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The natural world. Looking pretty for 3.5b years.

Syrian conflict probably exacerbated by climate change

Syrian conflict probably exacerbated by climate change

You'll be seeing headlines like this more often

Author: Trevor Quirk/Tuesday, March 3, 2015/Categories: sustainability, environment, climate change

As certain extreme weather events (a DeLillo phrase if there ever was one) get easier to link to climate change, we're going to see an increasing frequency in studies like the one covered yesterday by The New York Times.

New research published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science presents the plausible argument that the "worst drought in the instrumental record" which Syria experienced from 2007-2010 contributed to the horrible conflict ravaging that complexly fractured country. The researchers write that this drought caused "widespread crop failure and a mass migration of farming families to urban centers," and that such an event was determined as "3 times more likely than by natural variability alone. "

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights recently attributed 210,000 deaths to the conflict in Syria.

To anyone familiar with how the sciences actually operate -- which includes understanding their practical limitations -- the exact elucidation of how a 3-year drought contributed to a multifarious civil war is absurd. The levels of complexity involved in such a project are hard to overstate; it would involve a confounding mixture of climatology, geopolitical analysis, and sociology (to name the obvious fields.) This is presumably why the study garnered swift criticism (documented in the Times report.) But few would contest what the researchers additionally conjectured: that the influx of 1.5 million refugees from Iraq also worsened, if not catalyzed, the conflict.

Yet that conjecture is open to precisely the same critique. A storm-front of refugees would be subject to scientific inquiry, as would be its broad effect on Syria, but both would be hopeless to completely understand. Furthermore, researchers who did not pretend to have this understanding would not be ridiculed for nonetheless saying the migration had a major effect.

Until we learn otherwise, we're probably safe in assuming extreme weather events, which will become more frequent, will have similarly broad impacts. A drought lasting years in an already underdeveloped country that had no significant effect on the conflict persisting there would be a supremely curious phenomenon.

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