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

Oxfam Climate Change, Conflict, Humanitarian


Syria, migration and climate change will all be key issues at the World Humanitarian Summit this week, but are they interrelated, and how? Alex Randall, from the Climate and Migration Coalition, explains why media portrayal of climate driven migration as a source of conflict is both damaging and inaccurate.

The crisis in Syria is now in its fifth year. Humanitarian and development organisations have rightly started exploring the root causes of the conflict in Syria, with the hope of building a picture of the forces that created the descent into violence.

In 2015 new research from academics at Columbia and Santa Barbara Universities revealed a connection between climate change, drought and the start of the Syrian uprising. The media exploded with news stories and apocalyptic visions of future ‘climate wars’.

The case made in the Climate and Migration Coalition’s new report is that there is an important relationship between climate change, and the situation, and Syria. But it is not the relationship the media portrayed. And further, that there is a rich seam of literature we can draw on to better understand this complex relationship.

The media’s version of events was fairly crude. Most stories argued that a prolonged climate-fuelled drought pushed people from the countryside into Syria’s cities. Most outlets then claim that this spike in population caused a resource conflict between migrants and existing residents. Prince Charles argued that he had predicted climate driven resource wars twenty years ago and this, he believed, was a sign of things to come. These comments generated further news
stories making the case that the situation in Syria started as a climate driven resource war.

However this version of events fundamentally misunderstands the role of internal migration in the start of the uprising. A closer examination of some of the recent research reveals a very different relationship.

It’s certainly true that a prolonged drought preceded the uprising. The academic research makes a compelling case for this drought being, to some extent, fuelled by climate change. Of course the authors are cautious about blaming the drought solely on climate change, but they present a strong case for global warming being a factor.

It’s also true that as the drought wrecked Syria’s agricultural, people started moving from the countryside into Syria’s cities. This is a common pattern of human movement during drought.  As agricultural earning collapse, people seek other work and that usually means moving into an urban area. But this is where the media get it wrong. Not just a bit wrong, they describe the exact opposite of what actually happened.

But this is where the media get it wrong. Not just a bit wrong, they describe the exact opposite of what actually happened.

In a sense the Syrian uprising began in rural areas. Anger towards the regime reached a peak as people lost everything as a result of the drought. The regime had catastrophically mismanaged any drought response, and in many ways made the situation even worse. As anger grew, many people were also forced to move into the cities in an attempt to find work.

At the same time, anger amongst urban Syrians was also reaching unprecedented levels. The oppressive nature of the regime is well documented, and recent dissent had been brutally crushed.

The start of the uprising was in fact an act of cooperation, not a fight over resources. The uprising is best seen as combined response by urban Syrians and recent rural migrants against the regime. The new population in the cities provided the numbers needed for the initial demonstrations, and the feeling that with enough people Syria might overthrow its regime, as other countries across the Middle East and North Africa were also doing in 2011.

This is the reverse of the media’s version of events. The media argued that Syrian migrants fought fellow citizens over scarce resources. In fact migrants and existing residents cooperated in an attempt to overthrow the regime.

This difference is key. In the media’s version of events migration is a problem that can lead to violence. It represents people who move (even within their own country) as a source of tension that could spark a war. The reality is rather different. In Syria, in 2011 migrants and residents actually cooperated and took huge risks to support each other.

This difference is important – not just for Syria – but for the entire debate about climate change and migration. The media often speculate that people moving due to climate change impacts will create violence and chaos when they move. In response to the situation in Syria many European news outlets predicted that climate change would push large numbers of people into Europe, and that this would create chaos, violence and even terrorism.

However there is little evidence to support this. The vast majority of climate-linked movement will be internal, people will move within their own country. When they do move the evidence also indicates that migration is unlikely to be a driving force creating armed violence.

It is entirely correct to place climate change as one of the drivers of the situation in Syria, and of the various episodes of migration and displacement that are linked to it. But it is entirely wrong, factually and morally, to suggest that migrants themselves are in some way to blame.

Read more

Read the report from the Climate and Migration Coalition, Syria and climate change: did the media get it right?

Read more blog posts about humanitarian issues

Find out about Oxfam’s Syria crisis response

Photo: A group of women walking in Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan. Pablo Tosco / Oxfam

Author: Alex Randall
Archive blog. Originally posted on Oxfam Policy & Practice.