The Climate Change, Conflict and Migration Nexus: Through the Lens of the Syrian Civil War

Blog by Tabitha Watson

Over the past few decades, there has been increasing conversation – and significant news coverage – linking climate change, conflict and migration. However, analysis of the topic remains largely qualitative and anecdotal in nature. This lack of quantitative data makes the development of robust, evidence-based policy challenging, leading to the growth of more reactionary approaches (e.g. securitisation of migration). In this context, with growing nationalism and xenophobia, it is vital to gain a more nuanced, data-driven perspective on the situation. This is where the concept of whole-system analysis of the climate change, conflict and migration nexus comes into play.

Although all three aspects of the nexus have been conclusively linked, the majority of quantitative studies have tended to address pairwise interactions. There is vibrant academic debate over the role of climate; its role in both conflict and migration has been disputed. However, regardless of the current perceived significance of the global climate, without drastic mitigatory action we are projected to vastly exceed the 2C threshold set out in the Paris Agreement. This will have severe consequences for large swathes of the population, and there are likely to be knock-on effects that ripple across society. It is, therefore, important to consider the ways in which this could impact both mobility and security.

In some spheres, the ongoing Syrian civil war is considered to be one of the first climate-affiliated conflicts. To unpack this, and the controversy around it, it is important to delve a little into the context. Historically, Syria has been relatively fertile and agriculturally productive. However, since the 1980s, it has experienced three severe droughts. The most recent of these, starting in 2006/7, has been recorded as the worst in 900 years. As an exacerbating factor, this drought came on the heels of a deep and long-term agrarian crisis; this had been brewing for decades as the Syrian regime pursued an agrarian development plan which relied on the super-exploitation of water resources, especially groundwater. Groundwater extraction, in turn, relied on the availability of cheap diesel – kept that way by massive government subsidies.

For a variety of reasons, Assad chose to remove these subsidies in 2008/9. This caused the price of diesel to rocket up by over 300%, rendering vast areas of land unviable and causing the displacement of at least 1.5 million people from rural to urban areas. The infrastructure in cities and towns was already sub-par, and it has been argued that the influx of the rural population caused some degree of tension on top of pre-existing ethnic fractures and tensions within Syrian society.

So, with the scene in Syria set with drought, loss of livelihood, mass displacement,  creaking national infrastructure and a general undercurrent of discontent, the Arab Spring began rippling out from Tunisia across the Middle East. In March 2011, pro-democracy protests in Syria were crushed with deadly force. This sparked further protests and, as we know, spiralled into the ongoing conflict. As various factions became involved and the fighting intensified, people began to flee and seek refuge. This has been framed by Western media as a migration ‘crisis’. Here, we see the contested link between climate and conflict snowball into conflict leading to migration. This can then be seen to lead to a different type of, largely ideological, conflict in the destination countries.

However, the presence of a climate signal in the outbreak of civil war in Syria is disputed. Geopolitical events have muddied the water; this is especially sensitive in this case, as the Assad regime have sought to push the climate-conflict narrative in order to absolve themselves of the blame for fomenting the catastrophic agrarian crisis that preceded the drought. Some commentators have also pointed out that neighbouring countries experienced a similar lack of precipitation but did not topple into civil conflict. Therefore, there must have been some Syria-specific factors. However, neither of these arguments are mutually exclusive of a climate signal.

It is important to note that those who argue that there is a climate signal are not stating that climate change is a primary cause of the conflict, rather, that the presence of the drought exacerbated existing conflict precursors and ‘oiled the wheels’, causing the conflict state to occur faster than it may otherwise have done. The question, for both sides, is: would the agrarian crisis alone have been sufficient to trigger the civil war?

To answer this, modelling the climate change, conflict and migration nexus as a complex system is the next logical step. It will allow for the identification of emergent properties, such as a conflict, from the combination of social, environmental and political variables. A vehicle for complex systems analysis is agent-based modelling. Here, the system is made up by a set of agents, each with bounded free will. By programming these agents with relevant parameters, it should be possible to gain a bottom-up perspective of human behaviour under different conditions and scenarios. Through this, it should be possible to elucidate the significance of each factor within the climate change, conflict and migration nexus in relation to each other.

GSI Seminar Series: Prof. Patrick Devine Wright – Are local climate emergency declarations leading to transformation in the politics of climate change?

Blog post by Daneen Cowling

On 17/11/2021 Professor Patrick Devine-Wright, Dr Fionnguala Sherry-Brennan and Dr Alice Moseley, gave a seminar discussing whether local climate emergency declarations are followed by a transformation in the politics and solutions around climate change. Professor Devine-Wright, Dr Fionnguala Sherry-Brennan and Dr Alice Moseley gave a valuable insight into the planning, structure and outcomes of the first climate change citizen assembly in Devon to inform the Carbon Plan. The seminar was met with a lively discussion and positive messages to end on.


