Guest essay by Eric Worrall
Assistant Professor of Geography at the University of South Carolina and an editor of Middle East Report Jessica Barnes has dismissed efforts to link climate change to the Arab Spring – the wave of unrest which swept the Middle East and Africa in 2010.
Overstating Climate Change in Egypt’s Uprising
by Jessica Barnes |
published October 1, 2018
The possible link between climate change and political upheaval in the Middle East has attracted increasing media attention and is generating a new wave of academic research seeking to demonstrate the link. An influential study that put forward this thesis was the 2013 report The Arab Spring and Climate Change, published by the Center for American Progress in Washington DC. Featuring images of angry protestors, parched fields, and people carrying water, the report asserted that while climate change did not causethe Arab uprisings, it acted as a “threat multiplier,” which exacerbated “environmental, social, economic, and political drivers of unrest.” In other words, human-induced changes in climatic conditions, through their impact on water supplies and agricultural production, can interact with and even accelerate social and political causes of dissent and rebellion.
The case of the Syrian civil war features prominently among many proponents of the view that climate change is acting as a “threat multiplier” in regional unrest. A number of scholars have argued that the severe drought in northeastern Syria in 2007 through 2010, linked in part to climate change but also to natural variability, resulted in crop failures and mass rural-to-urban migration, which contributed to political instability and ultimately helped spark the civil war. In terms that mirror the “threat multiplier” discourse, the contention is that climate change acted as a catalyst, compounding deteriorating socioeconomic conditions and people’s dissatisfaction with the authoritarian state. Politicians such as President Barack Obama and Sen. Bernie Sanders, as well as attention-grabbing newspaper headlines, have reinforced and helped popularize the belief that climate change was consequential in the Syrian rebellion.
The alleged linkage between climate change and civil war in Syria, however, has been increasingly questioned by a number of scholars. Critics claim that there is no clear and compelling evidence to back up each step in the argument: that climate change was a major factor in the Syrian drought; that the drought actually caused large scale rural-to-urban migration; or that this migration contributed to civil war. Others have highlighted the depoliticizing effect of a narrow focus on the drought itself as the source of unrest rather than on the far more numerous political and economic grievances against the Assad regime articulated by its opponents. Moreover, this narrow focus draws attention away from the mismanagement of natural resources by the Assad regime in agricultural regions, which may have been more of a trigger of unrest than the drought itself. Nevertheless, the Syria case continues to be cited as a supposedly powerful example of the link between climate and conflict in the region.
While climate change is a major global concern, the rush to link climate change with recent upheavals in the Middle East, such as Egypt’s 2011 revolution, is both simplifying and depoliticizing. The link between climate, bread, and protest erases important social, material, and cultural nuances, distorts the allocation of responsibility, and ultimately, obscures more than it illuminates. That bread was a central feature in the Egyptian revolution of 2011 was not only literal but also symbolic—a broader reference to livelihoods, to people’s grievances that their basic social and economic needs were not being met. Climate-related changes may increasingly be an important factor in understanding regional political and social dynamics, but the most important “threat-multipliers” of social unrest continue to be the autocratic rule, poverty, inequality and corruption that were the primary sources of Egyptian anti-government protest in 2011 and remain consequential today.
Read more: https://www.merip.org/mero/mero100118
Dictators like Kim Jong-un, Bashar Al-Assad and Robert Mugabe (deposed) are advocates of global climate agreements, especially the kind of agreements which provide them with largely US supplied climate cash.