One of the most widely publicized climate change studies of recent years was a paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academies of Sciences in 2015.1 Colin Kelley, a climate scientist who was then a postdoctoral fellow at the University of California, Santa Barbara, cowrote the article with colleagues in the fields of international relations and earth sciences at Columbia University. Based on Kelley’s data surveying rainfall patterns in the Fertile Crescent region of North Africa and West Asia, the authors argue that the 2006–9 drought in the region contributed to the outbreak of the Syrian civil war of 2011. The authors frame drought as a trigger event for rural-to-urban migration, which they argue brought about the conditions for protest and conflict. Furthermore, the authors assert that the events of the beginning of the war were made more likely due to decades of Syrian agricultural policy that overused subsurface water resources and created unsustainable farm dependency on water importation.
Since the publication of the article, titled “Climate Change in the Fertile Crescent and Implications of the Recent Syrian Drought,” journalists, environmentalists, and security analysts worldwide picked up the story and began framing the Syrian uprisings and the ensuing war as one of the world’s first “climate wars.” The National Geographic article announcing the study reported that “a severe drought, worsened by a warming climate, drove Syrian farmers to abandon their crops and flock to cities, helping trigger a civil war that has killed hundreds of thousands of people.”2 Although there has been a mixed reception of the article among both climatologists and international relations scholars,3 reporting on the potential for climate change to cause transnational conflict has only increased in the intervening years, with Syria remaining a key site representing the kind of social breakdown possible due to climate change. The story was picked up by major news outlets including the BBC, NPR, and the Washington Post. It quickly became a topic of editorializing by military officials and security experts in the West, who began to sound the alarm that climate change threatened globally distributed conflict in the twenty-first century. Although some environmental NGOs had, since the 1980s, suggested that water scarcity was the cause of resource conflicts,4 the PNAS article put climate-induced drought front and center in public debates over the effects of climate change, reaching an international audience of experts and laypeople.
The PNAS article inaugurated public circulation of the Syrian climate wars thesis, a narrative that presents drought as a trigger of rural-to-urban migration that unleashed social and state breakdown by creating an opening for Islamist groups to challenge the state. This thesis recapitulates long-standing orientalist narratives of rural and Third World environmental degradation, moving between tragic or romantic depictions of climate-affected Syrians and tropes of unruly masses of migrants overwhelming the cities, radicalizing, and erupting into violence. In the process, the narrative sidelines discussion of the economic grievances and political critiques of the Assad government that led to the 2011 uprisings by broad sections of Syrian society in the midst of the broader Arab uprisings. Reviewing journalism and environmental media that invoke the Syrian climate wars thesis, this essay explores how the framing of the Syrian war and Arab uprisings as triggered by climate-induced drought helps sustain a neocolonial discourse on both environmental migration and “failed” postcolonial states. Arguing that an overemphasis on scarcity and on Malthusian theories of resource conflict in reporting on the Syrian war builds on older, racialized narratives of social breakdown caused by the inability of the colonized to properly manage resources, the Syrian climate wars thesis reifies neoliberal precepts about the purported dependency of rural populations and reproduces a geopolitical mapping of conflict that configures Muslim-majority states as particularly subject to mismanagement and insurgency. In such depictions, especially journalist John Wendle’s article “Syria’s Climate Refugees,” representation of Syrians disabled in war helps frame the purported tragedy of the violence of climate change. The iconicity of the disabled climate refugee helps suggest the direct embodied vulnerabilities produced by widely distributed climate changes, in the process masking socioeconomic processes that contribute to interlinked mass mobility and debility. Noting that the climate wars thesis has been embraced by some left critics of climate change in the aftermath of the collapse of the Kyoto framework for international carbon mitigation, the essay concludes that a broader accounting of geopolitical and economic relations of migration in the region can help build a more contextual analysis of how environmental factors intersect with the social dynamics of embodied precarity.
Environmental War and the Racial Map of Conflict
The growing attention to climate change as a security problem has been influenced by the collapse of the Kyoto regime of international carbon emissions controls, which coincided with a shift in emphasis in climate policy circles from mitigation (reducing use of fossil fuels) to adaptation (developing strategies to manage the effects of higher global temperatures), and from international to national frameworks for action. Such transitions are evident in the US approach to climate diplomacy, which has emphasized the potential for global warming to increase transnational armed conflict. In 2007, the CNA Corporation, a US think tank composed of retired military officials, famously identified climate change as a “threat multiplier.” In the absence of a binding emissions control regime, this phrase has since been adopted by both the Pentagon and the United Nations to suggest policies aimed at adapting to a hotter world rather than collaboration to mitigate anthropogenic warming. The military threat multiplier concept invokes neutrality on the politics of climate science, instead focusing on what it considers climate change’s undeniable emerging conflict impacts. Retired General Chuck Jacoby, former Commander of US Northern Command, emphasizes the catastrophic potential of resource conflicts in a warming world, which he considers an undeniable effect of climate changes even though some Americans choose to deny the logic of the cause of those changes: “Many conflicts throughout our history have been based on resource competition. Increasingly in the future, we will be defining our national interest within those resource contests. . . . You can predict that that drives human activity in a way that can create conflict. . . . It can be considered a politicized issue. . . . I deal with the facts. Whatever the cause is less relevant to me than the effect.”5
Coincident with the rise of “new wars” theories that blur traditional divisions of war and peace, civilian and soldier, human and nonhuman, the view of climate change as threat multiplier reflects a broader attempt by states to bring broad social, economic, and environmental phenomena under the purview of state security. Yet there is some irony in the specific shift from climate change mitigation to adaptation schemes marked by the rise of environmental security discourse. While there is a scientific consensus on the destructive environmental and economic outcomes of current levels of carbon use, the idea that climate change leads to armed conflict remains one of the more dubious and contested claims among geographers and anthropologists who study environment-society interactions. But these ideas have become some of the most widely discussed impacts of climate change, galvanized by the emergent attention of military planners and international relations scholars to planetary environmental questions. In this nexus of environmental and militarized security thinking, it is possible to glimpse a resurgence of environmental determinist framings of human development that recapitulates older racial mappings of human development, evolution, and conflict.