We were first introduced to the structure of the climate emergency and Devon Net Zero Task Force organisation at Devon Council, and how this filtered into the Carbon Plan. The citizen Assembly was then discussed, with the risks that come with hosting such a discussion. Deliberations and an interim Carbon Plan brought out before the assembly due to covid, meant topics for the assembly were reduced from 6 to 3, resulting in:

  • Oneshore wind
  • Roads and Mobility
  • Retrofitting

Food and diet was one of the topics dropped from the final decision to run 3. From this followed discussion in the chat around the importance for this topic in Devon, given the extensive farming presence in the county and the carbon footprint it carries. Explanations and discussions were shared in the Q&A, viewable here.

With context given to the question framing and speaker selections, the outcomes of the assembly were outlined. Although anticipated to be largely rejected, onshore wind as a net zero resolution was supported by 89% participants. While resolutions provided for mobility such as increased parking charges and workplace parking levies, were largely rejected. This is likely a representation of the relatively greater reliance on private transport in rural Devon, where public transport is not sufficient to be an appropriate alternative.

It was clear the citizens assembly was a useful tool to provide a platform to voices representative of rurality, which usually go unrecognised. However, there still remains complexities to contend with for the value and effectiveness of the assembly. For example, the value can be relative for different participants – stakeholders may hold more value to the solutions whereas the citizens involved might value the space to discuss issues affecting them, more.

It was also interesting to consider the key concept of place from the outcomes of the assembly. What is Devon? What inequalities are there to consider and contend with for these discussions? Where does trust lie in communities and how does this alter decisions? Centring thinking around Devon as a place helps contextualise the rejection to such mobility suggestions, and (hopefully) will result in a fairer acknowledgement of these inequalities across the county and avoid a blanket urban-centric solution.


To watch the full seminar as well as the discussion after, please click here.

The interim Devon Carbon Plan can be found here.

All Devon Climate Emergency information can be found here.

A Global Force in Climate Research

In April 2021 Reuters identified and ranked 1,000 climate scientists according to the influential power of their research. Six Global Systems Institute, University of Exeter members made the top 100. The following introduces them through a current research publication.

Professor Pierre Friedlingstein Chair of the Mathematical Modelling of the Climate System

Publication: Fossil CO2 emissions in the post-COVID-19 era- Nature Climate Change 

Five years after the adoption of the Paris Climate Agreement, growth in global CO2 emissions has begun to falter. The pervasive disruptions from the COVID-19 pandemic have radically altered the trajectory of global CO2 emissions. Contradictory effects of the post-COVID-19 investments in fossil fuel-based infrastructure and the recent strengthening of climate targets must be addressed with new policy choices to sustain a decline in global emissions in the post-COVID-19 era.

Professor Stephen Sitch – Chair in Climate Change

Publication: Carbon loss from forest degradation exceeds that from deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon-Nature Climate  Change

Spatial–temporal dynamics of aboveground biomass (AGB) and forest area affect the carbon cycle, climate and biodiversity in the Brazilian Amazon. Here we investigate interannual changes in AGB and forest area by analysing satellite-based annual AGB and forest area datasets. We found that the gross forest area loss was larger in 2019 than in 2015, possibly due to recent loosening of forest protection policies. However, the net AGB loss was three times smaller in 2019 than in 2015. During 2010–2019, the Brazilian Amazon had a cumulative gross loss of 4.45 Pg C against a gross gain of 3.78 Pg C, resulting in a net AGB loss of 0.67 Pg C. Forest degradation (73%) contributed three times more to the gross AGB loss than deforestation (27%), given that the areal extent of degradation exceeds that of deforestation. This indicates that forest degradation has become the largest process driving carbon loss and should become a higher policy priority.

 “Yet our study shows how emissions from associated forest degradation processes can be even larger.

“Degradation is a pervasive threat to future forest integrity and requires urgent research attention.”

 

Professor Richard Betts Head of Climate Impact Research in the Met Office and Chair in Climate Impacts

Publication: Atmospheric carbon dioxide at record high levels despite reduced emissions in 2020- Met Office

Carbon dioxide has continued to build up in the atmosphere and is now 50% higher than before the industrial revolution. The latest measurements released by the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, UC San Diego  show that the atmospheric CO2 concentrations at Mauna Loa Observatory, Hawaii, are now at record levels. The average for March 2021 was 417.14 parts per million (ppm), which is 50% higher than the average for 1750-1800. Independent measurements by NOAA also show record CO2 levels. The Met Office predicts monthly CO2 concentrations in 2021 to peak at 419.5 ± 0.6 ppm in May (Figure 1). This is despite a temporary reduction in global emissions last year due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

Professor Neil Adger  Professor of Human Geography.

