How focusing on climate could make us miss the forest for the trees

mosul dam
mosul dam

Iraq’s Mosul Dam (courtesy of the AP).

If you haven’t read my last post on why we need to integrate climate change into disaster risk reduction, read that first. I’ll wait. And, while you’re at it, read my other post on including DRR into the sustainable development goals. 

As you’ll recall from my last post, I outlined new research arguing that we need to integrate climate change into disaster risk reduction. In this post, I want to explore Syria within this context.

Last week, PNAS released a major study linking climate change (paywalled) to the historic drought that may have contributed to the ongoing violent conflict in Syria. Unsurprisingly, the study has generated a lot of attention, garnering significant coverage from The New York TimesNational Geographic, Slate, Mother Jones, and the Huffington Post, among other outlets.

The debate over the Syria study

Given the highly contentious nature of the climate change and conflict debate (see more from me on this here and here), there has been some blowback, most prominently from Keith Kloor at Discover. In his second post on this debate, Kloor finds some dissenting voices on the study, including Edward Carr from the director of the Humanitarian Response and Development Lab (HURDL) at the University of South Carolina. Carr objected to the general view within the media that this study represents proof of the connection between climate and Syria’s violence. As he noted,

I think the translation of this drought into conflict is pretty weak. Basically, they plumb the conflict literature to support really general statements like “The conflict literature supports the idea that rapid demographic change encourages instability.” No kidding – not sure a citation was needed there. But the causal change between climate change, drought, displacement, and conflict is long and crosses several bodies of data/evidence, all of which are uncertain. The compounding uncertainty in this causal chain is never addressed, so I can’t tell if it is offsetting (that is, some parts of the causal chain address weaknesses in other parts, thereby making the connection throughout the chain stronger) or compounding. I doubt the authors know, either. Basically, I don’t understand how you can get any real understanding of the likely contribution of climate change to this conflict via this mechanism.

Some members of the media who covered the study objected to the criticisms lobbied against them. And, to be fair, both sides make fair points. The media coverage of this study has been far more measured and accurate than in the past. At the same time, the critics are also correct that this study does not prove that climate change caused the Syrian civil war and that we need to be careful when saying it did.

Because I tweet entirely too much, I waded into this debate in the form of a lengthy exchange with Kloor, Neil Bhatiya from The Century Foundation, and Brian Kahn of Climate Central. In it, Kahn asked an important question: Does discussing the role of climate change really detract from focusing on the other drivers of the conflict?

It is in this context that I want to discuss the Kelman, Gaillard, and Mercer paper. In the paper, KGM argue that the extensive focus on climate change sometimes allows it to “dominate” other drivers of vulnerability and disaster risk. Climate change can drive both hazards and vulnerabilities, two of the components in the disaster risk triad, but the question of whether climate “is a more significant or a less significant contributor than other factors…depends on the specific context,” and we should not focus on it to the detriment of other contributors. We cannot miss the forest for the trees.

What KGM means for the Syria study

Here I want to turn to another issue – the policy implications of the PNAS study. For the most part, none of the media coverage of the paper discusses what policymakers are supposed to do with this information. How should it shape their interventions in Syria? What lessons can should they glean for the future? Carr’s colleague at HURDL, Daniel Abrahams, noted the problem therein, saying “I would guess policy makers see this paper as a distraction; something that fills their inbox with people tangentially paying attention to climate issues.”

I’ve been thinking a lot about this question over the past week, and I would argue that it is here that the KGM study’s emphasis on placing climate change in its proper context can be particularly valuable. Let’s assume for a minute that USAID wanted to operationalize the Syria study as the basis for an intervention in the region. If the agency focused on the role that climate change played in driving the conflict, it may conclude that it should invest in projects that can provide reliable clean energy and drinking water to Syria’s crowded urban centers and irrigation water to its hard-hit farmers. What project meets all of those criteria? Why a dam, of course.

USAID actually has a track record of funding the construction of a dams in drought-affected, fragile states within the region, including Iraq’s Mosul Dam and the Kajaki Dam in southern Afghanistan. Accordingly, funding this type of project would not be out of the realm of possibility, and it would likely make sense when viewed from a climate lens. So what could go wrong wrong?