Projects of US and European imperial intervention have long involved depictions of how heat, scarcity, and underdevelopment render colonized populations less modern. From the nineteenth century into the early twentieth century, climatic determinism focusing on the deleterious effects of heat guided a number of racial and colonial knowledge projects—ranging from behavioralist theories about crime to tropical medical theories of contagion to eugenic notions of race improvement.6 For Robert Vitalis, these traditions of imperial thought guided the rise of international relations as a discipline following World War I. In his book White World Order, Black Power Politics, Vitalis argues that the development of the discipline’s first major journal, Foreign Affairs, from its predecessor, Journal of Race Development, is instructive for understanding how the field’s conception of the international was informed by fears of the worldwide decline of white control in the face of anticolonial movements. Vitalis argues further that the discipline has witnessed varied rearticulations of its eugenic roots over the decades, not the least in discussions of oil as a “resource curse” that frames environmental degradation as an intractable problem of underdevelopment in the Global South.7 The mobilization of race as a mapping device to conceive of the “international” was especially important for the white settler colonies, where race provided a heuristic for evaluating the success of colonial projects in maintaining and extending a broader global project of white development.8 Racial mapping of threats to the international order thus grows out of longer colonial world-making projects and offers a naturalized common sense from which security experts worldwide often narrate risks arising from purportedly intractable cultural and strategic difference. In representations of international conflict in international journalism and policy arenas, it is commonplace for such risks to be written on Black and Brown bodies, returning theories of international conflict from a normative spatial understanding of the international to its racialized, developmental, and environmental-determinist roots.
In its post-9/11 articulation, the racialized geopolitical mapping of climate risk highlights majority-Muslim state collapse and the rise of Islamism as primary threats to the international system. Taking the displacement of Muslims as shorthand for potential radicalization, such invocations of climate-driven risk build upon Islamophobic assumptions that have become conventional in post-9/11 writings of Western security experts. Several of the locations that have been designated as climate migration hotspots by climate security experts are locations where migration is said to exacerbate the threats of Islamist insurgency. These crises are geographically configured within a tropicalizing discourse where the hotter, wetter, already unstable climatic regions may eventually bring the blowback of anthropogenic warming to the Global North—the region most historically responsible for anthropogenic carbon emissions that cause today’s rapid climate change. Emerging depictions of the figure of the climate refugee reify a racialized First/Third World division that grafts anthropogenic climate change onto a neocolonial racial map of economically dependent former colonial states. In such speculative risk scenarios, the worst-case outcome is articulated as state collapse followed by the rise of Islamist insurgency or an Islamic state. In such depictions, the concept of a “climate refugee” purports to encompass the otherwise hidden ecological contributions to the migration calculus.
