The humanitarian crisis in Syria continues to evolve into one of the most severe complex emergencies in the global community. With 1,000,000 refugees and 4 million people in need of assistance, the Syrian conflict encompasses dimensions of geopolitics, culture, development and economics.
There is also a potential role of climate change as well. Climate change has often been posited in media and analytical reports as an exacerbating force, an additional stressor and occasionally a root cause. Syria recently suffered flooding and snowfall that worsened the situation of hundreds of thousands of refugees, a five-year drought that helped to unravel its agricultural sector, and also shares traits of climate vulnerability with its fellow Arab Spring nations.
Assessing the potential role of climate change in the Syrian complex emergency can be challenging.
Yet viewing the conflict as a “mosaic” of geopolitical, economic and climate connections can be a valuable way to approach potential links. A mosaic approach shows the potential fallacies of viewing climate change in individual “tiles” – such as seemingly extreme individual hydro-meteorological events with strong humanitarian impacts. By backing out and transcending and including the complex emergency in the broadest possible picture, the true context of climate change and the Syrian complex emergency yields important conclusions.
An Individual Tile in the Mosaic – January’s Severe Winter Storm
Looking at individual tiles in the mosaic and connecting them to climate change, such as seemingly extreme individual events, may be tempting but can be fraught with problems. Take for, example, this year’s early January snowstorm, which brought torrential rains, flooding and up to a foot of snow to parts of Jordan, Lebanon and the West Bank. The storm brought especially trying conditions to hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees. Indeed, the World Meteorological Organization even referenced the event in the context of 2013 already being “a big year in terms of weather calamity,” with the implication that climate change generally increases the frequency of extreme and unpleasant events.
One could take it a step further. At the time of the storm, the Arctic Oscillation (AO) – a climate regime that can spill frigid air into Eurasia and North America when negative – was heading into modestly negative territory, and new studies are beginning to surface suggesting a link between sea ice loss and these negative episodes. In other words, loss of sea ice could potentially produce negative AO events that can exacerbate or even cause some humanitarian emergencies. A freak Mid-East snowstorm that worsened the situation for hundreds of thousands of displaced could potentially be a poster child of a phenomenon that ultimately links sea ice loss to dire humanitarian situations.
However, making this leap based on one just one extreme event can problematic. According to AccuWeather.com meteorologist Jim Andrews, “the winter, on average, has not been unusually cold or even stormy in the region. Indeed, taking December through February as being the winter, it has actually been a little 'warmer’ than usual.” The storm, which did have temporary paralyzing effects in the high altitudes of the region, was “significant, if not memorable,” according to Andrews. “Such a thing does happen in the region periodically, though certainly not on a yearly basis.”
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