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Think drought was behind the Syrian conflict? Think again.

Andrew Montford

Scientivists and politicians are fond of trying to blame the Syrian crisis on climate change. President Obama and his sidekick John Kerry are among the most prominent figures to repeat the claim, but they are merely at the top of a long list that includes lesser names like Ban-ki Moon and Jean-Claude Juncker and continues right on down to humbler figures like Barry Gardiner MP.

The allegations of a climate-fuelled conflict were originally stoked by a series of papers in the academic literature, and these are now the subject of a response by Jan Selby et al. in the journal Political Geography. The authors are mostly conflict researchers, but there is also a well-known figure from the climate world in the shape of Mike Hulme.

Anyone who has examined the original studies will know already that they are little more than thinly-veiled political propaganda, their claims to a place in the scientific corpus being more about where they were published than anything done by the authors. Conflict researchers have been tiptoeing around this uncomfortable issue ever since and Selby’s new paper is just the latest delicately phrased attempt to set out the facts.

For example, in one of the original studies, by the (ahem) highly controversial scientivist Peter Gleick, there is a claim that we had just witnessed “the worst long-term drought … since agricultural civilizations began in the Fertile Crescent”. One of the other studies, by Colin Kelley called it “the most severe drought in the instrumental record”. Daraa, where the conflict began, was said by Gleick to have been “crippled” by the drought. Which is odd, since as Selby and his colleagues point out “none of the three key studies above provide any data on rainfall patterns in Syria specifically”.

Fortunately for the rest of us, the Selby team have unearthed the relevant data, and have great fun plotting it out for all to see. Amusingly, we learn that far from being “crippled” by drought, Daraa actually experienced average rainfall at the time it all kicked off and perhaps more importantly “there is no evidence of progressive multi-decadal drying either in the Fertile Crescent region as a whole, or in northeast Syria specifically.” As Selby observes, this is a bit of a problem to those trying to prove that multi-decadal drying caused the crisis in Syria. That there was a drought in Syria is not disputed, but at the end of the paper, the authors conclude that it’s not even possible to conclude that climate change had a role in the conflict, let alone that it was the cause.

The whole thing is rather devastating and it certainly deserves publicity at least as wide as the original wild claims received. But let’s not hold our breath.