The Syrian climate wars thesis transforms correlations between drought, displacement, and war into causal narratives. Such extrapolations suggest how liberal environmentalist attempts to appeal for attention to climate change occur in a context in which the rise of right-wing, fascistic political movements worldwide have effectively stalled international action on emissions mitigation. Climate security discourse makes the case on the traditional ideological ground of the right. But such strategies have had little success in convincing the reactionaries and have instead resulted in the distortion of how environmental factors interrelate with longer-term neoliberal causes of inequality and migration. The only evidence that such strategies work comes from the far right, which seizes on any talk of migration to argue for xenophobic border militarization. The white nationalist journal American Renaissance recently published an alarmist article suggesting that climate change was contributing to so-called demographic threats against majority-white states.9
If climate security discourse appears as part of a larger “Anthropocene” discourse that promises that transgressions of the nature/culture binary are a sign of new posthuman politics, the speculative risk scenarios being constructed in climate security circles appear more like a mix of old-fashioned Malthusianism and orientalism. Since the late 1980s, a number of feminist and postcolonial scholars have analyzed how conservation discourses feminize the tropics and render southern environments sites of unruly overreproduction, often drawing upon earlier tropes of colonial natural history.10 The narratives of climate-driven impacts on small agriculturalists rehash colonial development narratives that historically highlighted population pressures and rural-to-urban migration as crises of the state, forgoing analysis of how drought and weather events fit into the political economies of capitalism. Feminist development scholar Betsy Hartmann puts it as follows:
For those familiar with . . . neo-Malthusian models of environmental conflict developed in the 1980s and 1990s, climate refugee and conflict narratives seem very much like old wine in a new bottle. . . . Drawing on old colonial stereotypes of destructive Third World peasants and herders, [these] degradation narratives go something like this: population-pressure induced poverty makes Third World peasants degrade their environments by over-farming or over-grazing marginal lands. The ensuing soil depletion and desertification then lead them to migrate elsewhere as ‘environmental refugees,’ either to other ecologically vulnerable rural areas where the vicious cycle is once again set in motion or to cities where they strain scarce resources and become a primary source of political instability.11
Degradation narratives play a particular role in academic and nonprofit discourses on the relationship between southern environmental disaster and migration, as degradation is understood to be a deterministic outcome of poverty as well as a source of displacement. In a key essay on the exhaustion of liberal paradigms for studying Third World environmental problems, Raymond Bryant argues that such assumptions of the relationship between poverty, displacement, scarcity, and conflict constitute a “misreading of the Third World’s environmental problems.” For Bryant, degradation narratives make four interconnected interpretive errors: (1) a deterministic view of poverty as inherently leading to destructive environmental practices; (2) a failure to differentiate the global poor by subsistence practices, location, race, gender, or other factors; (3) an emphasis on First World environmental intervention as a presumed solution to degradation, without considering the role of First World economic policy in creating poverty; and (4) a naturalization of poverty geographically located in the Third World, which subsumes those affected by poverty into developmentalist progress narratives. As such, degradation narratives view the participation of the poor in environmental destruction as inevitable, and the intervention of NGOs and northern states as natural solutions to the deterministic effects of poverty on the environment.12 Jan Selby and Clemens Hoffman suggest that scholars pay attention to the ways that deterministic precepts about environmental causes of conflict have come to be embedded as common sense in some academic and policy sectors; narratives such as the Syrian climate war thesis are troubling evidence of
just how entrenched certain assumptions and narratives about climate security are, right across western governments, militaries, and civil society—as well as, if to a lesser degree, in academia. . . . Most climate security discourse is also indebted to the Malthusian tradition for its core ontological and political premises. Its overwhelmingly environmental determinist worldview ascribes causal primacy to environmental resources—and especially to presumed resource scarcities—in generating societal stress, breakdown, and conflict. Moreover, just as Malthus identified the poor as the main social agents of resource crisis, so contemporary climate security discourse tends to interpret the global poor, and sub-Saharan Africans in particular, as the most likely subjects—and also sources—of climate related conflict.13
Although climate change under certain conditions can exacerbate preexisting social inequalities that may drive migration, poverty, homelessness, and other violent symptoms of neoliberal development and colonial militarism, the speculations of risk articulated in the Syrian climate wars thesis reflect how stories of the tragic lives of climate refugees are coming to embody the hope for militarized environmentalist intervention as climate research and policy becomes suffused with the logics of state security. As the dark-skinned human face of late carbon liberalism’s self-destructive consumption and waste practices, the economically and physically debilitated climate refugee demonstrates how unchecked and rapid warming of the post-Kyoto era is figured by Western environmentalists as the proximate cause for destabilizing challenges to the US-led international order of states.
Drought and Debility: The Syrian Climate Refugee
