We will face evermore dilemmas like the one in Syria as the planet continues to warm. Conditions in Syria created the perfect storm — but not the last — for unrest and a very messy civil war.
Bashar Assad's rule has been dictatorial, out-of-touch, corrupt and mismanaged. Syria is home to numerous combative sectarian and ethnic groups. It is in the center of power struggles between the United States and Russia, Israel and Iran, al-Qaida and a number of other groups.
One match that set the Syrian situation ablaze was an unprecedented five-year drought, reported to be the worst since civilization started in the Fertile Crescent millennia ago. It decimated Syria's agricultural areas. The country's water resources dropped by half between 2002 and 2008 as drought was added to mismanagement, waste and overuse. In 2009, the United Nations and the International Committee of the Red Cross reported more than 800,000 Syrians had lost all their livestock.
Extreme weather tossed in another match. Wheat has been a staple crop for centuries and is a part of Syria's identity. Syria was traditionally an exporter, but in recent years has been forced to import it. But wheat (and cotton, the other staple crop encouraged by the Assad regime) requires considerable amounts of water. As the drought worsened, rains came infrequently, rivers ran dry, and underground aquifers were drained. Dust Bowl conditions set in.
Only 6 percent to 8 percent of global wheat production is traded across borders; any decrease in supply seriously impacts countries like Syria. The world's nine leading wheat-importing countries (led by Egypt) are in the Middle East. When the major wheat growing countries, China and Russia, experienced crop-devastating heat waves in 2010-12, they cut off exports.
Middle Eastern countries spend 35 percent of their incomes on food — as compared with 10 percent in developed countries. Wheat supplies plummeted, the price doubled and civil unrest followed.
A million Syrians were forced to abandon hundreds of small, agricultural villages where their families had been farming for centuries. They fled to cities such as Aleppo and Dara'a where supplies of water and food were already strained. These are the cities where discontent first blossomed. Syria's resources were already stressed by a million refugees from the war in Iraq and a rapidly growing population.
Syria is the perfect storm, but storm clouds exist everywhere — not just in the Middle East but Central and South America, South Asia and Africa. The lesson for all of us is that as global temperatures warm, the numbers of extreme weather events — droughts, heat waves, floods, storm, fires — are bound to increase. The dice have been loaded.
Dozens of generals and admirals have been warning us of this for years. Climate change is now included in reports and strategies from our Department of Defense and intelligence agencies — and those from NATO, Great Britain and Germany.
The defense establishment's judgments are echoed by those whose business is measuring risk: large insurance companies, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, International Energy Agency and groups representing tens of trillions of dollars of invested assets.
No single extreme weather event can be attributed to a warming planet, and a confluence of circumstances such as those existing in Syria are a necessary condition — but the military and financial powers that be expect more civil wars, mass migrations and destabilized states in the future.