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.

Voices of the Dart – hearing and helping our water bodies

A September workshop activity by Darcy Howle (GSI Intern) and John Bruun (GSI SDG Zero Hunger theme lead). Blog post by John

We can view the Dart as a form of living entity that many people share and benefit from. The Dart, one of our local rivers flows from its upland Dartmoor catchment, and as it gathers momentum travels down and past the wood and grassy landscapes, local villages and towns and joining the sea at Dartmouth. In recent years the land is getting drier, climatic we think. Since 2015 water has been extracted from the river to irrigate the land, which had not been needed before. There is a deep concern about how we can adapt to these changes.  The Bioregional learning centre, a South Devon Community Interest Company have convened a generic conversation to identify the Voice of the Dart. In September groups from GSI, Tidelines, South West Water, Soundart Radio, Westcountry Rivers Trust, the Environment Agency, the Bioregional learning centre (host) as well as artists and film makers, gathered for a workshop next to the river in Dartington: the start of a six month activity. A few from GSI joined: Darcy Howle found: ‘The artistic approach to viewing water was really eye opening. The mindfulness approach heightened your senses and made you experience aspects of the Dart that we take for granted.’ We all participated through walking 1-1 meetings down to the river, then group ideas sharing both at the river, later around a fire and a river story board. The emphasis was on active listening to one another, enabling formation of creative sharing ideas for the science and art. In essence the goal of finding the Voice of the Dart (and indeed any river) is to help save and share our water resources more effectively with this art and science fusion showing the importance of water in people’s lives – we heard the feeling of hope.

One of the workshop feedback activity sessions – where we all found these mushrooms living in a tree next to the river; experiencing the river (John Bruun): with sound, its living smell’s and touch.

GSI Seminar Series – Victor Leshyk: Philosophy of Science Art; a tool for building science literacy

Reposted from Daneen Cowling’s blog

For our second seminar of our summer series (11/05/2021) Victor Leshyk gave an art-filled talk on his philosophies for the creation, use, and power of Science Art. Victor led the audience through an extensive portfolio of his jaw-dropping work, exemplifying it’s importance of getting Science Art right to improve science literacy, but also fight back against the progress-limiting conspiracists.

Victor Leshyk is the Director of Science and Art at the Centre for Ecosystem Science and Society, Northern Arizona University. Victor has over 20 years experience expressing scientific knowledge through fine art. He has used this alliance to help scientists have means to be better communicators, and for the public to have the means to be better learners. Through this experience Victor has developed philosophy to apply to creating, developing and applying Science Art.

Victor explained his found philosophy through his artwork. To see examples of his work, please visit his website (we definitely recommend you check it out!). Victor started to question what Science Art can do and what we are aiming for, starting with the conjured images and meanings of a ‘worldview’. From this exploration, Victor took us how these views and depictions have changed overtime. These depictions have been limited by the edges of knowledge, but as Victor scaled down from the world view, to cells to particles – it is clear the frontiers of knowledge opened by science discoveries, have created new bounds to what we can understand and what we now compromise for a worldview.

Victor then highlighted the quote by Neil Degrasse Tyson: “The good thing about science is that it is true whether or not you believe in it”. But using the pandemic and the protests against orders to stay home backed by science, the science is still irrelevant if you can’t communicate the science to the other people. Hence, Victor proposes an alternative of: “A great thing about Art is that is can help determine whether people do believe in Science”.

Victor backed the ‘a picture tells a thousand words’ phrase with the stats – pictures can be understood 60000 times faster than words. Then told the importance of this during the Renaissance period, whereby much of scientific knowledge was stored through art, which has increased in detail. Scientific knowledge, artistic detail and storytelling accuracy have increased in tandem.

Victor then told the story of his own journey with Science Art. But soon discovered that simply making more art does not make the world more scientifically literate. Highlighted by the prevalence of conspiracy theorists and flat-earthers, Victor stated we are living in a crisis of science literacy. SciArt is hope to address this – existing as a spectrum. On one end ‘Found Art’ – the beauty in this existing in nature, or ‘Fine Art’ – free-form abstract art creating experiences. SciArt has capacity to create new worldviews – to communicate the breadth of life, the different behaviours, the diversity of past life and environments, mass extinction events and the biogeochemical changes that caused them. Victor demonstrated how he has used SciArt to ultimately help us learn from the past using these lenses. Learning from the past helps inform the present, which is especially true in the context of anthropogenic climate change and the pressures we are putting on the earth systemm. As Victore displays through his art – this is in parallel to the atmospheric and oceanic chemical changes that have happened before.