Journalism and policy reports on environmental migration often make speculative causal claims about the relationship of climate change to migration. By focusing on the vulnerability of Syrian refugee bodies, including those of women, children, and the disabled, such reporting attempts to distill widely distributed geophysical changes in climate into icons of climate-driven suffering. At times, visual depictions of Syrians entering Europe provide the focal point for generic reporting on the worldwide potential for climate-driven displacement, resource conflict, and war. An article on commondreams.org uses a photo of a Syrian man emerging from the Mediterranean, carrying a child onto the Greek island of Lesbos, as an illustration of the need to resettle climate refugees. In the background, a group of refugees climb off an inflatable craft as another man carries a second child toward the island.14 On May 18, 2016, Newsweek published the article “Should Europe Be Concerned about Climate Refugees?” accompanied by a photo that depicted a large group of Syrian refugees crossing into Jordan at the Hadalat crossing east of Amman. Foregrounding a group of parents struggling to carry children and belongings, headscarves shielding their faces from wind and dust, the article cited the PNAS study to claim, “Drought linked to climate change devastated rural areas in Syria, driving people to overcrowded cities and fueling discontent in the urban centers where protests first erupted in 2011.” Reiterating stereotyped conflict geographies that separate north and south into zones of stability and violence, the article presents Europe as a “haven” despite the widespread xenophobic animus emerging during the so-called refugee crisis. In the process, authors Rob Bailey and Gemma Green figure war and climate change in the “Middle East” as the cause of a refugee crisis that European states could have predicted but did not:
Ongoing conflict in the Middle East and the unsustainable accumulation of refugees in neighboring countries should have been warning enough for Europe’s governments. Things are unlikely to improve any time soon. Europe is a haven of stability in a neighborhood of fragility. From North Africa to the Middle East and across the Sahel into the Horn of Africa, a great many of Europe’s neighbors are at risk of, or experiencing, conflict. Climate change will make a bad situation worse. As a recent report for the G7 argued, it will undermine livelihoods, increase local resource competition, aggravate pre-existing tensions and destabilize markets, ultimately increasing the risk of social upheaval. In extreme cases, climate change may leave people with little option but to move. One recent analysis found temperatures in the Middle East and North Africa could be so extreme by the end of the century that some areas may become uninhabitable.15
The sources of vulnerability for Syrian refugees in such accounts tend to highlight drought, malnutrition, and the rapid breakdown of social safety. The result, according to these articles, is the mass debilitation of populations, which results in their increasing mobility. A key report by the British medical journal Lancet makes the connection between climate change, migration, and the breakdown of physical and mental health. Syria becomes an example of such connections in a series of links between climate change, drought, malnutrition, displacement, and war. According to the 2018 edition of the journal’s annual report on climate change and public health, “In Syria, many attribute the initial and continued conflict to the rural-to-urban migration that resulted from a climate change-induced drought. However, the factors leading to the violence are wide-ranging and complex, with clear quantifiable attribution particularly challenging. Indeed, climate change, as a threat multiplier and an accelerant of instability, is often thought of as important in exacerbating the likelihood of conflict. Nonetheless, migration driven by climate change has potentially severe impacts on mental and physical health, both directly and by disrupting essential health and social services.” Here, the authors of the annual report connect widely distributed climate changes to the embodied vulnerabilities of migrants fleeing conflict. Such representations of disability as an indicator of climate change are increasingly prevalent in northern journalism on international conflicts.
Wendle’s article on climate refugees is an extended case in point. The cover story of the March 2016 issue of Scientific American, titled “Syria’s Climate Refugees,” announces that “fugitives from Syria’s devastated farmlands represent what threatens to become a worldwide crush of refugees from countries where unstable and repressive governments collide with a toxic mix of climate change, unsustainable farming practices, and water mismanagement.”16 In the article, Wendle argues that “drought, which is being exacerbated by climate change and bad government policies, has forced more than a million Syrian farmers to move to overcrowded cities.” Despite the large numbers of farmers portrayed as climate refugees, the story and accompanying photo essay offer only one story of a farmer fleeing Aleppo and another of a formerly successful well digger who left the outskirts of Kobane. Their stories are accompanied by a general series of photographs depicting the arrival and settlement of refugees on the Greek island of Lesbos, where Wendle conducted interviews.
For most of its text, the article relies on the research by Kelley et al. in PNAS.17 Notably, that study does not analyze the local hydrological effects of drought within Syria, instead making arguments about the broader Fertile Crescent region. The drought in Syria was most severe in the desert east of the country; its epicenter was the northeastern Hasakah governate, which today falls in the YPG-controlled, Kurdish-majority Rojava autonomous region. A detailed review of the PNAS article and broader claims of the Syrian war as driven by climate change was published in Political Geography in 2017 by Jan Selby et al., who highlight the significant effects that the Assad government’s neoliberal agricultural reforms had on small farmers in the lead-up to the drought. They argue that “inattention to Syria’s changing political economy” leads proponents of the Syrian climate thesis “to systematically overstate the impacts, both direct and indirect, of the 2006/7 to 2008/9 drought on migration.”18 Paying attention to the specific types of water use for the main agricultural sectors of different parts of the country, the authors conclude that drought’s most lasting impacts on agriculture in the east were not ultimately coincident with the large-scale migration events described in the Syrian climate wars thesis. Neoliberal policies in the later years of the Bashar al-Assad government are more likely reasons that the “breadbasket” of northeast Syria transformed from an agricultural exporting region to a region in which farmers had persistent difficulty in accessing infrastructure to maintain operations through the regular cycles of drought. Analyzing a small number of interviews with refugees in Jordan, Selby et al. are perhaps too quick to dismiss the idea that migrants from the northeast may have been politically involved in the Syria uprisings; Hasakah was the site of some of the first antiregime protests of 2011, led by Kurds, and the retrospective interviews in refugee camps may be affected by the concern for retribution among migrants. Still, their broader points that political and economic grievances were deep drivers of the war and that there is insufficient evidence that climate change was a substantial trigger of migration in this area are sound.
