Syria and climate change: did the media get it right?

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The Climate and Migration Coalition exists to support and protect people at risk of displacement linked to environmental change. The Coalition is a network of refugee and migration NGOs. The network is managed by the UK charity Climate Outreach.


During 2015 the media started connecting climate change with the conflict in Syria and subsequent refugee movements across Europe. Many reports were in direct response to new research making this connection. Other reports mentioned this research while examining other major events such as the drownings in the Mediterranean, the refugee camp in Calais and the terrorist attacks in November 2015. But did those media reports accurately represent the research they referenced?

Some elements of media reporting accurately represented the research, especially when coverage focused specifically on events leading up to the Syrian uprising in 2011. Other media reporting fundamentally misunderstood the link between climate change and the early moments of the uprising in Syria. Many media reports argued that climate driven migration into cities created violence between migrants and existing residents that descended into wider conflict. The media reporting tended (wrongly) to present migrants and refugees as a threat to Europe and a source of chaos and violence within Syria. In general, media reports ignored research pointing towards cooperation between migrants and residents in protests against the Syrian regime.  Further, in response to the situation in Syria many media reports also speculated about future human movement in response to climate change. But many of these predictions fundamentally misunderstood the way climate change could re-shape patterns of migration in the future.

Outline

Section 1 looks at what the media said about the role of climate change in the Syrian conflict. Section 2 asks how much of the media’s narrative is supported by evidence. Section 3 looks at the media’s future predictions, and asks how they compare with existing evidence.

Causes of the conflict (according to the media)

Two key points form the basis of most reporting linking climate change to the conflict in Syria, and its consequences.

…extreme drought in Syria between 2006 and 2009 was most likely due to climate change, and that the drought was a factor in the violent uprising that began there in 2011” New York Times


First
, that climate change played a role in causing and prolonging the drought in Syria between 2006 and 2009. The explanation offered by the New York Times was typical of how many outlets expressed this connection: “…extreme drought in Syria between 2006 and 2009 was most likely due to climate change, and that the drought was a factor in the violent uprising that began there in 2011”.

Second, that this drought destroyed rural livelihood and forced people to move from the countryside into Syrian cities. For example, National Geographic explained that this drought “…drove Syrian farmers to abandon their crops and flock to cities, helping trigger a civil war…”

While these two points are common across much the reporting, there is less consistency when reports look at the causal mechanism linking displacement and the start of the conflict. Further, different reports focus on different consequences of the conflict and make different predictions about the future.

Many media reports did not elaborate on how or why an influx of people into Syria’s cities might lead to armed violence. However this is a key stage of the media narrative. The media reports rest on the idea that the presence of large numbers of new people in Syrian cities gave rise to a protracted and violent conflict. But they offer little explanation of the causal mechanism behind this.

A number of outlets implied that violence may have erupted over scarce resources. However many outlets explained only vaguely how displacement into cities might lead to conflict.

A number of outlets implied that violence may have erupted over scarce resources. The Independenthinted at an explanation by pointing at other research: “relatively small shocks to supply risk causing sudden price rises and triggering ‘overreactions or even militarised responses’”. Several news stories made the link more explicitly after Prince Charles claimed he had predicted climate-driven conflicts years ago. BBC Newsreported him saying “some of us were saying 20 something years ago that if we didn’t tackle these issues you would see ever greater conflict over scarce resources and ever greater difficulties over drought, and the accumulating effect of climate change, which means that people have to move”. However many outlets explained  only vaguely how displacement into cities might lead to conflict. For example the Daily Mail simply argued “[The drought] led to an influx of people into cities causing rising poverty and unrest”. The New York Times said the migration added to “social stresses” although did not elaborate further.

Other news reports made the case that the rural to urban migration swelled the ranks of aggrieved citizens in cities. The increased numbers and mixing of people from across Syrian society gave the early demonstrations against the regime both confidence and increased numbers. Rather than displacees and existing residents fighting each other, this narrative argues they united around attempts to overthrow the Assad regime. This explanation was prominent in a number of newer online-only outlets that reproduced a cartoon called “Syria’s climate fuelled conflict”.

Protracted conflict

Regardless of the causal mechanisms hinted at, most media reporting on the issue concludes that what started as an uprising descended into a protracted war within Syria. The conflict then involved an increasing number of armed state and non-state actors from within and outside Syria.

Consequences (according to the media)

Different media reports then claim a number of different consequences resulted from the conflict:

1. Terrorism

Related resources by the Climate and Migration Coalition:

Climate change and terrorism: understanding the political narrative. 

Briefing exploring the connections between climate change, conflict and terrorism. Read…

Briefing Q&A: climate change and the refugee crisis

Exploration of the links between climate change and situation in Syria. Read…

Several articles outlined a narrative linking climate change, via the situation in Syria, to terrorist attacks and in some cases directly to the attacks in Paris in November 2015. Time ran the headline “Why Climate Change and Terrorism Are Connected”. Immediately after the attacks in Paris theNew Zealand Herald ran a comment piece linking climate change, the drought, the rise of ISIS and the attacks in Paris. The New Yorker argued that reaching an agreement to reduce emissions and prevent future climate change was key to fighting terrorism: “Why a Climate Deal Is the Best Hope for Peace”.

2. Refugees in Europe

A number of outlets focused on the refugee situation in Europe. They argued that the drought had sparked the Syrian conflict which then drove people via North Africa across the Mediterranean and resulted in the numerous drownings over the summer months of 2015. These stories emerged in response to the images of drowned Syrian refugee Alan Kurdi, and the growth of the refugee camp in Calais. The National Observer – a specialist environment and resources publication – ran a photo of the drowned toddler headlined “This is what a climate refugee looks like”.CNN ran with comments Hillary Clinton made connecting climate change and the refugee situation in Europe. Time ran a story headlined “How Climate Change is Behind the Surge of Migrants to Europe”.

In spite of what many news stories claimed, most Syrian refugees remained in countries next to Syria. Displacement linked to climate change is likely to follow similar patterns with people moving internally or to nearby countries.

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