Is global warming to blame for the Syrian war? Democratic presidential candidates Pete Buttigieg, Beto O'Rourke and Bernie Sanders seem to think so. At the CNN climate town hall this month, Buttigieg and O'Rourke referred to climate change as a national security threat that contributed to causing the Syrian civil war. “Wars that were precipitated by climate change, like Syria, will pale in comparison to the wars that we see in the future,” O'Rourke warned. Both candidates follow the lead of Sanders, who has long claimed that “climate change is directly related to the growth of terrorism”. Recently, he told his followers, “Climate change is one of the greatest threats to global security. As we see more drought, as poor people are not able to grow the food they need, there will be migrations of millions of people all over the world.”
This isn't policy discussion but deflection
This is an example of the messy game of "Telephone" that passes for climate policy discussion today. Scientists write a nuanced research paper. These findings become distorted in the interests of sharing a clear narrative with the public. Then a politician seizes on the news and twists the story even further.
To make the case for the link between terrorism and global warming, Sanders linked to a news story with a provocative headline: “Climate change will increase risk of violent conflict, researchers warn”.
But that paper hardly offers compelling evidence that terrorism is bigger today thanks to global warming. The authors actually looked at 16 factors that drive conflict risk. When they ranked that list in terms of influence, climate came in 14th, behind more important factors like poor development, population pressure and corruption. As the researchers write, “Other drivers, such as low socioeconomic development and low capabilities of the state, are judged to be substantially more influential, and the mechanisms of climate–conflict linkages remain a key uncertainty.”
In the case of Syria, the idea that we would blame the small and uncertain role that global warming has played in desertification to date is, frankly, bizarre, compared with Syria’s history of bad water management, a population that tripled in 35 years and added pressure on resources, and the effects of decades of American and British foreign policy, the Arab Spring uprisings, religious and ethnic tensions, and political repression.
A paper that studied the role of drought and climate change in the Syrian uprising found, “An exaggerated focus on climate change shifts the burden of responsibility for the devastation of Syria’s natural resources away from the successive Syrian governments since the 1950s and allows the Assad regime to blame external factors for its own failures.” It concluded: “The possible role of climate change in this chain of events is not only irrelevant; it is also an unhelpful distraction.”
A new 2019 study similarly says: “There is very little merit to the ‘Syria climate conflict thesis.’ ”
Drought may not be as much of an existential threat as Sanders claims
Moreover, Sanders repeats the oft-heard claim that we are seeing more drought. Yet, the United Nations climate panel concludes that there “is low confidence in a global-scale observed trend in drought.”
In fact, global hydrological drought area has been declining since 1900, and a recent Nature study reconfirmed this.
A big logical mistake in blaming conflicts and terrorism on global warming is that it often pinpoints a specific place where climate conceivably could have made drought worse, but ignore all the other places where global warming similarly decreased drought.
It’s true that over time, some regional-specific changes to the climate could exacerbate instability in certain already volatile areas, and Syria is expected to become drier with global warming, Yet given that global warming will increase global precipitation, it is also true that climate change will make many other countries less water-stressed, including Guinea, Sierra Leone, Mali, Burkina Faso and parts of Brazil.
If we worry that wars will be worsened because drought will increase in Syria, we should also be thankful that less future drought from global warming will make civil war less likely in many other countries.
Rubio on climate change:We should choose adaptive solutions
Despite these facts, the idea persists that global warming caused the Syrian crisis — and it is an idea kept alive by the three presidential candidates. Back in 2015, Sanders’ claim was ranked “Mostly False” by the Pulitzer Prize-winning website PolitiFact.
Nonetheless, Sanders, Buttigieg and O’Rourke continue to promote the idea of climate wars because superficially, it’s a compelling message — and a way to link to one of Americans’ greatest fears.
If we think about it, though, it’s an utterly ridiculous — even offensive — conceit that the best way rich Americans could help people in Syria is by cutting carbon emissions.
We need to fix man-made climate change by ensuring that innovation can drive down the cost of low-carbon energy alternatives. But linking rising temperatures to every single challenge facing humanity just distracts from what we really need to focus on.
Bjorn Lomborg is president of the Copenhagen Consensus Center and visiting professor at Copenhagen Business School. Follow him on Twitter: @BjornLomborg
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: No, 2020 Dems, the conflict in Syria wasn't caused by climate change.