How Climate Change Primed Syria for War

September 5, 2013

Every presentation I give nowadays, I have several slides relating to the extreme events in summer 2010 –  the “1000 year heat wave” in Russia and the simultaneous catastrophic flooding in Pakistan.  These events have since been shown to be connected by a “blocking event” – a wave in the jet stream that got stuck in place for an extended period in July 2010, diverting moisture from Russia, and sending it plunging toward Pakistan.

Jeff Masters explains:

In July over Europe and Asia, the jet stream has two branches: a strong southern “subtropical” jet that blows across southern Europe, and a weaker “polar” jet that blows across northern Europe. The polar jet stream carries along the extratropical cyclones (lows) that bring the mid-latitudes most of their precipitation. The polar jet stream also acts as the boundary between cold, Arctic air, and warm tropical air. If the polar jet stream shifts to the north of its usual location, areas just to its south will be much hotter and drier than normal. In July 2010, a remarkably strong polar jet stream developed over northern Europe. This jet curved far to the north of Moscow, then plunged southwards towards Pakistan. This allowed hot air to surge northwards over most of European Russia, and prevented rain-bearing low pressure systems from traveling over the region. These rain-bearing low pressure systems passed far to the north of European Russia, then dove unusually far to the south, into northern Pakistan. The heavy rains from these lows combined with Pakistan’s usual summer monsoon rains to trigger Pakistan’s most devastating floods in history.

Figure 1. Winds of the jet stream at an altitude of 300 millibars (roughly 30,000 feet high). Left: Average July winds from the period 1968 – 1996 show that a two-branch jet stream typically occurs over Europe and Asia–a northern “polar” jet stream, and a more southerly “subtropical” jet stream. Right: the jet stream pattern in July 2010 was highly unusual, with a very strong polar jet looping far to the north of Russia, then diving southwards towards Pakistan. Image credit: NOAA/ESRL.

The unusual jet stream pattern that led to the 2010 Russian heat wave and Pakistani floods began during the last week of June, and remained locked in place all of July and for the first half of August. Long-lived “blocking” episodes like this are usually caused by unusual sea surface temperature patterns, according to recent research done using climate models. For example, Feudale and Shukla (2010) found that during the summer of 2003, exceptionally high sea surface temperatures of 4°C (7°F) above average over the Mediterranean Sea, combined with unusually warm SSTs in the northern portion of the North Atlantic Ocean near the Arctic, combined to shift the jet stream to the north over Western Europe and create the heat wave of 2003. I expect that the current SST pattern over the ocean regions surrounding Europe played a key role in shifting the jet stream to create the heat wave of 2010…Human-caused climate change also may have played a role; using climate models, Stottet al. (2004) found it very likely (>90% chance) that human-caused climate change has at least doubled the risk of severe heat waves like the great 2003 European heat wave.

I point out to my audiences that decades ago, when disasters such as this hit third world countries, our general reaction in the west was to be grateful that we lived in so friendly and temperate an environment, general sympathy for the suffering poor people in that far off place, and perhaps a gift to the Red Cross or other agency in the hope that relief supplies might get to those in need. (the video below was produced in 2010 immediately in the aftermath of the Russia/Pakistan event)

Times have changed, however. Some of the countries that are vulnerable to events such as summer 2010 are now armed with weapons of mass destruction. And they harbor political factions who do not share western, secular, democratic values.

Following the drought disaster, Russia, one of the world’s leading grain exporters,  banned grain exports.  In august, 2010, the Washington Post reported:

In Egypt — one of the biggest importers of wheat and a nation that experienced deadly violence in bread lines two years ago — the government assured the public that it has a four-month supply of wheat and urged Russia to honor contracts it signed before the ban.

Grain harvests around the world have been devastated by unusual weather this year.

Heavy rain destroyed much of Canada’s wheat crop, and the country is forecasting a 35 percent drop in production. In China, the world’s most populous nation, the worst flooding in more than a decade is predicted to cut rice production by 5 to 7 percent. China produces about one-third of the world’s rice.

Rising prices for stable foods continued into the following year, and NPR reported in January 2011:

Political unrest has broken out in Tunisia, Yemen, Egypt and other Arab countries. Social media and governmental policies are getting most of the credit for spurring the turmoil, but there’s another factor at play.

Many of the people protesting are also angry about dramatic price hikes for basic foodstuffs, such as rice, cereals, cooking oil and sugar.

The advent of of the unrest now referred to as “Arab Spring” coincided with rising grain prices and food rioting across the region.  On December 17, 2010, a vegetable vendor in Tunisia set himself afire. That event was a spark that ignited unrest that has toppled regimes in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya.  Unrest continues in those countries.

The Economist, May 17, 2012:

IT IS sadly appropriate that Mohamad Bouazizi, the Tunisian whose self-immolation triggered the first protest of the Arab spring, should have been a street vendor, selling food. From the start, food has played a bigger role in the upheavals than most people realise. Now, the Arab spring is making food problems worse.

They start with a peculiarity of the region: the Middle East and north Africa depend more on imported food than anywhere else. Most Arab countries buy half of what they eat from abroad and between 2007 and 2010, cereal imports to the region rose 13%, to 66m tonnes. Because they import so much, Arab countries suck in food inflation when world prices rise. In 2007-08, they spiked, with some staple crops doubling in price. In Egypt local food prices rose 37% in 2008-10.
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The Arab spring was obviously about much more than food. But it played a role. “The food-price spike was the final nail in the coffin for regimes that were failing to deliver on their side of the social contract,” says Jane Harrigan of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies.

Which brings us to Syria.  On September 2, The Atlantic published portions of a memorandum by William Polk, a former State Department policy planner, on the situation in Syria. The memorandum is long and detailed, but there is a section of particular relevance to those concerned about climate change and its effects.