It is beyond the scope of Wendle’s article in Scientific American to substantiate his claim, taken from the PNAS article, that “as many as 1.5 million Syrian farmers” were displaced by the drought. He focuses on the individual story of fifty-four-year-old well digger Kemal Ali to illustrate the association of climate change and the so-called Mediterranean migrant crisis. Describing how during the 2006–10 drought, the depth of wells Ali drilled grew from seventy to seven hundred meters, Wendle links a series of economic, social, and physical factors to the trigger event of a declining water table: “Ali’s business disappeared. He tried to find work but could not. Social uprisings in the country began to escalate. He was almost killed by crossfire. Now Ali sits in a wheelchair at a camp for wounded and ill refugees on the Greek island of Lesbos.”19 Representation of disability in the tragic mode helps Wendle account for the force of climate in unleashing a chain of disruptions in Ali’s social world, resulting in his family’s eventual passage to Turkey and by boat to Greece:
Ali likewise tried to stick it out, but few of his former customers could afford to drill as deep as the water had sunk. And the war made ordinary activities practically impossible. His home village was only a short distance from the wreckage of Kobane on the Turkish border. That town was in ruins by the time the Kurds succeeded in recapturing it from ISIS, the militant group that has been terrorizing the region. Last July he headed for Syria’s capital, Damascus, hoping to find work and a place where his family could be safe. He was on his way there by bus when a rocket struck the vehicle. He awoke in a Damascus hospital, paralyzed from the waist down. The blast had peppered his spine with shrapnel. Somehow his family managed to get him back north, and together they made their way across Turkey to the shores of the Aegean.20
Notably, Ali’s paralysis is the culmination of a series of factors—economic hardship, the arrival of ISIS, and the dangerous urban-to-rural migration—purportedly triggered by drought. Disability here serves as a means of distilling the widely distributed effects of the climate system on affected migrants, as those fleeing war conjoin the specter of mass debilitation under climate change with the intensification of global mobilities wrought by ecosystemic collapse. Uniting disabled bodies with hypermobility under conditions of war, such narratives attempt to anthropomorphize the climate system in the bodies of vulnerable Syrian migrants—figures like Ali, the children emerging from the waters of the Mediterranean, or the women struggling to cross the Jordanian border.
Although the narrative of Ali’s transformation from successful laborer to paralyzed refugee starts with drought, it is notable that his actual decision to leave his home came not with the depletion of his business but later, in July 2015, following both the siege of Kobane and surrounding villages by ISIS and, eventually, the June 2015 Kobane massacre in which ISIS carried out a series of suicide attacks. Control was reestablished by the Kurdish YPG forces following a US-led air bombardment that devastated the city. None of these events—which represent more sudden and severe forces of displacement—appear in Wendle’s article. Instead, Wendle emphasizes issues of water and agricultural collapse in producing disability, displaying a photograph of a resting Ali attended by his family members at the Pikpa camp on Lesbos:
Ali and his family are trying to somehow get him to Germany, where they hope surgeons will be able to restore his ability to walk. Outdoors in his chair to get a few minutes of sun, Ali is thinking of the friends he left behind in Syria. “The life of a farmer has always been hard,” he says. “Their biggest problem was water—period. Because water is life.” His son wheels him indoors for a rest. Weak winter sunlight partially illuminates a big room lined with a couple of dozen beds. Plastic sacks and cheap duffle bags are heaped everywhere, holding their owners’ few remaining possessions. As Ali’s children lift him into bed, his face crumples in pain and exhaustion. Fardous, his 19-year-old daughter, tucks his colostomy bag against his body and arranges the donated blankets to cover him. “It is written in the Quran,” Ali repeats. “Water is life.”21
Wendle ends the article here, invoking both the Quran and the phrase “water is life,” which has become an Indigenous rallying cry against oil pipelines since Standing Rock activists popularized its translation from the Lakota mni waconi. Inscribing a Quranic invocation of protest against the carbon economy, the end of the article plays on a contrast between an environmental ethic and the association of Syria with the rise of ISIS and Islamist insurgent groups. Although it is only implied in Ali’s story, international security discourse on the Syrian war as a climate war draws on the specter of ISIS as climate change’s ultimate challenge to the liberal secular state system. Elsewhere in the climate security literature, the association is more explicit. The German think tank Adelphi, in a study commissioned by the German government, contends that drought led directly to both the onset of war and the rise of ISIS and the al-Nusra Front.22 The report relies heavily on the listing of ethnic groups—ranging from Alawites to Kurds to Sunni Arabs—as a shorthand for conflicting interests already present in the society. In this already potent mix of social differences framed by poor state governance, Adelphi claims, “though far from being the only or the primary driver of conflict in Syria, climate change did play a catalytic role in accelerating the descent into fragility and facilitating the rise of NSAGs [nonstate armed groups].”23 Emphasizing the role of scarcity, the report claims that ISIS was able to mobilize water scarcity toward recruitment of migrant herders:
Farmers and herders in the northeast who were faced with crop failure and livestock death had little to no economic prospects and there were no adequate social safety nets in place for them under the Assad regime. As ISIS pays its fighters an estimated U.S.D. 400 per month, about five times as much as a normal wage in the region, it also provides economic incentives for young and unemployed people with few perspectives [sic]. Economic hardship is a primary driver for Syrians to join armed groups, as unemployment reaches up to 90 percent and most salaries of those who still have employment are insufficient for meeting basic needs.24
