Claims that climate change fueled Syria's civil war questioned in new study

TORONTO (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Climate change was not a major factor in Syria’s long-running civil war, contrary to previous claims that drought helped build tensions that grew violent, a study said on Thursday.

Severe drought pushed rural Syrians into cities where conflicts festered, but the lack of rainfall was not necessarily caused by human-induced climate change, said the study by European and U.S. researchers published in the journal ‘Political Geography.’

Statements by such public voices as Britain’s Prince Charles and former U.S. Vice President Al Gore have linked the violence in Syria with global warming, saying the 2006 drought played a key role in urban migration that helped spark the civil war.

“There is no sound evidence that global climate change was a factor in sparking the Syrian civil war,” said University of Sussex Professor Jan Selby, one of the study’s co-authors, in a statement.

“It is extraordinary that this claim has been so widely accepted when the scientific evidence is so thin.”

Syria’s civil war started in 2011. Since then an estimated 465,000 people have been killed, and about half of its 22 million residents have been forced to flee their homes.

In a 2015 interview, Prince Charles said there was “very good evidence” that a drought linked to climate change was “one of the major reasons for this horror in Syria.”

Gore said last month that 1.5 million “climate refugees” were forced to move to cities from rural Syria, fueling the tensions.

The study said at most, 60,000 families were forced to migrate.

“Global climate change is a very real challenge and will undoubtedly have significant conflict and security consequences,” Selby said, but analysts must avoid “exaggerated claims about the conflict implications.”

“Overblown claims not based on rigorous science only risk fueling climate scepticism,” he said.