Syria has been convulsed by civil war since climate change came to Syria with a vengeance. Drought devastated the country from 2006 to 2011.  Rainfall in most of the country fell below eight inches (20 cm) a year, the absolute minimum needed to sustain un-irrigated farming. Desperate for water, farmers began to tap aquifers with tens of thousands of new well.  But, as they did, the water table quickly dropped to a level below which their pumps could lift it.

USDA Foreign Agricultural Service, Commodity Intelligence Report, May 9, 2008

In some areas, all agriculture ceased.  In others crop failures reached 75%.  And generally as much as 85% of livestock died of thirst or hunger.  Hundreds of thousands  of Syria’s farmers gave up, abandoned their farms and fled to the cities and towns in search of almost non-existent jobs and severely short food supplies.  Outside observers including UN experts estimated that between 2 and 3  million of Syria’s 10 million rural inhabitants were reduced to “extreme poverty.”

The domestic Syrian refugees immediately found that they had to compete not only with one another for scarce food, water and jobs, but also with the already existing foreign refugee population.  Syria already was a refuge for quarter of a million Palestinians and about a hundred thousand people who had fled the war and occupation of Iraq.  Formerly prosperous farmers were lucky to get jobs as hawkers or street sweepers.  And in the desperation of the times, hostilities erupted among groups that were competing just to survive.

Survival was the key issue.  The senior UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) representative in Syria turned to the USAID program for help. Terming the situation “a perfect storm,” in November 2008, he warned  that Syria faced “social destruction.” He noted that the Syrian Minister of Agriculture had “stated publicly that [the]  economic and social fallout from the drought was ‘beyond our capacity as a country to deal with.’”  But, his appeal fell on deaf ears:  the USAID director commented that “we question whether limited USG resources should be directed toward this appeal at this time.”  (reported on November 26, 2008 in cable 08DAMASCUS847_a to Washington and “leaked” to Wikileaks )

Whether or not this was a wise decision, we now know that the Syrian government made the situation much worse by its next action. Lured by the high price of wheat on the world market, it sold its reserves. In 2006, according to the US Department of Agriculture, it sold 1,500,000 metric tons or twice as much as in the previous year.  The next year it had little left to export; in 2008 and for the rest of the drought years it had to import enough wheat to keep its citizens alive.

So tens of thousands of frightened, angry, hungry and impoverished former farmers flooded constituted a “tinder” that was ready to catch fire.  The spark was struck on March 15, 2011  when a relatively small group gathered in the town of Daraa to protest against government failure to help them.  Instead of meeting with the protestors and at least hearing their complaints, the government cracked down on them as subversives.  The Assads, who had ruled the country since 1971,  were not known for political openness or popular sensitivity.   And their action backfired.  Riots broke out all over the country,  As they did, the Assads attempted to quell them with military force.  They failed to do so and, as outside help – money from the Gulf states and Muslim “freedom fighters” from  the rest of the world – poured into the country, the government lost control over 30% of the country’s rural areas and perhaps half of its population.  By the spring of 2013, according to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), upwards of 100,000 people had been killed in the fighting, perhaps 2 million have lost their homes and upwards of 2 million have fled abroad.  Additionally, vast amounts of infrastructure, virtually whole cities like Aleppo, have been destroyed.

Despite these tragic losses, the war is now thought to be stalemated: the government cannot be destroyed and the rebels cannot be defeated.  The reasons are not only military: they are partly economic– there is little to which the rebels could return;  partly political – the government has managed to retain the loyalty of a large part of the majority Muslim community which comprises the bulk of its army and civil service whereas the rebels, as I have mentioned, are fractured into many mutually hostile groups;  and partly administrative  — by and large the government’s  structure has held together and functions satisfactorily whereas the rebels have no single government.

One of my greatest concerns for the short to medium term impacts of climate change is the effects that extreme events will have on fragile governments in unstable areas of the world. Climate change did not create the fundamental instability in countries like Syria, and Pakistan – colonialism, religion, and tribal animosities have a long legacy in those countries, and arguably, the paranoid dictatorial regimes in those areas are a rational response to the forces that would otherwise split these countries apart.

Climate change, however, is adding a new dynamic to the game. This is why the US military has identified climate change as a “threat multiplier”.  Then Senator John Kerry advised colleagues of this assessment in the Pentagon’s Quadrennial Defense Review, (QDR) in 2010.

The Hill:

Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry (D-Mass.), a key architect of Senate climate plans, was the first to draw attention to the significance of climate change in the QDR. Kerry said last week that the QDR will list climate change as a security problem that could claim U.S. lives.

“I will tell you that the defense review of the United States Pentagon next week is going to come out and list climate change for the first time as an instability factor that affects our troops and may in fact wind up costing us lives down the road,” Kerry said at a forum hosted by labor, business, veteran and other groups backing climate legislation.

Now, today, we are in the midst of a national debate on whether the US should intervene in precisely the type of situation that the Pentagon warned about in 2010.  So far, the national media have not done a terribly effective job of putting this aspect of the problem in context.

Over the last year, I’ve produced several videos that describe the emerging understanding of how climate change makes events such as the Russian Heat wave, Pakistan floods, the 2003 European heat wave, and 2011 Texas drought, and all their attendant ripple effects,  more likely.

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54 Responses to “How Climate Change Primed Syria for War”


  1. […] I’ve written about the role of climate in destabilizing the Middle East, and in the collapse of Syria. […]


  2. […] ignorance in that part of the world. Tom Friedman looks into the impacts of drought on the drought fueled civil war in Syria, and Harrison Ford journeys into the Borneo rainforest, where mega-corporations and corruption are […]


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