Syria and climate change - did the media get it right?

By Alex Randall, Climate Change & Migration Project Manager at Climate Outreach

In 2015 the media exploded with coverage about climate change and the conflict in Syria. Our latest report makes the case that most of the media coverage failed to properly understand the links. But none the less there are important connections that need to be explored.

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The Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan now hosts tens of thousands of refugees. Image: European Commission DG ECHO, creative commons licence

A combination of global events and new research meant that the press took a sudden interest in how climate change may have played a role in igniting the conflict in Syria. Events across Europe and within Syria meant that the conflict and subsequent flows of people out of the Middle East were already one of 2015’s biggest media stories. 

The sharp increase in drownings in the Mediterranean, and the refugee camp in Calais, meant the English speaking media were already devoting huge amounts of attention to the situation in Syria. Then in March 2015 Collin Kelley and his colleagues published a paper that linked the climate-driven drought Syria had experienced to the start of the violence.

At this point the media exploded with coverage about how climate change was responsible for the violence in Syria and for the resulting refugee situation across Europe. While Kelley’s research was robust and measured, the media’s coverage was not. And in seeking out a compelling story the press mostly failed to properly explain how climate, drought, migration and conflict were connected in Syria. The version of events they told fuelled anti-migrant and refugee sentiments that already exist in European society.

Media narrative

This is roughly how the media narrative went. The media argued that years of drought had destroyed much of Syria’s agriculture. And this drought was made worse by climate change. The drought, combined with widespread corruption and mismanagement by the regime had destroyed rural livelihoods. 

Faced with little choice people moved from the countryside into Syria’s cities. Of course there was variation between stories, but looking at the coverage together, a clear narrative emerges.

After this point is where the media narrative gets rather vague. The story usually then goes that newly arrived migrants fought with existing residents over scarce resources. In other words this was a classic resource war, in which migrants clashed with an existing population because there wasn’t enough to go around. 

The coverage really took off when Prince Charles claimed that he had predicted these kinds of climate-driven resource wars decades ago. The implication was that migrants arriving in Syria’s cities sparked violence.

This is a troubling narrative. Partly because it’s not what actually happened. But also because of the way it represented migrants. The narrative suggests that when people migrate - even internally in this case - they are likely to cause conflict. 

The implication is that a climate-driven movement of people destabilised Syrian cities and led to full blown war. The suggestion is that migrants - or migration in general - has the power to lead to violence and widespread chaos. And further that climate-driven migration in the future might similarly spark violence, perhaps even inside Europe.

The nature of migration 

Regrettably this plays into many of the existing untruths about the nature of migration. There is little evidence that migration leads to conflict or violence. In fact, what actually happened in Syria provides the counter-point to these views.

It’s certainly true that a severe and prolonged drought wrecked rural livelihoods in Syria’s countryside. It’s also true that this drought was made more likely by human induced climate change. 

To this extent it is entirely reasonable to link climate, drought and the destruction of Syria’s rural economy. But this is where reality and the media coverage part company.

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A six-year-old Syrian refugee in Jordan. Image: European Commission DG ECHO, creative commons licence

Syria’s rural population had been made progressively poorer, and anger towards the regime had grown significantly. Although the drought was exacerbated by climate change, the failure to properly manage any kind of response to the drought sat squarely with the regime. 

Millions of people in the countryside were reaching the point where they were - in various ways - ready to take part in an uprising against the regime. At the same time the destruction of Syria’s agriculture meant many rural people were also leaving the countryside to try and find work in the cities.

When they arrived in the cities they found an urban population that was equally ready to begin an uprising against the regime. In a sense climate-driven migration had bought two aggrieved populations together. The uprising was in fact an act of cooperation between the two populations. 

The anger and numbers provided by the newly arrived migrants gave the uprising the push it needed to move from private hatred of the regime to public protest and demands for its end.

This paints a rather different picture of Syria's rural to urban migrants. In spite of scarcity and poverty in Syrian cities, they did not fight against urban populations. In spite of shortages of food, water and fuel the recently arrived migrants and existing residents acted in cooperation in an attempt to overthrow the regime.

The consequences 

The uprising failed. But the regime also failed to completely put it down. Violence erupted into this power vacuum. Money and weapons poured into Syria from the various backers of hundreds of armed groups. 

The consequences were the five years of violence and the refugee situation we see around us now.

It is entirely correct to place climate change as one of the drivers of this violence, and of the various episodes of migration and displacement that are linked to it. But it is entirely wrong - factually and morally - to suggest that migrants themselves are in some way to blame.

Syria and climate change: did the media get it right? is an interactive digital briefing.

Alex Randall coordinates the Climate and Migration Coalition, a network of refugee and migration organisations working together on climate change.