Scientists have accused the Prince of Wales of exaggerating the link between climate change and the civil war in Syria.
A new study found no evidence for the widely publicised theory that climate change was a factor in causing the war, in which more than 300,000 people have died and 11 million have been forced to leave their homes.
The researchers said making “overblown claims” based on poor evidence fuelled scepticism about the need for action on climate change, undermining the cause the prince was advancing.
The prince made the claim in November 2015 before the Paris climate change summit at which 194 countries agreed a global deal to cut emissions. Speaking of the threat from climate change, he said: “There’s very good evidence that one of the major reasons for this terror in Syria was a drought that lasted for five or six years, which meant that huge numbers of people in the end had to leave the land.”
A study by King’s College London and the University of Sussex has debunked the prince’s claim, which was also made by Barack Obama when he was US president.
The researchers found that although northeastern Syria did experience a severe drought from 2007 to 2010, before the civil war started, the drought was not necessarily caused by human influences on global climate.
The scale of migration away from northeastern Syria was “on nothing like the scale which has been claimed”, the study says. Only 40,000 to 60,000 families moved, not the 1.5 million people often quoted by proponents of the climate change link.
The study said that migration was “probably more caused by economic liberalisation than by drought.”
The study, published in the journal Political Geography, concludes: “Given the urgency of the climate change challenge and the contestation around it, plus the media’s preference for striking, overblown stories . . . it is incumbent on analysts not to exaggerate climate-conflict linkages, or to champion false but headline-friendly statistics.”
Jan Selby, lead author and director of the Centre for Conflict and Security Research at the University of Sussex, said:”It is extraordinary this claim has become so widely accepted when the evidence for it is so thin.
Climate change is a very real challenge, and will undoubtedly have significant conflict and security consequences, but there is no good evidence this is what was going on in this case. It is vital experts and policymakers resist the temptation to make exaggerated claims about climate change. Overblown claims only risk fuelling climate scepticism.”
Jan Selby et al. (2017) Climate change and the Syrian civil war revisited
For proponents of the view that anthropogenic climate change will become a ‘threat multiplier’ for instability in the decades ahead, the Syrian civil war has become a recurring reference point, providing apparently compelling evidence that such conflict effects are already with us. According to this view, human-induced climatic change was a contributory factor in the extreme drought experienced within Syria prior to its
civil war; this drought in turn led to large-scale migration; and this migration in turn exacerbated the socio-economic stresses that underpinned Syria’s descent into war. This article provides a systematic interrogation of these claims, and finds little merit to them. Amongst other things it shows that there is no clear and reliable evidence that anthropogenic climate change was a factor in Syria’s pre-civil war drought; that this drought did not cause anywhere near the scale of migration that is often alleged; and that there exists no solid evidence that drought migration pressures in Syria contributed to civil war onset. The Syria case, the article finds, does not support ‘threat multiplier’ views of the impacts of climate change; to the contrary, we conclude, policymakers, commentators and scholars alike should exercise far greater
caution when drawing such linkages or when securitising climate change.