From Climate War to Climate Revolution
Although less detailed, videos in the Weather Channel’s Climate 25 project claim that drought led directly to the Syrian revolution. The Climate 25 purports to air the ideas of twenty-five of the “smartest” voices on climate, energy, and security; its lead video throws into doubt such branding. Thomas Friedman, the New York Times opinion columnist who elsewhere refers to himself as a “tourist with an attitude,” claims, “A million Syrians—farmers and herders, really conservative people—left their ranches and fields in the countryside and swamped all the major Syrian towns and cities as they were really driven off the land by the drought, putting huge pressure on the infrastructure. These farmers did not start the revolution, but with the first call of ‘Allahu Akbar’ by the revolutionaries, they were very eager to join to bring Assad down. There were many, many climate refugees among them.”25 The Climate 25 includes similar testimony from a Syrian informant emphasizing a chain of events leading from drought to migration to Islamic revolution. Syrian refugee and New America Foundation fellow Farah Nasif gives a short testimonial concluding that “everything changed” with the drought event, provoking public outrage at the government and the eventual rise of Islamism.26 In the video on the Climate 25 website, accompanied by links to media reports of the PNAS study, Nasif concludes that drought generated the individual feeling of anger that led many in the society to reject Assad. Displaying a framed photo of her family’s agricultural land that shows fallow fields and a small group of sheep and goats grazing, Nasif testifies to the power of the drought to create hostility toward the Assad government:
We were OK. . . . Like any normal family. Everything changed when the drought [came]. . . . Everyone suffered from those sandstorms. This is our land. All lands become like this—completely yellow desert. Nothing, no life, no chance to do anything. . . . Government doesn’t help us at that time in anything. The drought is one of the main reasons for the revolution. They have that, ugh, that angry, that annoying, that hate for the government, for the Assad government and what he do for them. They said oh the government doesn’t help me before and I don’t expect any future, so I will destroy it. Last year I leave Syria forever because the situation is become very horrible. The Islamists become more power, they targeted the women, they targeted the activists, they threaten me, threaten my family, so I was not even able to return back to that part of Syria.27
There is tension here in the framing of the revolution as both popular and as determined by climate. Notably, although the drought arose in 2006, Nasif’s family, like Ali’s, actually migrates with the intensification of conflict, especially as ISIS gained ground in the east in 2013. Sources of violence such as the actions of regional powers and the US arming non-ISIS Islamist militias do not appear in the narrative. This video as such reflects some of the ironies and ambivalences of grafting Syrian opposition narratives onto the climate war thesis. Taken together, the videos of Friedman and Nasif suggest that climate change spurred instability and dissent in Syria, yet the ultimate lesson about whether a revolution in Syria could be positive remains unarticulated. The title of Nasif’s video—“How Can Climate Change Help Ignite a Revolution?”—could be interpreted to suggest that such a revolution against Assad’s dictatorship was necessary, but Friedman’s testimony invokes stereotyped visions of Islamist extremism that reinforce military security narratives of climate change as a trigger event for war.
Such stories about drought and revolution in Syria did not come out of thin air. They are the most common types of narrative that make claims for climate change as a trigger of war and political transformation. In 2007, a number of researchers, journalists, and policymakers, including UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, designated the war in Darfur as the world’s first drought-intensified climate conflict. Subsequent studies have questioned this designation, arguing that the timing of drought was not coincident with the outbreak of conflict in Sudan. However, even among some more careful commentators who are skeptical of exaggerated narratives of climate war, rhetorical gestures toward the influence of climate change upon revolution sometimes guide speculations about conflict triggers. Journalist Christian Parenti’s book Tropic of Chaos begins with a careful theoretical model that discusses today’s “catastrophic convergence” of poverty, militarism, and environmental change, but at times devolves into overwrought claims about the triggering force of climate change, particularly in his rendering of militant Islamism and ethnoreligious violence more broadly. Parenti depicts the history of recent wars in Afghanistan as such: “Yes, religious fanaticism, ethnic hatreds, and imperial ambitions are the larger moving pieces, but climate change also fuels the conflict in Afghanistan. First, the violence began as the result of a drought forty years ago. Second, climate stress creates poverty and desperation, which now feeds the insurgency against NATO occupation. Third, climate change causes interstate rivalries, which play out as covert operations inside Afghanistan. Finally, and very importantly, opium poppy is drought resistant to an extent alternative crops are not, and NATO attacks poppy while the Taliban defends it.”28 Despite the lack of any discussion in Parenti’s book of how atmospheric carbon levels in 1970 might have affected drought in the Afghan-Pakistan borderlands, Parenti claims that climate-induced drought contributed to Mohammed Daoud Khan’s coup against the Afghan monarchy, minimizing the importance of an ongoing set of Cold War political struggles between communists and Islamists that were taking shape in Kabul.
