to the conflict they are in the middle of.

        Okay… although I think it’s about number 10 on a list of 10. I’ll buy it, even though the severe drought of the late 90s did not cause conflict or people fleeing Syria’s borders, even though droughts have occurred / are now occurring in neighboring states without causing conflict or mass migration. Okay.

        But to go from that to saying climate change is contributing is pulling a fast one. Syria is prone to drought. Heck, the FAO describes the region as a desert. They had a 300-year drought back in 2200 B.C. and many more since.

        The IPCC SREX listed the regions that they considered impacted by drought due to the warming experienced to date. Guess what? The Middle East is not among them.

        Droughts are tough. Climate change may in the future make them tougher.

        But barrel bombs and Turkey stealing their water are a heckuva lot tougher.

    • OWilson

      Can you imagine the outrage if a police investigation was so obsessed with one suspect that they never bothered to follow any other clues?

      A lawyer in a court of law would have a field day with the idiots. Especially if he proved there was no crime in the first place.

      Perhaps that is why there is no call for Congressional Hearings on what, they tell us is, “the worst crisis threatening mankind”.

      • Mike Richardson

        Lol, that’s great. I get it now. Just when I’m starting to miss Steven Colbert, I see this. You’re doing a tribute, right? Cause we both know the fact that the anti-science party now controls both houses has nothing to do with the lack of Congressional hearings on climate change. James Inhofe and Ted Cruz would be leading those hearings in a heartbeat if there was anything there, right? I mean, after they get off their knees in front of the petroleum and coal CEOs. Whew, that was a good one, bro. Good one. But if you’re imitating Colbert, you’d better be willing to make a long term commitment. I mean, he didn’t break character for years. But, he was in front of a camera and couldn’t crack a smile, whereas I’m pretty sure you weren’t able to keep a straight face while posting that last response, right? Good stuff.

        • OWilson

          You’re right, I do have a hard time keeping a straight face, when I see the duped Chicken Littles insist on praising their emperors new clothes.

          And, here’s the clue. Between you and me ok?

          There’s usually a big smiley at the end of my posts. :)

  • GuestWhom

    Global warming to some extent is natural and has been happening for 10,000+ years but humans are definitely accelerating it through the use of fossil fuels, deforestation, by depleting the ozone layer, etc…this is common sense and basic science. We are still depending on organisms that lived hundreds of millions of years ago for a primary energy source, still wiping out thriving forests, and still depleting the ozone layer and doing substantially more damage in every way each year on a global scale than the previous year. Logic says at some point the system will break if it continues and somewhere along the way will be a point of no return. There’s a chance this planet could end up looking a lot like Mars (which we now know once had oceans) with no water or life if we keep on this track. We need to stop these devastating practices before it’s too late…not for us but for the future generations.

    • OWilson

      Mars, or James Hansen’s “Venus Syndrome”?

      Do let us know when you decide. It’s hard to know what to wear anymore when I go outside.

      Or whether to invest in a boat, a balloon, or a camel.

  • OWilson

    You may have a point here:

    Some historical quotes:

    “This heat is driving me crazy” – Genghis Khan
    “It was the heatwave that caused the famine in the Ukraine” – Stalin
    “I got nothing against the U.K., Poland or the U.S., but they’ve cut off the trade for the emission controls on our VWs” – Hitler

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Collide-a-Scape

Collide-a-Scape is an archived Discover blog. Keep up with Keith's current work at http://www.keithkloor.com/

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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