But what about data visualisation? Can’t graphs serve the same purpose as art to communicate science and data? Victor proved otherwise, arguing that the data can speak for itself but still not be heard. Reading graphs and understanding attributes is not accessible or as instantaneous as absorbing art. Word-less art can still communicate the same message of a comprehensive graph.

Science Art also lets us see through an experts eyes. Victor used the example of how, through the eyes of an expert, a lump of chert is rich evidence of past environments and life. SciArt can tell the story visible to the expert and reveal it to the world.

Science Art helps us care about things we cannot see, e.g. ecosystems exchanging and cycling matter. Victor also highlighted the power AciArt has to communicate the danger and urgency of a changing landscape. He has used the case of peatlands, which to view the landscape as is, it’s a peaceful, beautiful thing. But through the ‘x-ray’ of SciArt, erupting CO2 from thawing, dynamic movement of the peat, methane bursting through ice – this can all be revealed to show the true dangerous nature of the landscape.

As real as mud is – it’s a personality, this can be conveyed through SciArt. Responsible personification can help bring the process of microbe behaviour change with thawing, we can then easily see these real mechanisms. SciArt can therefore help build responsible drama with accurate passion. Science does not have to be emotionally sterile, the passion behind the work and it’s importance should also be illustrated. Victor shows the impact of this when climate change impacts such as wildfires, unlock legacy carbon that has been buried for geological-scale time. This gives emotion to the irreversibility of these tipping points.

The ‘Trowl Problem’, as Victor describes it, is the case of media communications of science that use a trowl to illustrate the finding. A missed opportunity and failure of imagination; use of SciArt instead would add tenfold to the article to help put the science into peoples understanding. This is evidently a current barrier to the application of SciArt.

Victor also explored the role of SciArt as invoking our intuitive visual reasoning – how we respond best and have done through history, to props and visuals to communicate and understand things. He exemplified this with mapping supply chains, and the additions of simple toy-like graphics can have for the digestibility of the science. Intuitive thinking also helps the use of SciArt to help us see into the future. Either through the pressures that will amount of services with future climate changes, or how iconic landscapes are projected to change. This helps reinforce changes to be very real and comprehendible further than statistics of temperature and precipitation change.

Popularisation of science in TV, movies etc. has also helped give science a face – but as a double-edged sword. It has portrayed scientists in a certain way that creates distrust and sensationalism. Victor argues, science fiction is another avenue for SciArt to create accurate portrayals and repair the trusts.

Victor finished on two services of SciArt: How it allows us to keep updating our ideas, we can continually add and develop past and current understandings through art and developments of it’s various mediums. Finally, Science Art helps us see our place in the world. The world is big, it is old and it is complex. SciArt helps make sense of the parts and processes of the world and the role we play amongst it all.

Victor Leshyk introduced, explained and demonstrated the power, potential, and inspirational beauty of Science Art. As well as demonstrating his portfolio and progression of science art, Victor also shared his courses he’s run with students to help these scientists be better communicators through SciArt. For information on this course, the questions posed to Victor and his seminar in full, the recording is available here.

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Deep Time Walk: Sidmouth Science Festival

By Daneen Cowling and Tom Powell

Discussing Snowball Earth overlooking Sidmouth

A week in advance of Earth Science week, Devon saw the arrival of the annual celebration for science in the seaside town of Sidmouth. The event hosts various engagement and educational activities across the spectrum of science, utilising the Sidmouth landscape as creative learning spaces. The Sidmouth Science Festival ran between 4th-13th October 2019.

This year scientists from the Global Systems Institute at the University of Exeter had the opportunity to lead a Deep Time Walk through the wooded paths across Sidmouth’s red cliffs. Dr Tom Powell, who specialises in how humanity interacts with the Earth system and Research Masters student Daneen Cowling specialising in deep time coastal carbonate weathering, together led a bespoke Sidmouth Deep Time Walk. Content was inspired by experiences on Deep Time Walks led by Dr Stephan Harding, and interactive storytelling on the Deep Time Walk App. Tom and Daneen were also able to inject their own knowledge into the conversations along the walk, as well as incorporating Sidmouth and Devon natural history to the walk.

Science was not the only input, creativity and engagement with science and the natural environment was also culminated from consultations with Anne-Marie Culhane. Using her experiences from her own innovations for Earth Walking and other events, we were able to cultivate an immersive activity educational and engaging.

