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Explore our latest coverage of environmental issues, climate change and more.

Dunsmore: Climate Change and Civil Disorder

We don’t really need United Nations climate experts to warn us. If we merely look around America, we see polar vortexes in the deep south, record droughts in the south and west that starve crops and feed forest fires, excessive tornadoes churning through the country’s mid-section and once rare powerful hurricanes and blizzards plowing up the Atlantic coast seemingly every weekend. We know instinctively that our weather is profoundly changing - and yet far too many of us are seemingly oblivious or resigned to nature’s warnings. What will it take to shatter this indifference?

What if I were to tell you that what set off the current civil war in Syria, in which 150,000 people have been killed and millions made refugees - was not initially a dispute over democracy - or dictatorship - or religion. It was ignited by climate change. That was the conclusion in a lengthy report titled Understanding Syria, published last year in the Atlantic. The author is William Polk, one of America’s true renaissance men - diplomat, academic, adventurer and Middle East specialist for more than half a century. I wrote about his analysis at the time, but in view of the latest U.N. global climate update, it’s very much worth repeating.

Four years of devastating drought from 2006 to 2011 turned Syria into a land like the American dust bowl of the 1930s. It was the worst drought ever recorded in Syria.

Over a decade, extreme weather patterns dramatically reduced the arable land, the water and the crops needed to support a rapidly increasing population.

Those years of drought and dust storms caused 800,000 farmers to lose their livelihood and a quarter of them simply gave up their land. Crop failures reached 75%. As much as 85% of livestock died.

Having set the scene, historian Polk then described what happened next. Tens of thousands of frightened, angry, hungry and impoverished former farmers jammed into Syria’s towns and cities, where they constituted tinder ready to catch fire.

The spark was set on March 15th, 2011, when a relatively small group gathered in the town of Daraa to protest against government failure to help them. Instead of meeting with the protestors and hearing their complaints, the government saw them as subversives. President Bashar Assad ordered a military crackdown which backfired - and riots soon broke out all over the country. What had begun as a food and water issue, had turned into a political and religious death struggle.

That brief summary is a classic case study of how climate change can provoke violent breakdowns in civil order - and in Syria’s case become a full scale civil war. Syria is an early omen. Climate change, if left unchecked, will eventually lead to water and food shortages on a global scale that will threaten the very survival of millions of people. It’s an open question if any political system will be able to contain the kinds of anarchy that could be unleashed by such a human catastrophe.

Barrie Dunsmore is a veteran diplomatic and foreign correspondent for ABC News, now living in Charlotte.
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