Climate change in the form of sustained drought is not to blame for the bloody and prolonged conflict in Syria, according to a new study.

But drought nevertheless plays a contributing role in creating the conditions for conflict – and a database of 1,800 riots over a cycle of 21 years delivers the evidence to support that hypothesis, according to a second study.

The idea that climate change, with consequential drought and famine in its wake, can drive conflict and topple kingdoms, empires and civilisations is not a new one: climate change has been identified as a factor in the fall of the ancient Assyrian empire and the fall of the Mayan civilisation, and the recent drought in the eastern Mediterranean has been identified as the worst in 900 years.

No Evidence

But, scientists in the UK argue in the journal Political Geography, there is no evidence to support climate change as a factor in the Syrian civil war.

This is an argument not likely to be settled by any one study. Researchers in the last three years have repeatedly warned that climate is likely to be a contributing factor to civil conflict or violence in some cases simply because hot weather and short tempers seemed statistically linked, in others because prolonged drought turns farmers and herdsmen into climate refugees.

And the flight from the land has been linked with the beginning of civil unrest in Syrian cities. This argument has been invoked by, among others, former US President Obama, Prince Charles of Great Britain, the World Bank and Friends of the Earth.

Not so, say the scholars in Political Geography. They argue that though the drought was severe, it was not necessarily caused by man-made climate change driven by profligate combustion of fossil fuels, and that although drought contributed to migration to the cities, this would have involved not 1.5 million people but no more than 60,000 families. Economic liberalisation in any case may have been the more important factor, they say.

“Our paper finds that there is no sound evidence that global climate change was a factor in sparking the Syrian civil war. Indeed, it is extraordinary that this claim has become so widely accepted when the scientific evidence for it is so thin,” said Jan Selby, who directs the Centre for Conflict and Security Research at Sussex University in the UK.

“Global climate change is a very real challenge, and will undoubtedly have significant conflict and security consequences, but there is no good evidence that this is what was going on in this case.

“It is vital that experts, commentators and policymakers resist the temptation to make exaggerated claims about the conflict implications of climate change. Overblown claims not based on rigorous science only risk fuelling climate scepticism.”

Link persists

But the link between climate and violence remains. European researchers report in the Journal of Environmental Economics and Management that they studied the pattern of rioting recorded in sub-Saharan Africa between 1990 and 2011, and found a systematic link between sudden depletion of water resources and the outbreak of unrest.

They used statistical reasoning to find that droughts raised the risk of rioting from 10% to 50% in a given month in any region. There were other factors: density of population, the presence of lakes and rivers and the local ethnic mix could all contribute to the probabilities of conflict. That did not mean that droughts “cause” conflict.

“In order of importance, it is political, economic or social causes that create tension,” said Jérémy Lucchetti, a professor in the University of Geneva’s economics and management faculty, who led the study.

“Droughts are a factor that add fuel to flames that are already burning.”

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