Climate change has been widely accepted by the scientific community as a real and growing issue. The effects of climate change can be seen in the form of increasingly powerful droughts, storms, floods, wildfires, extreme temperatures, rising sea levels, and ocean acidification. These changes can have significant impacts on the environment, and by extension on the global economy. Many have voiced concerns that climate change’s impacts are becoming a threat to regional and national security. In a recent report, the Department of Defense (DOD) called climate change a security “threat multiplier.”

Indeed, analysts have speculated that the Syrian civil war was caused in part by climate change. In 2014, the Showtime television documentary series Years of Living Dangerously devoted several episodes to exploring climate change’s links to the Syrian conflict. On March 2, 2015, a study released in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) was the first to scientifically examine this link. The study, Climate Change in the Fertile Crescent and Implications of the Recent Syrian Drought, found that climate change was in fact an underlying factor sparking civil unrest and open conflict in Syria.

The Syrian Civil War began as a political uprising in the context of the Arab Spring. It has widely been acknowledged that the conflict began as a result of violent crackdowns on pro-democracy protests. Major causes for discontent included a poor economic environment, political corruption, and human rights violations. But the NAS study shows that climate change was a major contributing factor in setting the stage for civil unrest.

The report finds that in the years leading up to the conflict, the greater Fertile Crescent – which includes northeastern Syria and northern Iraq – had suffered a severe drought. Between 2007 and 2010, Syria saw decreased rainfall precipitation, caused by natural variability and a long-term trend of increasing mean sea-level pressure, which decreased rainfall. Rising temperatures in the eastern Mediterranean also contributed to a decrease in soil moisture. The study states that the rising temperatures and sea-level pressure closely follow climate change models under a scenario of increased emissions of greenhouse gases. Overall, the study found human-induced climate change increased the likelihood of this drought by two to three times. The climate models also suggest Syria and the greater Fertile Crescent can expect to see continued droughts and increased aridity in the future.

Prior to the drought, 30 percent of Syria’s population was employed in agricultural industries, which comprised 40 percent of Syria’s gross domestic product, according to the journal New Agriculturist. The drought caused 1.5 million Syrians to abandon their farmlands and move to urban city centers looking for work. Many of Syria’s cities were already stressed from supporting over one million war refugees from neighboring Iraq. The drought-caused mass unemployment and internal population shift, combined with poor government response and existing political and economic issues, created a tinderbox for civil unrest.

The results have been tragic. In the four years since the first protests, the conflict has resulted in the internal displacement of over 7.6 million people and the displacement of almost four million people into neighboring countries, according to the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reports over 210,000 people have died.

For years, many scientists, think tanks, and government officials have been linking climate change to national security threats. The largest organization to support this claim has been the DOD. In the 2014 Quadrennial Defense Review, the DOD included climate change for the first time. The report stated climate change “effects are threat multipliers that will aggravate stressors abroad such as poverty, environmental degradation, political instability, and social tensions – conditions that can enable terrorist activity and other forms of violence.” In Syria’s case, this is exactly what occurred.

While climate change is likely to have a larger direct impact on developing nations, which have less systems in place and economic buffers to help mitigate its deleterious effects, there are domestic security consequences as well, especially to U.S. military readiness. Norfolk Naval base – the largest naval base in the world, located on the Hampton Roads peninsula in Virginia – is increasingly prone to flooding, which has become more frequent due to climate change.


Author: Samuel Beirne