In the build-up to Paris, activists and celebrities have been banging the drum for action. Part of this has involved talking up the effects of global warming.
US presidential candidate Bernie Sanders’ warns that “climate change is directly related to the growth of terrorism,” while Prince Charles believes that “one of the major reasons for this horror in Syria” is global warming’s effects.
Obviously, the “Islamic State” (IS) militant group and the terrorist threat is close to the minds of everyone here in Paris. But exaggeration helps no one. The Pulitzer Prize winning web-site PolitiFact rates Sanders’ claim as “Mostly False”.
Sanders might point to a recent article that suggests that climate change would have played a part in the Syrian civil war. The paper’s main point is that increasing drought is consistent with increasing temperatures in the region from global warming.
This is plausible. There is reason to believe that, over time, some regional-specific changes to climate could exacerbate instability in certain already volatile areas. But an absence of democracy, demographic effects and institutional strength each play by far a much, much larger role. And blaming past climate change for IS and the Syrian War goes much too far.
First, blaming global warming for Syria’s purported increase in desertification means that we ignore Syria’s history of bad water management and the fact that the number of people living there tripled in 35 years – both of which would put a lot more pressure on resources than relatively small changes in the climate.
Second, it also means that we sidestep the human factor, not the least being the cascading effects of American and British foreign policy or the Arab Spring uprisings, religious and ethnic tensions and political repression.
Another recent scientific paper has looked at “the role of drought and climate change in the Syrian uprising: Untangling the triggers of the revolution”.
The central finding is:
“While climate change may have contributed to worsening the effects of the drought, overstating its importance is an unhelpful distraction that diverts attention away from the core problem: the long-term mismanagement of natural resources. Furthermore, an exaggerated focus on climate change shifts the burden of responsibility for the devastation of Syria’s natural resources away from the successive Syrian governments since the 1950s and allows the Assad regime to blame external factors for its own failures.”
It concludes: “The possible role of climate change in this chain of events is not only irrelevant; it is also an unhelpful distraction.”
Third, looking only at what happened means we ignore what didn’t happen. Since global warming will overall mean increased precipitation, the fact that some nations will experience more drought also means other nations won’t.
While almost all models show less water availability because of global warming in the Middle East, the extra number of water-stressed people will be offset by almost exactly the same number fewer water stressed elsewhere (e.g. this recent article finds that larger populations will increase the number of water–stressed people globally by about 1.8 billion, but global warming will either increase or decrease that number by an order of magnitude less).
So while Syria will definitely become drier with global warming, Mauritania, Mali, Burkina Faso, Angola and parts of Brazil will become less water stressed. So if we worry about civil war being partly caused by global warming in Syria, we should also be thankful that global warming makes civil war less likely in these other countries.
Overall, there are many reasons to take climate change seriously. But alarmism is a terrible basis upon which to make informed policy choices. And trying to blame global warming for the recent horrors in Paris, or the ongoing carnage in Syria, simply takes us off track.
Bjorn Lomborg is Director of the Copenhagen Consensus Center and Visiting Professor at Copenhagen Business School. He researches the smartest ways to help the world, for which he was named one of Foreign Policy’s Top 100 Global Thinkers. His numerous books include The Skeptical Environmentalist, Cool It, How to Spend $75 Billion to Make the World a Better Place and The Nobel Laureates’ Guide to the Smartest Targets for the World 2016-2030.