Syria’s complicated hydropolitics

Well, in a word, lots. The climate lens fails to account for the geographic and political environment in which Syria sits. Syria is the midstream party for the Euphrates River, sitting between its upstream neighbor (Turkey) and its downstream neighbor (Iraq). Additionally, the Tigris River forms the border between Syria and Turkey as it heads southeast into Iraq. Disputes over water allocations from the rivers have undermined relations among the three parties for decades.

The complicated hydropolitics within the region are often centered around the Kurds. Turkey has embarked on a massive river basin development scheme, the Southeast Anatolia Project (GAP), which will see it complete 22 dams and 19 power plants. Turkey’s Kurdish minority sees GAP as just another attempt to drown their cultural identity and weaken the Kurdish People’s Party (PKK). Turkey’s dam building has long been a point of contention for Syria and Iraq. Syria has supported the PKK as a proxy battle over water allocations, while Turkey invaded northern Iraq in 1997 to attack Kurdish rebels stationed there. Syria and Iraq have also fought among themselves over water issues, with both countries dispatching troops to the border in 1975.

Clearly, the construction of one or more dams could further exacerbating the region’s hydropolitics. Furthermore, the dam itself may become entangled in the conflict. The Taliban has launched a number of attacks on the Kajaki Dam against American and British forces. ISIS, for its part, has made Iraq’s dams major targets. Its capture of the Mosul Dam, which observers have dubbed “the moment IS ascended from a dangerous insurgent group to an existential threat to Iraq,” was among the major factors that drew the US into the conflict. Any militants who remained in Syria would likely see our hypothetical dam in this same light.

Lastly, new dam projects in the region would likely create widespread, deleterious consequences for Syrians and Iraqis living downstream. Large dams have displaced 40-80 million people worldwide and created a whole host of social and environmental problems. One need look no further than Iraq to see how dams can destroy livelihoods. Following the First Gulf War, Saddam Hussein used dams to drain the Mesopotamian Marshes in order to punish the Ma’dan people. The UN Environment Programme has called this episode “a major environmental catastrophe that will be remembered as one of humanity’s worst engineered disasters.”

While it’s true that climate change will alter conflict dynamics and act as a threat multiplier going forward, we cannot allow this risk to blind us to other the critical considerations at play.

Will climate change disasters really lead to more conflict? Maybe.

naval station pensacola
naval station pensacola

Damage to Naval Air Station Pensacola following Hurricane Ivan in 2004 (courtesy of Wikimedia Commons).

The US military has devoted a considerable amount of attention to climate change, which makes sense given the various risks it poses to military operations. These risks include potential increased demand for humanitarian responses to climatic disasters and the threat of climatic changes, such as stronger tropical storms and sea level rise, to existing military installations. For instance, Hurricane Ivan knocked one of the Navy’s key bases, Naval Air Station Pensacola, out of commission for a year.

Climate change’s most severe potential military threat – increasing the risk of violent conflicts – is also its least likely, by far. Yet, unsurprisingly, this has gotten the lion’s share of attention from the media.

Last week, Eric Holthaus at Slate published an interview with retired Navy Rear Admiral David Titley. The piece is worth a read. I would say the Rear Admiral’s comments accurately reflect the views of many military officials who are concerned about climate change.

Let me just preface this by noting that Rear Admiral Titley has forgotten a hell of a lot more about military strategy, history, and operations than I will ever learn. But I do take exception with the way that he framed the issue:

Let me give you a few examples of how that might play out. You could imagine a scenario in which both Russia and China have prolonged droughts. China decides to exert rights on foreign contracts and gets assertive in Africa. If you start getting instability in large powers with nuclear weapons, that’s not a good day.

Here’s another one: We basically do nothing on emissions. Sea level keeps rising, three to six feet by the end of the century. Then, you get a series of super-typhoons into Shanghai and millions of people die. Does the population there lose faith in Chinese government? Does China start to fissure? I’d prefer to deal with a rising, dominant China any day.

