Did Climate Change Cause the War in Syria? In a Word, No

Recently, Senator Bernie Sanders has been making some headlines with a novel explanation of terrorism and the Syrian war: climate change. As explanations go, I suppose this is preferable to the increasingly mainstream view on the Republican side that Islam is the root of all evil. But if we’re looking to really understand the situation, climate change is about as helpful as listening to CNN.
To see this, we only need to go back a few years to the beginning of the Arab Spring in 2011. For the uninitiated, the Arab Spring refers to various popular uprisings that occurred around the Middle East in countries that had been ruled by brutal dictatorships, most of which were supported by the United States. Unrest had surely been building under the surface in many of these countries for some time. But things didn’t boil over until the very end of 2010 and beginning of 2011 after the whistleblowing website Wikileaks published a massive number of secret diplomatic cables between the US and other governments. These cables were meant to stay private and were thus unusually candid. The cables revealed the extent of the corruption and oppression of the dictatorships in the Middle East and also showed that the US was aware of it. In spite of this, the US often supported these same regimes, usually in the name of fighting terrorism.
This all came to a head first in Tunisia, which was featured prominently in the leaked cables. The cables essentially laid the groundwork for popular outrage. Then, on December 17, 2010 a Tunisian man named Mohammed Bouazizi had his food cart confiscated from him by the authorities for not having an appropriate license. The interaction culminated with Mohammed being beaten by police. Later that day, Mohammed returned and set himself on fire in front of the provincial headquarters. This action became the spark that started the Tunisian rebellion in earnest. Within a month, the Tunisian President was ousted from office in the face of the protests. And with Tunisia as their model, uprisings quickly broke out across the Middle East from Egypt reaching up to Syria.
The cursory history offered above is not controversial. This is the conventional understanding of how the Arab Spring got started, even if some outlets may try to diminish the value of the Wikileaks revelations. And if we accept the explanation above, it’s difficult to see how climate change played much of a role. Perhaps unseasonably warm conditions made it easier for Mr. Bouazizi to set himself aflame, but that’s probably not what Bernie means. Blaming climate change for the Syrian crisis is a little like seeing a dead body with a gunshot wound and assuming that the cause of death was cancer. Technically possible, but extraordinarily unlikely.
The cause of the Arab Spring and the Syrian uprising is the extraordinarily oppressive and unstable conditions in the Middle East, conditions that the US government helped perpetuate through the war on terror and our continued presence in the region. By attempting to blame climate change for the unrest we see today, Bernie is obscuring this fact. We should appropriately view this as the mirror image of the Republican rhetoric on terrorism. They’re attempting to blame all Muslims to play to bigoted elements of their base; Bernie is using climate change to play to the environmentalist-leanings of his base. And neither will acknowledge the central truth that our continued intervention in the region under Bush and Obama alike, has only made the problem worse.

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