Walking Deep Time

Meeting outside the Sidmouth Museum, we were greeted by a large group of enthusiastic walkers. Introducing the GSI and ourselves, we then explained the creative and scientific thought journey behind the walk story and route. Setting off towards the cliff we paused moments later to discuss the formation of the solar system. Starting from the absolute beginning, 4.5 billion years ago. Pushing on towards the coast we immersed in the chaotic birth and building of the foundation of our planet and its orbiting moon.

Wet and windy, fitting as we talk about the chaotic start to Earth’s existence

We then transgress the molten rock world to a chemically interesting and active planet. One by which the environment controls how life can soon arrive, adapt and evolve. As we gained elevation we also gained in the exciting stories and revolutions that Earth has witnessed through its history. From the arrival of life, the creation and crusting Earth surface, and the many episodes of climate extremes such as the several episodes of Snowball Earth – an ice enclosed Earth onset by runaway feedbacks, escaped by CO2 buildup from volcanism.

Further into the woodland trails, sheltered by the wealth of vegetation blanketing the floor and sheltering us from the encroaching rain, we entered the geological periods controlled by the rapid evolutions and diversifications of life on Earth. Exploring the extensive arrivals of new species in the seas, soils and skies as we walked, punctuated by shorter walks with no stories as we symbolise the scale of rapidity these changes took force. Reaching the Triassic period we were conveniently paused on top of High Peak cliff overlooking the red desert sandstones, aiding the visualisation of how the landscape would have looked at the time, as well as the different dominant species.

Descending back to the coast we whizzed through the relatively rapid geological periods that followed the Triassic, soon to arrive at the Holocene and the arrival of man. To contribute to the understanding of speed at which humans took the reins of planetary-scale environmental influence, we gave out Deep Time Line that represent human history (20,000 years) along the scale of a 10cm ruler. From the first evidence left by humans, it was not long until we were in the thick of the industrial revolution. From species extinction, global chemistry changes, ecosystem reductions and management to the uncontrolled emittance of CO2 triggering a human-made climate change acceleration, in such a short period of Earths history we have had geological scale influence, so much so we’ve created our own epoch; The Anthropocene.

Returning back to the coast we paused to panoramically view the landscape ahead of us; rolling hills with geometric hedges and patches of woodland, punctuated by clusters of houses. With this view we asked the group to spot an area that has not, in some way, been influenced by humans. Unsurprisingly, we came to the realisation we were looking at a very “unnatural natural” landscape. Shrinking down from the global scale of humans on the environment, it was clear to even be evident locally, which raises one of the many questions: Is anything natural anymore? Land management right down to the species of trees we want to grow for timber has varying impacts, in some cases able to introduce new species and ecosystems, but at the expense of the previous and the species that once thrived.

Overlooking human influence and management on the Sidmouth landscape

To finish the walk, Tom ​demonstrated ​a ‘​complex systems’ game ​introduced to us by Robin de Carteret. ​With all members of the group standing in a circle, we impose one simple rule; each person has to choose two other members of the group and remain equidistant to them at all times. This produces chaos as everyone moves to positions themselves with respect to their two chosen people, but gradually settles down as a stable arrangement emerges from the system. This brilliantly demonstrates the kinds of dynamic systems we study, in which stability can emerge as a result of dynamic interactions. We used the idea to demonstrate some of the characteristics of the Earth system by assigning a role to each member (e.g. rainforests, CO2, ice), and experimented with what happened when one or more parts of the system was perturbed by asking the people representing CO2 and rainforests to move slightly. At first this caused small ripples through the system, causing everyone to slightly adjust their position before stability was found again, but with a larger perturbation chaos ensued again, and the whole system broke down before eventually finding a new stable state. Finding this state does not happen on the same timescales for each “experiment”, as this depends on the resilience of the system and its efficiency to bounce back from perturbation, which captured the sensitivity scientists must account for in models.

The Sidmouth Science Festival was another success for engagement and educating, definitely with added enjoyment while doing so! Sidmouth will also be hosting a Clean Growth Event next February with more collaboration with the University of Exeter, so keep your eyes peeled.

To learn more about engagement and outreach opportunities with the University of Exeter Global Systems Institute, please contact:

Tom Powell | Daneen Cowling

To find out more about the organisations mentioned, please follow the links below:
Anne-Marie Culhane: Creative environmental and art projects

Stephan Harding: Deep Time Walk

Robin de Carteret: Interactive activities to connect with the natural world

Sidmouth Science Festival