If you take Rear Admiral Titley’s comments at face value, you’d be forgiven if you came away believing that climate-related disasters may inevitably spawn violent conflict. This is an all-too-common perception, one to which I used to subscribe.

What can we say about disasters and conflict?

But the fact remains that nothing about disasters inherently leads to conflict. Quite the opposite, really. There have been a few studies that find such a connection, including a one in 2008 from Philip Nel and Marjolein Righarts (PDF), who examined the connections between various forms of disasters and the risk of civil conflict onset. They found that disasters increase the likelihood that civil conflict will occur. Such disasters may create incentives for rebel groups to attack state institutions, or they can generate new grievances from heightened resource scarcity.

But an array of studies dispute these findings. Back in the 1960s, sociologist Charles Fritz suggested that disasters often alter social relations and help to mitigate pre-existing cleavages within communities. If securitization requires the existence of an “other” against which people can organize, the disaster itself may take that role, leading to the development of a  “common community of sufferers,” that promotes social cohesion and cooperation.

Ilan Kelman has further suggested that this ameliorative effect can take place at both intra and interstate levels, leading to “disaster diplomacy.” He has cataloged dozens of examples of disaster diplomacy, ranging from earthquakes in Greece and Turkey (PDF) to the aftermath of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami (paywall) in Aceh. Overall, the preponderance of evidence suggests that disasters do not inherently precipitate violence.

So can disasters lead to conflict?

Disasters, on their own, are highly unlikely to cause conflict. But the politics of the disaster response, or the lack thereof, is a different story. Think of Hurricane Katrina; it wasn’t the storm itself that caused so much outrage and discord, but the massive failure of the Bush administration to respond adequately to the needs of survivors.

Weak governments that are poorly equipped and lack sufficient international support are unlikely to respond effectively to disasters. This outcome could potentially anger survivors and provide them with incentives to take up arms, perhaps in an attempt to seize additional resources. But the real problem emerges when governments intentionally divert relief aid for their own gain or to serve their own political ends.

On December 23, 1972, a devastating earthquake rattled Managua, the capital of Nicaragua. The quake destroyed three-quarters of the city’s housing stock and killed at least 11,000 Nicaraguans as they slept. Strongman Anastasio Somoza immediately began to abuse his power to take advantage of the catastrophe. According to a 2010 Miami Herald article,

Somoza began directing reconstruction efforts from a family estate on the outskirts of Managua. Cabinet ministers, businessmen, foreign officials and international relief bosses — many of them addressing Somoza as “Mr. President” — trooped in and out all day long. It was Somoza with whom foreign diplomats negotiated aid packages; it was Somoza who decided Managua would be rebuilt.

While later independent investigations cast some doubt upon the scale and significance of the profiteering, it left an indelible mark upon Nicaraguans. As evidence of the corruption mounted, event the conservative Catholic Church turned on the regime. These events contributed to a resurgence of the Sandanista movement, which formally took up arms three years later.

managua earthquake damage

An aerial image of the damage to Managua following the devastating 1972 earthquake (courtesy of the US Geological Survey).

Evidence suggests that inadequate and/or politically motivated disaster responses may have fed into subsequent conflict in Bangladesh (following the 1970 Bhola cyclone), Guatemala (after the 1976 Guatemala earthquake), and Sri Lanka (after the Indian Ocean tsunami).

How else might disasters spawn conflict?

When conflict occurs in the wake of disasters, it is not always an unintended and unforeseen consequence. In fact, according to Travis Nelson, it can actually be a survival tactic (paywall) employed by weak states. Nelson suggested that weak leaders may be more likely to launch small, diversionary conflicts in order to distract from inadequate disaster responses and generate nationalistic solidarity.

In July 1959, severe flooding occurred along the Yellow River, killing approximately two million Chinese. The disaster occurred at a time when the Maoist regime was weak and dealing with several crises, including the catastrophic Great Leap Forward. In the midst of these crises, the regime was unprepared for the floods, and Chinese elites began openly to question Mao’s rule. In response, the regime launched a series of border skirmishes with India, which eventually fed into the 1962 Sino-Indian War. The war aroused nationalist fervor and distracted from other challenges.

