“The complexity of war is diminished to one dimension, exonerating moral responsibility from the agents of conflict and the international community from solving the conflict and dealing with its consequences.”
Marloes van Loon
MA Thesis International Relations
International Studies, Leiden University
Sheikh Ghazi Rashad Hrimis touches dried earth in the parched region of Raqqa province in eastern Syria, November 2010 (Stokes 2016).
In the last few years, a connection between the Syrian Civil War, the refugee crisis and climate change appeared in media articles and was discussed in policy circles. The Dutch Broadcasting Foundation (NOS) published a short video explaining this connection, which mentioned climate change as a so-called ‘threat multiplier’ of existing instability. In all my years of study, never before did I come across the relationship between climate change and conflict. My interest was aroused and the idea for this thesis was born. Initially, my intension was to defend and strengthen the argument for a link between climate change and conflict. After all, it seemed to make sense that when people lose their livelihoods and migrate to other places, only to find themselves with other people in the same situation, tension rises and conflict might erupt. My own frame of reference played a part in this. I am deeply concerned about a changing climate, our human role in this and the possible future consequences. The fact that prominent people like former-president Barack Obama, former vice-president Al Gore and UN Messenger of Peace – with a focus on climate change – Leonardo DiCaprio spoke out about this, contributed to my view. The picture of climate change as the biggest threat to our planet led me to believe that the Syrian conflict must have been the (direct) result of climate change. A much-debated article by Kelley et al. (2015) strengthened my beliefs. In short, Kelley et al. argue that a drought preceding the Syrian uprisings had contributed to the escalation of the conflict. They also argued that the drought was the result of human interference with the global climate. In other words, it seemed clear that human induced climate change is not only causing rising temperatures, but apparently it is capable of causing conflicts as well.
A few months into my research, however, I realized that reality is not that simple. Moreover, such a simplistic statement could even make things worse. It came to my attention that shortly after the Kelley et al. research was published, climate change was blamed for Syrian Civil War and the refugee flows in the media, followed by politicians making similar claims. Newspaper articles implied that climate change did not only pose a threat to Syria itself, but also to other countries – even the one in which environmental changes did not occur. As a consequence of climate change, ‘climate refugees’ appeared to become a global threat to national and international security. My view, and idea for this thesis, had changed. I asked myself, why would a war and its consequences be explained with climate change? Why now and not before? What is the process behind this? Who benefits from this? And why is there such a focus on the risks and threats of climate change?
This led to my research question:
Why did climate change become such an influential explanation for the Syrian Civil War?
My sub-questions are the following:
1. In what way did climate change play a role in the eruption of the Syrian Civil War?
2. In what way did climate change play a role in the migration of Syrians?
3. What way of conceptualizing the connection between climate change and migration has obtained the most influence?
4. In what way are the Syrian Civil War and the refugees portrayed in the media? 5. In what way does the alarming narrative facilitate politicians?
Climate change, conflict and migration are interlinked. The drought in Syria has demonstrated how climate change could disrupt people’s livelihoods. Climate change can, therefore, indirectly cause migration. But the word ‘cause’ should be used carefully. Syria has demonstrated that political and economic factors play a significant part in the eruption of conflict and they determine to what extent any environmental change will affect humans. It is true that the drought affected human security by diminishing crops and livestock. This led to a migration from rural to urban areas. Even though it seems self-evident that this might result in tensions among the people, this is not supported by evidence. Rather, people started to work together, joined forces and united in their shared grievances. They turned their discontent towards the state, which was more likely to result in a peaceful uprising thanks to the overall context of the 2011 Arab Spring. To answer the first sub question of chapter one, climate change played a role, but was not the most important factor leading up to the conflict. Indeed, climate change would never result in conflict on its own. The political and economic context of a country is more important.
There is no doubt that climate change could impact migration. Sudden natural disasters are the most obvious examples of this. Even slow-onset disasters potentially affect migration. In Syria, this resulted in the rural-urban migration. Contrary to popular believe, most of such migration is temporarily and takes place over a short distance. We could ask ourselves: would I move to a country 5000 miles away if my town is flooded? Or would I go to the nearest safe place, look for relatives in the nearby areas? And would I want to come back? Evidence has shown that most environmental migration is internal migration. Moreover, not everyone is able to move, which leaves a lot of people trapped in place rather than becoming a ‘climate refugee’. The external migration of many Syrians is therefore not the result of the drought or climate change in general. This migration is the result of conflict, which was indirectly ‘caused’ by environmental change. To call the refugees fleeing Syria and coming to Europe ‘climate refugees’ is, however, incorrect. They are fleeing because of the continued violence, their destroyed homes and fear for their lives. Climate change thus has played a small role in the migration of Syrians, but not in the way that is commonly thought. Even if one could detect a climate refugee – someone solely fleeing because of environmental change – this person will not be found in Europe but still as close to his or her home as possible.
It is not strange that most people have made this connection between climate change, conflict and migration. It is based on simplistic Malthusian thinking, disregarding the importance of human agency and politics when it comes to our relationship with the environment. As this thesis has demonstrated, the simplistic notion of ‘population growth, tensions, scarcity and conflict’ is not based on solid evidence. However, in the media, among scholars and in policy circles, this connection has gotten most attention. It speaks to people’s most feared scenarios: the apocalypse and the end of the world as we know it. The Syrian Civil War and the Syrian refugees have been portrayed in a similar manner in the media. Fears of ‘Europe being drowned by climate refugees’, ‘climate change causing conflicts’ and ‘a warming world will result in the Syrian refugee crisis times’, have been expressed in multiple media outlets. Climate change and refugees have become the centre of a threat that must be dealt with at a governmental level.
The most important question remains. Why is the Syrian Civil War explained like it was? In whose interest is it to frame the war and the refugees in this manner? As this thesis has shown, the alarming narrative regarding Syria really took root after the Kelley et al. (2015) research. While the securitization of climate change had started to take place several years before its publication, this research seemingly was the last piece of ‘evidence’ politicians and the media needed. It offered an appealing discourse for many. Climate advocates warned against the dangers of a heating world, therefore trying to raise awareness for the need to combat climate change. Some politicians probably had the same intentions. However, others used the discourse in order to further securitize immigration. While simultaneously acknowledging the indirect link between climate change and conflict – climate change is ‘merely’ a threat multiplier – it enabled a strong state response against the coming anarchy and chaos from the South to the North. Even though this should imply the risks of climate change, the focus is derived from strategies of mitigation and adaptation to depoliticizing the causes of conflict and migration, leaving politicians without responsibility to deal with the root causes. The complexity of war is diminished to one dimension, exonerating moral responsibility from the agents of conflict and the international community from solving the conflict and dealing with its consequences.
My own outlook – as demonstrated in this thesis – is a sceptic one in accordance with political ecology thinking. There is a connection between environmental change and politics that should not be overlooked. The security discourse leads to short-term solutions and solely focuses on measures to ensure national security. In other words, state-interests are deemed more important than combating climate change and its actual consequences. Climate change has become a tool in promoting one’s own interests. This is understandable. Focusing on mitigation and adaptation likewise promotes our own interests: protecting the planet we live on and to making sure future generations can enjoy it too. However, to a greater extent, climate change has been used as a shield to promote other interests as well. Interests that have little to do with the environment. The securitization of climate change has politicized the environment, which might actually do more harm than good.