Narrow Media Coverage of Study linking Climate Change to Syria Conflict Misses Fractious Debate on a Field's Scholarship

This week a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) received widespread media coverage.  The paper’s takeaway was tweeted by all those reporting on it.

That’s just a small sampling, but you get the picture. Now before we go any further, it’s important to note that this asserted climate change component to the Syrian civil war made the rounds in 2013, argued most strongly by a Washington D.C .-based think tank. It got more play last year after Showtime’s Emmy Award-winning documentary on climate change did a segment on the Mideast, featuring a famous globe-trotting New York Times columnist.

One scholar/journalist with an expertise in Middle East water issues and who lived in Syria between 2006-2010 has countered:

focusing on external factors like drought and climate change in the context of the Syrian uprising is counterproductive as it diverts attention from more fundamental political and economic motives behind the protests and shifts responsibility away from the Syrian government.

Similar points were made in this 2013 paper by two other researchers:

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 larger subject of climate change-driven conflict is also hotly debated in scholarly circles. The sparring got so contentious a few years back that one academic called for peace.

These cleavages in the field are still there; so are major uncertainties about cause and effect relationships involving climate change and war. That is why the latest IPCC report, which included an assessment on climate change and human security, was cautious and carefully nuanced, as this analysis in the journal Political Geography explains.

Given this state of affairs, I was a bit surprised by the media response to the recently published PNAS study on drought and Syria’s uprising. Henry Fountain of the New York Times tweeted:

And his story was one of the few that bothered to include a dissenting researcher. Seth Borenstein’s dispatch for the Associated Press also carried an important cautionary note from a Middle East expert. Both of these pieces, as well as others, had necessary qualifiers about drought’s placement in the hierarchy of causes responsible for Syria’s civil war. But there’s no doubt that climate change was the hook for all the stories. Thus, it would have been nice to see background context on the unsettled–and to some extent–controversial climate/conflict literature. Reporters, had they taken more time to delve into the topic, would have found no shortage of respected researchers taking issue with the PNAS study.

In part two of this post (appearing tomorrow), I’ll explore some of the main problems scholars have with climate/conflict research, including the PNAS study that has captured the media’s attention this week.

UPDATE: I missed one story, by Lisa Friedman of ClimateWire, which is unfortunately behind a paywall. It has the larger context, including an important critical voice, that I think is lacking from much of the other coverage:

Andrew Solow, a senior scientist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution who has written on disputes within the community of researchers who study conflict and climate change, and has called for more robust research, also praised the authors. But he questioned the report’s assertion that, based on climate model simulations, the severity of drought was more likely with than without greenhouse forcing.

“This is the state of the science in this area. Of course, it doesn’t mean that this drought would not have occurred without climate change, only that the frequencies of such droughts is greater under climate change,” he said in an email.

At the same time, Solow argued, while it is “plausible” to claim that the violence in Syria can be attributed in part to the drought, another prime reason is simply the decades of geopolitical instability in the region. He cautioned that the research, while “valuable,” could draw too much attention to climate change at the expense of other factors like poverty, inequality and corruption.

“To put it another way, it is hard to argue that, in the absence of this drought, there would have been no civil war in Syria,” he wrote. “To be clear, I am not saying the authors are wrong, only that the case is not strong.”


18 Responses to “Narrow Media Coverage of Study linking Climate Change to Syria Conflict Misses Fractious Debate on a Field's Scholarship”

  1. bobito says:

    Just like Climate Change causes more hurricanes, when more hurricanes are happening. And Climate Change causes more Tornadoes, when more tornadoes are happening. And Climate Change causes more coastal flooding, when coastal flooding is happening…

    And people wonder why many are getting tone def on the Climate Change subject.

  2. Tom Scharf says:

    I’m sorry, am I reading The Onion?

    This is so ludicrous that people actually take this seriously. I try to be respectful of people who have either erroneous or fact challenged opinions, but this is madness. I suppose KK is possibly highlighting this as bridge too far in climate linkage.

    And the entirely uncritical take on it by many in the media deserves every bit of ridicule it gets.

    If you want people to take climate change seriously, this is not the path to that objective. I thought climate advocates jumped the shark when blaming large snowstorms and cold snaps on global warming, but this may be new low in uncritical thinking.

    I may be from the other side of the fence but I am embarrassed for the climate establishment here. Come on guys, get a grip.

  3. bobberwyn says:

    The paper itself made it clear that climate is only one factor, but aside from parsing the media coverage and whatever academic debate may exist on the topic, it’s just common sense that critical shortages of resources drive big social changes that can result in upheaval. Remember, we’re talking about an area that, even before the sustained drought, was on edge. It’s a hard thing for a first-worlder to get a grip on … Hard to imagine California succumbing to civil war because of the drought. Perhaps some of the stories lacked nuance, but the key information — the fact that extreme natural conditions affect human events and behavior — is valuable. More productive than poking at the edges of the coverage would be to acknowledge the basic facts and then contribute to a solutions-oriented discussion about what to do. A recent UN report outline a specific path of water infrastructure investments that could help avert conflict. In the absence of international cooperation on this, it’s not really that hard to envision full-scale regional conflicts over water.

  4. The 2000 people fleeing the war in Syria, who had to be rescued by Italy when their boats sank, were not fleeing the drought. What a ridiculous assertion.

    I agree with KK – there are problems with the climate change linkage.

  5. sean2829 says:

    The only factor from climate change I see in the Arab spring was the fact that it coincided with a rapid increase in the diversion of food grains into raw materials for biofuels to fight climate change. If I’m not mistaken, corn prices doubled with this change as did many other grains. When you artificially disturb markets that results in making people hungry, the cause is not climate change, its poorly thought out climate remediation schemes.