But do disasters really cause conflict?

In a word, maybe. But now we’re wading into a difficult and highly complex area that deals with endogeneity. In statistical modeling, a variable is said to be endogenous when it can be affected by other variables within the model. In other words, we cannot truly isolate the variable from the effects of others, making it difficult to determine whether or not its effects are mitigated by other factors.

As I’ve written before and will continue to say until I’m blue in the face, there’s no such thing as a natural disaster. Disaster events are inherently shaped and controlled by the extant political, economic, and social environments. As a result, disasters do not occur in a vacuum, and we can’t treat them as such. So even if it seems likely that a disaster helped cause a conflict, it would be difficult to say that it was an exogenous effect, as its effects would likely be influenced by existing political and social dynamics.

While it’s true that the 1972 Guatemala earthquake helped reignite civil war (paywall), as it seems to be, it’s also true that the vulnerability of Mayan peasants to the earthquake’s effects was dictated by structural inequalities and existing violent conflict. So can we really say that the quake caused the subsequent return to war? Yes. No. Maybe. Honestly, it depends on how you define “cause.”

Did climate change cause Syria’s civil war then?

Keith Kloor hammered this point home in his recent post on the question of whether Syria’s drought caused its brutal civil war. Kloor takes Tom Friedman to task for suggesting that the Assad regime’s response to the drought helped fuel the war but failing to acknowledge that the regime’s actions also helped facilitate the drought. He quotes, at length, from an article last year where authors Jeannie Sowers and John Waterbury argue,

When terms such as ‘stressor’ or ‘threat multiplier’ are applied to drought, shifting rainfall patterns, floods, and other environmental events in the Middle East, they often obscure rather than illuminate the causes of uprisings and political change. There is perhaps no better illustration of this dynamic than Syria, where a closer examination shows that government policy helped construct vulnerability to the effects of the drought during the 2000s. State policies regarding economic development, political control in rural areas, and water management determined how drought impacted the population and how the population, in turn, responded.

So yes, the regime’s response to the drought – which may have been driven by climate change – helped incite the rebellion. But the regime’s policies also helped drive the drought in the first place. So did the drought and – by extension – climate change cause the rebellion? Yes. No. Maybe. It depends on how you define “cause.”

So will climate change really be different then?

Probably. In a 1987 article, Beverley Cuthbertson and Joanne Nigg consider under what circumstances a disaster may produce discord among survivors (paywall), which they term a “nontherapeutic community.” They find that, unlike with geological and weather disasters, victims do not see manmade disasters, like chemical spills, as natural. Accordingly, survivors often disagree as to whether a disaster has actually occurred and who is accountable. These disagreements can lead to the emergence of “victim clusters,” elevating tensions. In extreme circumstances, this could potentially lead to violence.

Given the fact that climate change is unequivocally manmade and that it has increasingly been linked to disasters, like droughts and heatwaves, it’s possible that climate-related disasters could be different. Disaster survivors could point to climate change’s fingerprints in the events that damage their livelihoods and use it as a call to take up arms. It seems unlikely, but it’s hard to be sure. Clearly, manmade climate change is different than anything we have dealt with in the past, and it is likely to change our calculus on these issues.

We may be able to say, to this point, that disasters probably don’t directly cause conflict, but as my grad school professor Ken Conca always says, you should be careful about driving forward by looking through the rear view mirror.

How oil will make Syria’s civil war even deadlier

syrian oil field worker
syrian oil field worker

Many Syrians now work in the oil fields of Deir el Zour in order to make a living (courtesy of McClatchy).

The New York Times published an article yesterday that likely raised some eyebrows.

Islamist rebels and extremist groups have seized control of most of Syria’s oil and gas resources, a rare generator of cash in the country’s war-battered economy, and are now using the proceeds to underwrite their fights against one another as well as President Bashar al-Assad, American officials say.