The boldest set of claims about the relation of climate change to revolution comes from geographer Andreas Malm, who attributes the Egyptian uprising and the Syrian war to climate change. Malm depicts climate change as a potential trigger—though not the underlying cause—that ignites a larger social ecology of neoliberal crisis: “Global warming cannot be a sufficient cause for a revolution: but it can be one ingredient in a powder keg, and it can, at least potentially, light the fuse.”29 Malm’s contention about Egypt depends on a series of unsubstantiated inferences about the influence of climate change on world wheat markets, which experienced price spikes leading up to the Arab uprisings: “The bodily metabolism of the Egyptian population revolves around bread, accounting for a full third of daily caloric intake; subsidized bread made of imported wheat is the staple good of the nation. But due to the drought, Egypt received 40 percent less Russian wheat in the second half of 2010 over the equivalent period of 2009. . . . Expensive bread was an aggravating factor, one among several triggers unleashing oceans of dammed up discontent onto the streets, and in this respect, Tunisia and Egypt followed a script as old as revolution itself.”30
Malm goes on to quote Trotsky’s description of female textile workers striking for bread in Petrograd in February 1917, which he describes as being “the moment that set the whole train of 1917 in motion.”31 The same goes for Syria, according to Malm. Citing the PNAS study about the drought, which has been referenced by all of our observers so far, Malm claims, “Estimates range between one and two million displaced farmers and herders. Fleeing the wastelands, they hunkered down on the outskirts of Damascus, Aleppo, Homs, Hama, joining the ranks of proletarians seeking to find a living from construction work, taxi-driving, or any other, mostly unavailable, job. But they were not alone in feeling the heat. Due to the drought, the marketplaces of the country exhibited one of the central vectors of climatic influence on popular livelihoods: doubling, tripling, uncontrollably spiking food prices.”32 Emphasizing the rural roots of the Syrian uprising, Malm repeats some of the conventions of Malthusian development narratives, stressing the instability generated by rural-to-urban migration and land degradation. The fact that Malm reverses the moral opprobrium against impoverished rural migrants in order to idealize their purported revolutionary zeal does not mitigate the distorting effect of such claims about climate as a trigger of revolution.
Given that Parenti and Malm are both Marxists who attempt to synthesize critiques of neoliberal capitalism with accounts of climate change—in the process countering a universalizing species-thinking infusing much Anthropocene discourse with accounts of class and national difference—it is notable that they emerge as proponents of the language of trigger events that frames the “threat multiplier” rhetoric of the military establishment’s emerging climate security discourse. Such speculative renderings of climate change as security crisis are intended, in Parenti’s and Malm’s works, to provide an intersection site for integrating political, economic, social, and ecological analysis. To be fair, they each provide caveats about the complex interrelation of social and ecological factors in conflict, and Parenti repeatedly raises problems in determining causality in the chain of events linking climatic to social processes. However, given the scale at which the accounts are framed and the speculative cast of their conclusions about drought, such works reflect an embrace of climate change as a trigger of conflicts and displacements. Although they do not embrace the most destructive Malthusian precepts of the climate wars thesis, their particular attempts to shift from an “old materialism” (one based on a notion of the human capacity to labor and transform nature into commodities) to a “new materialism” (one that stresses the agential power of nature itself) smuggle in elements of climate determinism.
Other emerging strands of materialist analysis—particularly among the works of geographers working in the tradition of political ecology—offer more promising pathways for understanding the interrelation between climatic processes and geopolitical economy. John Ribot, a geographer who is studying the causes of migration for Senegalese farmers leaving for Europe, argues against the climate wars thesis and argues that exclusion from markets and political processes are the proximate causes of precarity in many climate-affected regions of the Sahel. For Ribot, writing on the abstractions of Anthropocene discourse, the underlying material bases of vulnerability cannot be understood by centering the peasant-environment relation as in Malthusian degradation narratives. Instead, it is necessary to highlight a chain of factors that affect peasant households’ capacities for resilience in the face of environmental change:
Grounded social-science research does not explain the precarity of the peasant household or its security and ability to withdraw into subsistence as a mere proximate relation between a household and the environment or hazard. Precarity and security are explained by locating the individual in the household, community, polity, market, nation and a differentiated global political economy. They are explained by people’s political leverage to shape these contexts. This applies to any social analysis of precarity—of the peasant, the young, the old, the disenfranchised—including climate-related vulnerability analysis. In the Anthropocene, some causal analysis must trace stressors to greenhouse gas effluents, explaining how these effluents are enabled and how their regulation and mitigation are products of a complex social and political-economic history. These are the causes of stressors in the sky. They are distinct from underlying vulnerability.33
The neo-Malthusian discourse of climate migration emerges at a time when the rise of right-wing political coalitions and border militarization already conceive of the world map as a place rife with racialized risk. For states that are settler colonies or former European colonial powers, the specter of increased migration appears to generate both representational strategies and governing technologies that aim to manage and contain climate disasters that are increasingly configured as inevitable in the post-Kyoto order. Rather than inaugurating a new materialism, a new dawn of understanding human imbrication in the geophysical forces of the Earth, they rehearse the oldest form of materialism, which emphasizes how formal causes in the guise of nature structure social life. In the process, they dispense with close attention to how migration is embedded in the forces of transnational capital, United States empire, and oil-fueled militarization; the figure of the climate refugee and the specter of the climate war instead offer a tragic, disabled icon of crisis that can reconfigure forms of mapping that localize cartographies of risk among the darker nations, particularly Muslim-majority states. The Syrian climate wars thesis reflects these developments in Western climate change discourse, signaling that migration will appear as the blowback of the climate system rather than a product of geopolitical struggles over the region in the wake of US wars, the subsequent rise of ISIS, and intervention by other regional and international powers.
Neel Ahuja is an associate professor of feminist studies and a core faculty member of the Critical Race and Ethnic Studies program, University of California, Santa Cruz.