  6. realheadline says:

    Who would fund such a speculative scientific paper? Talk about begging the question, wow.

  7. Peter Gleick says:

    Actually, the peer-reviewed literature on this has been carefully nuanced, addressing the “influence” of climate change or drought or water — not arguing “causality,” which some of the critics you quote don’t seem to understand. Moreover, whether or not politics/religion/ideology are more important than climate/watermanagement/drought (or other environmental factors) in no way negates the importance of both understanding those roles and working to reduce their effect. Again, something your column seems to miss. There are thresholds and tipping points in any system, or any conflict. Reducing any of the factors can help reduce the risks of conflict.

  8. David Skurnick says:

    Note that the discussions mostly don’t differentiate between climate change, global climate change, and anthropogenic global climate change. In order for this theory to be correct, several questionable assertions would all have to be proved:
    1. There is a drought in Syria
    2. That drought was the primary cause of the violence there.
    3. That drought was a real change in climate, not just temporary change in weather pattern.
    4. The drought was part of a global change in climate, not just a change in local climate.
    5. The drought was caused by global warming.
    6. The global warming was caused by man’s activity.

  9. OWilson says:

    The debate on the AGW scam, exists at all, only because of the flawed logic, and the gross misunderstanding of probability theory, by low info voters.

    Everything in the universe is related in one way or another.
    “If” it is hot enough, I “could” go to the corner for a soda, and while there I “may” pick up a lottery ticket, which “might” contain a winning number.

    “If” it is cold enough a kid called Trayvon, “might” don a hoodie, and scare a trigger happy vigilante, who “may” kill him.

    All due to climate (long term weather).

    Nothing wrong with the science. See how clever they are? But the probabilities are remote.

    It’s the favorite “butterfly wing can create hurricane” theory, which proposes a flap of a butterfly wing in Africa can produce a hurricane in the U.S. through a series of scientifically routine events.

    Of course, you would have to dismiss an infinity of other noisy influences, a breeze, a falling leaf, a bird flying by.

    It is statistically impossibly remote.

  10. J M says:

    Everybody knows social media and the Internet played a huge role in Arab Spring protest organization. Reducing access to the Internet and controlling the content will reduce risks of conflict. Just ask the Chinese….

  11. Bearpants42 says:

    The media, even the mainstream media, is not interested in truth. They’ve abandoned their SPJ Ethics commitments and now act only to generate clicks for advertising revenue.

    In a way, it’s our own fault for not demanding they do their jobs in a professional manner.

  12. Mike Richardson says:

    You’re absolutely right in the first sentence, though in the opposite way you think. Among the scientifically literate and rational, there is no more debate as to whether or not humans are causing the planet to warm. We are. End of debate.
    You’re also right in stating that there can be over-reach in trying to attribute a specific event with many root causes (such as destabilizing an entire region by going to war with a country on bad or even fabricated evidence, ethnic/religious tensions centuries in the making, and the introduction of mass media into tightly regulated societies) to one specific cause. So there should certainly be better methodology in conducting such studies, and that’s a proper topic for debate with regards to the effects of climate change on regional conflict. Debate over whether there is actual human influence on climate, not so much.
    See, I’m perfectly willing to admit when you’re right. You’re welcome. 😉

  13. OWilson says:

    Turn about is fair play, so I have never denied that the planet is warming. It is a given fact.

    But, and here is where it becomes a political (not scientific) scam.

    Satellite records, not accepted by warmists of course, show that the earth has warmed 0.30 degrees in the 36 years of the actually observed data.

    That’s another 0.71 degrees by 2100, much LOWER than the IPCC target.

    And that’s ONLY if it continues to climb at exactly the same rate, with no pause or abatement, which is statistically highly unlikely, as we have seen.

    So scientifically you have statistically insignificant warming with humans responsible for “some” part of it.

    So, all you have is a neat political left wing “trick” ( an AGWer’s word, not mine, look it up)

  14. Mike Richardson says:

    The difference between me an Lil’ Kim (aside from my better hair and not being obese), is that I offer a helpful suggestion for directing your debate towards a topic which hasn’t been settled, and Kim offers (well, pretty much insists) on ending the debate with a bullet to the back of the head. Well, if he’s in a good mood. But if you want to debate whether or not humans are influencing climate, I’m pretty sure you type your messages from inside, so you’ve got at least four walls, possibly not padded, with whom you can conduct said debate. On the other hand, if you want to debate the degree to which human beings are influencing the rising temperatures or the degree to which climate change is impacting society, that’s a much more promising topic for debate with the folks on this blog. Just a suggestion.

  15. OWilson says:

    Scams are never “settled”.

    You can fool all the people some of the time, and some of the people all the time, but you cannot fool all the people all the time. – Honest Abe

    Oh, and I have a suggestion for you….. 🙂

  16. OWilson says:

    Ah, but it’s much easier and more effective to flood the media and classrooms with fake pictures of New York and Miami under 30 feet of water.

    You don’t need peer review for that. Lol

  17. Mike Richardson says:

    I’m always open to nice, friendly suggestions. The best place to buy sushi, better ways to groom my dog, etc. Got my new issue of National Geographic the other day, with the cover story, “The War on Science.” I know you’d love the first topic on their list. Those radicals…

  18. OWilson says:

    What is it this time?

    They did global cooling in the 70s, global warming in the 90s

    Maybe they should stick to showing pictures of naked African village females.

    Although I hear porn has gone internet these days.

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