While the oil and gas fields are in serious decline, control of them has bolstered the fortunes of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, and the Nusra Front, both of which are offshoots of Al Qaeda. The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria is even selling fuel to the Assad government, lending weight to allegations by opposition leaders that it is secretly working with Damascus to weaken the other rebel groups and discourage international support for their cause.

Needless to say, this is a disconcerting series of events. But the fact that does not make it surprising.

To date, there has been a lot of ink spilled on how natural resources and/or climate change may have contributed to the ongoing civil war. The Center for Climate and Security, probably the best source of information on this subject, has assembled a collection of  more than three dozen such articles. There appears to be a solid case that the combination of an historic drought (likely driven by climate change) and incredibly poor water resource management by the al-Assad regime may have helped sparked the crisis. (It would obviously be excessively reductive and deterministic to claim that climate change caused the conflict, but it likely contributed to it. Anyways, I digress.)

But helping drive the onset of violent conflict constitutes just one of the three major ways that we know natural resources contribute to conflict. Natural resources can help finance ongoing conflict and create incentives for leaders to spoil peace efforts in order to continue profiting from resource rents.

These two connections appear to be quite common facets of modern conflict. We know, for instance, that Charles Taylor funded violence in Liberia by exploiting the illegal timber trade and that both parties in the Angolan civil war financed their war efforts by selling diamonds. Moreover, the ready availability of revenues from opium production in Afghanistan and diamonds in Sierra Leone have provided incentives for warlords and rebel leaders to avoid brokering peace and to finance resumed conflict.

nr wars

This chart lists 18 recent civil conflicts which involved natural resources (courtesy of UNEP).

In fact, according to the UN Environment Programme, natural resources have helped to fuel some 40% of all civil conflicts since 1960. Given these realities, it is wholly unsurprising – though no less disconcerting – that rebel groups like ISIS and the Nusra Front have turned to oil reserves in the areas under their control.

There was one new and disturbing piece of information buried in the article, though.

A second American official said that while Mr. Assad’s government is growing ever more desperate for oil, [ISIS] is becoming increasingly independent of wealthy donors in the Persian Gulf and other funding sources. As the group has gained control of more territory, it has been able to sustain its operations through a combination of oil revenues, border tolls, extortion and granary sales, the official said.

As ISIS continues to stuff its war chest with oil rents, it no longer depends as heavily upon its Persian Gulf benefactors. This outcome risks to further exacerbate the brutal nature of the conflict, as ISIS finds itself free of any restrictions that may have previously been attached to its funding (granted, it’s unlikely that these groups would be concerned about the dictates of donors, but they may have, at least, had to deal with practical restrictions due to a lack of resources).

Beardsley & McQuinn previously explored the relationship between rebel group behavior and funding sources (paywall). They compared two rebel groups – the Free Aceh Movement (GAM) in Indonesia and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in Sri Lanka.

They found that GAM had to rely heavily upon the local population to raise revenues and recruit fighters. This process required GAM to expend a considerable amount of effort and resources; Beardsley & McQuinn note that the relatively meager funds it raised and small number of fighters in its ranks meant that GAM used low return on investment (ROI) methods to finance its rebellion. Accordingly, the group needed to remain attentive to the needs of the Acehnese people, which drove its leaders to the bargaining table after the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami devastated the region.

LTTE, in contrast, was able to procure funding and recruits much more readily. The group financed its war effort through a combination of extorting payments, controlling business enterprises, and garnering donations from Tamils abroad. These tactics had a much higher ROI and did not require LTTE to consider the needs of the people in conflict-affected areas. As a result, the group was much more willing to engage in violent attacks that either directly harmed Tamils or that garnered retribution on Tamils in return. Additionally, the group saw little incentive in brokering peace after the tsunami, as it had more to gain from ongoing conflict than from international aid flows. The Sri Lankan civil war only ended in 2009 after Colombo brutally suppressed LTTE controlled areas.

So while it should come as no surprise that Syrian rebels, including al Qaeda-linked groups, would turn to oil resources for funding, it should raise red flags. The Syrian civil war isn’t going to end anytime soon, regardless of what happens in Geneva, and this new report suggests that things are only going to get much, much worse long before they improve.