2. Craig Welch, “Climate Change Helped Spark Syrian War, Study Says,” National Geographic, March 2, 2015, https://www.nationalgeographic.com/news/2015/3/150302-syria-war-climate-change-drought.
3. Robinson Meyer, “Does Climate Change Cause More War?,” Atlantic, February 12, 2018, https://www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2018/02/does-climate-change-cause-more-war/553040; Courtland Adams et al., “Sampling Bias in Climate-Conflict Research,” Nature Climate Change 8, no. 3 (March 2018): 200–203, https://doi.org/10.1038/s41558-018-0068-2.
5. Charles Jacoby, “The Biggest National Security Threat You Haven’t Thought Of,” Climate 25, Weather Channel, accessed December 1, 2020, https://features.weather.com/climate25/project/general-charles-h-jacoby-ret/.
6. David Livingstone, “Changing Climate, Human Evolution, and the Revival of Environmental Determinism,” Bulletin of the History of Medicine 86, no. 4 (2012): 564–95; Steven Frenkel, “Geography, Empire, and Environmental Determinism,” Geographical Review 82, no. 2 (1992): 143–53.
7. Robert Vitalis, White World Order, Black Power Politics: The Birth of American International Relations (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2015), 193.
8. Iyko Day, Alien Capital: Asian Racialization and the Logic of Settler Colonial Capitalism (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2016).
9. Casey Williams, “What Happens When the Alt-Right Believes in Climate Change?,” Jewish Currents, August 13, 2018, https://jewishcurrents.org/what-happens-when-alt-right-believes-climate-change.
10. See, most notably, Suzanna Sawyer and Arun Agrawal, “Environmental Orientalisms,” Cultural Critique 45 (Spring 2000): 71–108. See also Donna Haraway, Primate Visions: Gender, Race, and Nature in the World of Modern Science (New York: Routledge, 1989); Ramachandra Guha, “American Environmentalism and Wilderness Preservation: A Third World Critique,” Environmental Ethics 11, no. 1 (1989): 71–83; Londa Scheibinger, Nature’s Body: Gender in the Making of Modern Science (Boston: Beacon, 1993); Mary Louise Pratt, Imperial Eyes: Travel Writing and Transculturation (New York: Routledge, 1992).
11. Betsy Hartmann, “Rethinking Climate Refugees and Climate Conflict: Rhetoric, Reality, and the Politics of Policy Discourse,” Journal of International Development 22 (2010): 234.
12. Raymond L. Bryant, “Beyond the Impasse: The Power of Political Ecology in Third World Environmental Research,” Area 29, no. 1 (March 1997): 6–7.
13. Jan Selby and Clemens Hoffman, “Rethinking Climate Change, Conflict, and Security,” Geopolitics 19 (2014): 748.
14. Jessica Corbett, “‘We Have to Get This Right’: Historic Bill in the U.S. House Would Create Specific Protections for Climate Refugees,” Common Dreams, October 14, 2019, https://www.commondreams.org/news/2019/10/24/we-have-get-right-historic-bill-us-house-would-create-specific-protections-climate.
15. Rob Bailey and Gemma Green, “Should Europe Be Concerned about Climate Refugees?,” Newsweek, May 18, 2016, https://www.newsweek.com/should-europe-be-concerned-about-climate-refugees-460661.
16. John Wendle, “Syria’s Climate Refugees,” Scientific American 314, no. 3 (March 2016): 52–53.
17. Kelley et al., “Climate Change.”
18. Jan Selby et al., “Climate Change and the Syrian Civil War Revisited,” Political Geography 60 (2017): 238.
19. Wendle, “Syria’s Climate Refugees,” 52.
20. Wendle, 54.
21. Wendle, 55.
22. Katharina Nett and Lukas Rüttinger, Insurgency, Terrorism and Organised Crime in a Warming Climate: Analysing the Links between Climate Change and Non-state Armed Groups (Berlin: Adelphi, 2016), 23–24.
23. Nett and Rüttinger, 23–24.
24. Nett and Rüttinger, 23–24.
25. Thomas Friedman, “The Revolution Fueled by Climate Change,” Climate 25, Weather Channel, accessed December 1, 2020, https://features.weather.com/climate25/project/thomas-friedman/.
26. Farah Nasif, “In Syria, ‘Everything Changed with the Drought,’” Climate 25, Weather Channel, accessed December 1, 2020, https://features.weather.com/climate25/project/farah-nasif.
28. Christian Parenti, Tropic of Chaos: Climate Change and the New Geography of Violence (New York: Nation Books, 2011), 99–100.
29. Andreas Malm, “Tahrir Submerged? Five Theses on Revolution in the Era of Climate Change,” Nature Capitalism Socialism 25, no. 3 (2014): 29.
30. Malm, 30.
31. Malm, 30.
32. Andreas Malm, “Revolutions in a Warming World: Lessons from the Russian to the Syrian Revolutions,” Climate & Capitalism, March 17, 2018, https://climateandcapitalism.com/2018/03/17/malm-revolutionary-strategy.
33. Jesse Ribot, “Cause and Response: Vulnerability and Climate in the Anthropocene,” Journal of Peasant Studies 41, no. 5 (2014): 668.