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Scientist: Facts Back Obama on Syria, Drought, War

Scientist: Facts Back Obama on Syria, Drought, War

Author: Reilly Capps/Saturday, June 20, 2015/Categories: environment

[A refugee camp for Syrians in northern Iraq. Photo by Voice of America News.]

It's high times for the climate, as Pontiffs and Presidents are sticking their noses into climate change talk. When President Obama stood in front of the Coast Guard graduating class this year, he called terrorism a grave threat, but he said climate change is "a peril that can affect generations." The coast guard feels the seas rise and watches the ice melt, he said, and may have to respond to refugees from low-lying Bangladesh and hurricanes in the Philippines.

Deniers fumed: the back of Bill O'Reilly's skull was found blown across his studio. "Obama ... borders on delusion," he said, "to talk about climate change .. while the Middle East is aflame." They huffed that Obama should be focused on stopping ISIS, which just that week overran Ramadi. ISIS must be stopped, they seemed to be saying, before we can talk about anything else. 

Experts -- as opposed to pundits -- say the Middle East is aflame for a lot of reasons, including Syrians' strict adherence to a religion that condones murdering your enemies and the American government's strict adherence to a similar policy. But climate scientists say that weather changes are definitely adding to the problem.

RiledUp reached Colin Kelley, a climate change scientist at the University of California, Berkeley, who studies and has traveled to the Eastern Mediterranean -- in political terms, the Middle East. When Obama spoke to the Coast Guard, the was referencing Kelley's recent paper on Syria, drought and conflict.

The dominoes fall thusly: there was a massive drought in Syria from 2006-2010; the Assad regime responded badly, drawing down aquifers and planting thirsty plants like cotton; the main agricultural region is in the northeast; up to 20 percent of the crops there failed; farmers fled to the cities; rebel fighters, including ISIS, filled the power vacuum in the northeast, then barged into Iraq.

"We're making the case that there's a clear chain of events from climate change to the drought to the mass migration to the conflicts," Kelley told us. "ISIS took advantage of a chaotic situation -- the chaos is what allows them to exist there."

Other evidence-based thinkers say the same: an episode of "Years of Living Dangerously" covered drought and war and Syria; French scientists said that climate has long driven history there -- drought helped toppled the Ottoman empire; and bad water management by local regimes will exacerbate conflicts.

 In contrast to thinking about the battles of today, thinking about climate means thinking about the big picture. Kelley sees the deniers as myopic.

"To Bill O'Reilly or anyone else, how can you consider what's happening with ISIS without considering all these climatic changes that have taken place?" Kelley asked us, rhetorically. "It would be bad to just waive this off and say, let's ignore the climate and just bomb some more."

Kelley is pleased that his paper is having an impact, all the way up to the president. "I've heard that it's getting attention in high level policy talks," he said. He said that Middle Easterners know that the heat and droughts are hurting them, even if pundits don't. "These places are starving for someone to make a quantitative connection between climate change and these negative effects. I think (our paper) gave them a bullet to say, this is something that's happening now."

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