Publication: Political dynamics and governance of World Heritage ecosystems – Nature Sustainability

Political dynamics across scales are often overlooked in the design, implementation and evaluation of environmental governance. We provide new evidence to explain how interactions between international organizations and national governments shape environmental governance and outcomes for 238 World Heritage ecosystems, on the basis of a new intervention–response–outcome typology. We analyse interactions between the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization and 102 national governments responsible for implementing ecosystem protection under the World Heritage Convention between 1972 and 2019. We combine data on the reporting, deliberation and certification of individual ecosystem-level threats, with data on national governance quality, economic complexity and key stakeholder perspectives. We find that the extent of threatened ecosystems is seriously underestimated and that efforts to formally certify threatened ecosystems are often resisted by national governments. A range of responses to international intervention, including both productive and counterproductive responses, generates material impacts at the ecosystem level. Counterproductive responses occur in nations dependent on limited high-value natural resource industries, irrespective of overall level of economic development. We identify new political approaches to improve environmental governance, including how to overcome the problem of regulatory capture. Our findings inform how we can better anticipate and account for political dynamics in environmental governance.

Professor Peter Cox – Professor – Climate System Dynamics

Publication: A spatial emergent constraint on the sensitivity of soil carbon turnover to global warming – Nature Communications

Carbon cycle feedbacks represent large uncertainties in climate change projections, and the response of soil carbon to climate change contributes the greatest uncertainty to this. Future changes in soil carbon depend on changes in litter and root inputs from plants and especially on reductions in the turnover time of soil carbon (τs) with warming. An approximation to the latter term for the top one metre of soil (ΔCs,τ) can be diagnosed from projections made with the CMIP6 and CMIP5 Earth System Models (ESMs), and is found to span a large range even at 2 °C of global warming (−196 ± 117 PgC). Here, we present a constraint on ΔCs,τ, which makes use of current heterotrophic respiration and the spatial variability of τs inferred from observations. This spatial emergent constraint allows us to halve the uncertainty in ΔCs,τ at 2 °C to −232 ± 52 PgC.

“We have reduced the uncertainty in this climate change response, which is vital to calculating an accurate global carbon budget and successfully meeting Paris Agreement targets.”


Professor Tim Lenton  – GSI Director, Chair in Climate Change and Earth Systems Science  

All options, not silver bullets, needed to limit global warming to 1.5°C: a scenario appraisal – IOPscience

Climate science provides strong evidence of the necessity of limiting global warming to 1.5°C, in line with the Paris Climate Agreement. The IPCC 1.5°C special report (SR1.5) presents 414 emissions scenarios modelled for the report, of which around 50 are classified as ‘1.5°C scenarios’, with no or low temperature overshoot. These emission scenarios differ in their reliance on individual mitigation levers, including reduction of global energy demand, decarbonisation of energy production, development of land-management systems, and the pace and scale of deploying carbon dioxide removal (CDR) technologies. The reliance of 1.5°C scenarios on these levers needs to be critically assessed in light of the potentials of the relevant technologies and roll-out plans. We use a set of five parameters to bundle and characterise the mitigation levers employed in the SR1.5 1.5°C scenarios. For each of these levers, we draw on the literature to define ‘medium’ and ‘high’ upper bounds that delineate between their ‘reasonable’, ‘challenging’ and ‘speculative’ use by mid century. We do not find any 1.5°C scenarios that stay within all medium upper bounds on the five mitigation levers. Scenarios most frequently ‘over use’ carbon dioxide removal with geological storage as a mitigation lever, whilst reductions of energy demand and carbon intensity of energy production are ‘over used’ less frequently. If we allow mitigation levers to be employed up to our high upper bounds, we are left with 22 of the SR1.5 1.5°C scenarios with no or low overshoot. The scenarios that fulfill these criteria are characterised by greater coverage of the available mitigation levers than those scenarios that exceed at least one of the high upper bounds. When excluding the two scenarios that exceed the SR1.5 carbon budget for limiting global warming to 1.5°C, this subset of 1.5°C scenarios shows a range of 15-22 Gt CO2 (16-22 Gt CO2 interquartile range) for emissions in 2030. For the year of reaching net zero CO2 emissions the range is 2039-2061 (2049-2057 interquartile range).

“This calls for an immediate acceleration of worldwide action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by all available means,”