Climate Change and Civil Unrest: Insights from Syria and COVID-19

From droughts in the Fertile Crescent to the Arab Spring, Michael Lotsaris tracks political turbulence in response to environmental crises as conflicts spiral from the streets to the international stage.

Image via Shutterstock, ID:1011558211.

The industrialised advancement of technology has both reduced the distance of communications between people from across the world, and expanded their global footprint more than ever before. This simultaneous and interrelated process of global interconnectedness and omnipotence has enabled the ramifications of localised events to spiral onto the international stage. Therefore, there is much to be learnt from the parallels between the conflicts in Syria, the COVID-19 pandemic, and anthropogenic (i.e. human-induced) climate change in contributing to civil unrest across the world.1

The outbreak of the Syrian Civil War in 2011 was arguably the most politically significant phenomenon of the decade. It produced one of the largest refugee crises in modern history, and enabled the growth of non-state militant groups. These two particular ramifications presumably augmented the globalised spread of peoples’ anxieties with regard to territorial integrity and public safety, in the aftermath of the economically disruptive Global Financial Crisis, thereby culminating in increased political scepticism towards the competency of their authorities. This most likely facilitated the rise of political extremism, populist electoral shifts, and new threats to public safety.

These developments seem like an unbelievably tremendous ripple-effect from the instability of one particular country as a consequence of its particular domestic political issues. However, some researchers have suggested that the Syrian Civil War can be attributed to the greater global phenomenon of anthropogenic climate change.2 Syria was subjected to its most severe drought on record between 2006 and 2009, resulting in the collapse of agricultural livelihoods.3 It has been reasoned that this environmental shock to the rural economy induced thousands to move towards more urbanised regions for new homes and employment.4 This influx of migration is inferred to have worsened the availability of resources and social services.5 Amidst the growing fervour of the Arab Spring movement, which appeared to resolve such issues in Tunisia, organised protests began to condemn the Syrian government for its purported political mismanagement of such grievances, which ultimately spiralled into full-scale armed conflicts.6

Although the significance of climate change as a factor that elevated the likelihood of civil unrest, let alone conflict, in Syria has technically been inconclusive in the academic literature, there is evidently an intuitive prospect that climate change, as an increasingly disruptive global phenomenon, risks multiplying existing threats to the stability and security of societies.7 Even nation-states regarded as relatively more politically stable could face increased risks to the security of their people. Lives and livelihoods in Australia are not only directly vulnerable to climate change but can also be impacted indirectly through the international ripple-effect of climate-related social disruption within foreign countries such as Syria.

“Climate change, as an increasingly disruptive global phenomenon, risks multiplying existing threats to the stability and security of societies.”

Assuming the phenomenon of climate change would progress as an increasingly disruptive global crisis, then its political ramifications may unfold with similarities to the political fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic. The first recorded death is considered to have occurred on 9 January 2020. Two months later, this infectious disease had claimed over 4,000 lives globally. Two months further into May and this figure has surpassed 300,000 deaths worldwide. The exponential spread of COVID-19 generated extraordinary emergency measures in the name of public safety among world governments, severe disruption to commerce and employment, and the aggravation of information warfare within the public discourse. Such concerns surrounding national security, economics, and ideology were also associated with the violent escalation of the Arab Spring.

In Brazil for instance, some citizens have demonstrated against president Jair Bolsonaro’s dismissive view of COVID-19 by banging on kitchenware from their residences, whilst others have rallied on the streets by his side against lockdown measures. Demonstrations against stay-at-home orders within the United States have featured protestors equipped with plate carriers and rifles. Australia has been the site of the T-Pocalypse panic that spread throughout the world during the initial growth of the outbreak, as well as some limited protests against lockdowns. In a similar fashion to the first waves of the Arab Spring, shutdown measures in Lebanon have amplified existing public grievances towards deteriorating economic conditions, resulting in banks being set on fire by protestors.

“In a similar fashion to the first waves of the Arab Spring, [coronavirus] shutdown measures in Lebanon have amplified existing public grievances towards deteriorating economic conditions.”

Evidently, the civil stability and national security of world societies are challenged by disruptive phenomena with global reach, such as the Syrian Civil War and COVID-19 pandemic. It could be argued that such global forces would only seriously affect less developed countries with weaker institutional resilience. However, even in a country as prosperous and politically robust as Australia, the Syrian Civil War contributed to the elevation of the threat of terrorism, and the COVID-19 pandemic compelled an unprecedented economic support package of $320 billion from the Australian Government.

These two cases have already generated considerable challenges to the national security of the Australian community, and there is mounting evidence that climate change will induce further socio-political turbulence as the 21st century progresses. Aside from addressing intense environmental stressors including droughts and bushfires within its borders, the Commonwealth must also consider and respond to foreign climate-related issues, especially those that require the deployment of military assets. In fact, it was recently revealed that a report was conducted for the Department of Defence that examined and forecasted the civil security implications of globally disruptive phenomena including climate change for Australia.

It must be emphasised that the intersection of climate change and security, through both research and practise, remains a developing field. Aside from the complexity of understanding climate change itself, there are various approaches to analysing its security implications, such as focussing on civil unrest, armed conflict, migration, or focussing on subjects outside of the state-centric paradigm such as natural ecosystems.8 In light of the political turbulence of the past decade, especially within the past few months, the impending challenges of the climate breakdown warrant more active attention through a security lens.

1. The term ‘climate change’ is used in line with the climate-security literature to distinguish between the biophysical sense of the phenomenon, and its particular social effects (e.g. civil unrest), which the use of the broader term of ‘climate crisis’ would conflate.
2. Gleick, Peter (2014). Water, Drought, Climate Change, and Conflict in Syria; Kelley, Colin P; Shahrzad Mohtadi, Mark A. Cane, Richard Seager, Yochanan Kushnir (2015) ‘Climate change in the Fertile Crescent and implications of the recent Syrian drought‘ 
3—7. Ide, Tobias (2018) ‘Climate War in the Middle East? Drought, the Syrian Civil War and the State of Climate-Conflict Research.’ Current Climate Change Reports, 4, 347–354.
8. McDonald, Matt (2018) Climate change and security: Towards ecological security? International Theory, 10(02):153-180.

Michael Lotsaris is an Honours student in the Department of Government and International Relations at the University of Sydney. His research focus relates to the intersection of climate change and security, particularly with regard to how the environmental stressors of climate change and their political implications affect the national security outlook for Australia and New Zealand.

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