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German Scientists Contradict Claim That Climate Change Triggered Syria’s Civil War

Alex Bojanowski, Der Spiegel

A number of scientists and politicians claim that climate change and drought contributed significantly to the outbreak of civil war in Syria. Now a group of German researchers has issued a statement,  contradicting these claims.

The thesis caused headlines around the world: The war in Syria has been caused mainly by anthropogenic climate change, news media and politicians proclaimed. They rely on climate scientists who have published similar studies.

German researchers have now published a joint statement in which they contradict the thesis.

“The frequently advocated causality between drought, migration and the outbreak of conflict in Syria is simplistic and untenable,” says the German Climate Consortium, a coalition of numerous research institutes.

There are worrying climate data from Syria. According patchy data, the region warmed by just one degree in the past century. The severe drought from 2006 to 2010 was found to be the worst ever recorded since the beginning of the 20th century.

Policy measures significantly

According to computer models a stronger greenhouse effect could push the subtropical dry zone further to the north, in such a way that Syria would receive less rainfall. Some researchers believe that this has actually happened – and that climate change therefore initiated the drought in Syria.

The result, it is claimed, was hunger, displacement and economic hardship. This in turn provoked riots and triggered the 2011 civil war which until now has killed more than 200,000 people.

The German Climate Consortium, however, states that the argument is far too simplistic: Many people had indeed fled during the drought, mostly within the country, confirmed Christiane Fröhlich of the University of Hamburg. “But neither was the drought the sole trigger of migration, nor were these alleged climate migrants the people who initiated the protests in Syria.”

Of central importance were policies introduced by Syria’s Assad government since 2000, for instance the removal of subsidies which increased the pressure on the poor.

Malicious emphasis on climate change 

“Syria is an example that effective adaptation to the consequences of climate change is only possible if the social, political and economic conditions are taken into consideration,” said Fröhlich.

Previously, other researchers had expressed similar doubts. Francesca De Chatel, Syria expert at the Radboud University in Nijmegen, explained that to cite climate change as the cause of Syria’s war distracts from the real problems that caused the Syrian drought and famine.

Excessive groundwater extraction, overuse of the soil by grazing animals and agricultural exploitation were the main causes of the famine, De Chatel said.

“The role of climate change is not only irrelevant, its emphasis is harmful,” she said. Climate argument would permit politicians to seek the culprit for the famine outside the country, although they themselves were in fact responsible for the mismanagement.

More droughts? 

Droughts are a normal feature of the region. According to the latest IPCC report, which summarises scientific knowledge about the global climate, there has been warming in Syria, but no clear trend to less rainfall. The amount of data available from the region is considered insufficient.

While droughts have become more frequent in Africa in the last 60 years according to the German Climate Consortium, the impact of climate change on drought risk is “not statistically significant,” says Paul Becker, climate expert at the German Weather Service. The rainfall has been fluctuating too much to identify any unnatural signals.

The Syria issue illustrates that researchers from various disciplines have to better integrate their findings, the German Climate Consortium concludes. The research into the interrelation between climate change, migration and security required greater cooperation so that all aspects of the issue can be better taken into account.

Der Spiegel, 15 February 2016