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A policeman tenderly scoops up the corpse of a small child on a desolate beach and within hours the image is an icon of grief and suffering around the world.
The child was three-year old Alan Kurdi, who fled with his family from Syria’s bloody civil war, joining millions of others seeking a new life abroad, victims of war, dictatorship, and a climate disaster that began nearly a decade ago.
"Some of you know the underlying story of what caused the gates of hell to open in Syria," said former Vice President Al Gore in a speech he made on July 9 at Toronto’s Climate Summit of the Americas.
"Our hearts are heavy when we even think about the tragedy in that land.
"From 2006 to 2010 [Syria] had a climate-related drought that destroyed 60 per cent of their farms and killed 80 per cent of their livestock and drove a million and a half climate refugees into the cities of Syria, where they collided with another million and a half refugees from the Iraq War, and the WikiLeaks disclosure of documents inside the Syrian government in that era show their discussion [of] ‘we can’t deal with this'."
1.5 million farmers destitute as Syria's drought scorched the land
Once-wealthy farmers were reduced to penury, while city dwellers struggled to cope with water shortages, unemployment, rising living costs, and government oppression.
By 2011 Syrian society was a tinderbox waiting to explode, and Arab Spring revolutions in Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya lit the fuse that sparked full-scale war.
“As an international community we’re not looking into environmental stress enough. It is really significant when you look at 1.5 million people entirely losing their livelihood. This was five years of extended drought. People just couldn’t live anymore in rural areas. The fact that there was this massive population displacement from rural areas into urban areas, those dynamics may have contributed to social unrest, and the sustainability of the revolutionary movement,” said Francisco Femia, director of the Center for Climate and Security in Washington DC.
It is noteworthy that when anti-regime protests first broke out in 2011, they spread in cities worst-hit by the drought: first in Daraa, then spreading north to Damascus, Aleppo, al-Hasakah, and al-Qamishli.
These same drought-hit cities witnessed some of the worst fighting as the war escalated, as rival militias reduced Aleppo to rubble, while Bashar al-Assad’s regime launched a chemical weapons attack on a Damascus suburb in 2013.
Further east, the area around al-Hasakah and nearby Raqqa is under the control of Islamic State, who have committed widespread atrocities against civilians.
The chaos was foretold 12 years ago by the Pentagon, who warned that an “abrupt climate change scenario,” would lead to shortages of key resources including water, owing to altered rainfall patterns causing floods and droughts. Decreases in net global agricultural production would also lead to food shortages, and increased sea ice levels and storms might disrupt access to energy supplies, in its October 2003 report titled An Abrupt Climate Change Scenario and Its Implications for United States National Security.
“With over 400 million people living in drier, subtropical, often over-populated and economically poor regions today, climate change and its follow-on effects pose a severe risk to political, economic, and social stability. In less prosperous regions, where countries lack the resources and capabilities required to adapt quickly to more severe conditions, the problem is very likely to be exacerbated. For some countries, climate change could become such a challenge that mass emigration results as the desperate peoples seek better lives in regions such as the United States that have the resources to adaptation,” warned the report.
The report predicted that wealthier countries would react to this threat by building ‘fortresses’ around their territory, most recently exemplified by the Hungarian government building a 108-mile border fence along its southern frontier, aimed at keeping refugees out.
But the desperate keep coming: in rickety boats to Greece like Kurdi and his family, or overland across Turkey and the Balkans, with Hungary emerging as a transit point for Syrians hoping to reach the safety of Germany and other Western European nations.
“Today we are talking about tens of thousands, but next year we will be talking about millions and this has no end. We have to make it clear that we can’t allow everyone in, because if we allow everyone in, Europe is finished,” said President Viktor Orban on Hungarian state radio last week, echoing the ‘fortress mentality’ outlined in the Pentagon’s report.
However the report states that weaker nations, including those in conflict with their neighbours, might well react by launching armed struggles over food, clean water, or energy supplies, their primary goal being survival rather than national honour or religious zeal.
“…conflicts over land and water use are likely to become more severe – and more violent. As states become increasingly desperate, the pressure for action will grow,” states the report.
This grim warning was restated earlier this year, when the Pentagon released its National Security Implications of Climate-Related Risks and a Changing Climate report, warning that “climate change is an urgent and growing threat to our national security, contributing to increased natural disasters, refugee flows, and conflicts over basic resources such as food and water.”
As a result, the U.S. military will likely find itself dealing with climate risks including persistent and re-occurring droughts, floods, or higher temperatures, extreme weather events such as hurricanes, sea level rises menacing coastal communities, and melting Arctic ice.
“Communities and states that are already fragile and have limited resources are significantly more vulnerable to disruption and far less likely to respond effectively and be resilient to new challenges. Case studies indicate that in addition to exacerbating existing risks from other factors (e.g. Social, economic, and political fault lines) climate-induced stress can generate new vulnerabilities (e.g. water scarcity) a and thus contribute to instability and conflict even in situations not previously considered at risk,” stated the report.
Before 2011 Syria was viewed by most observers as stable, ruled since 1970 by the Assad family dictatorship, whose secret police force ruthlessly crushed any dissent.
“Before the war started, things were pretty stable. Even when stuff started happening in other places I didn’t expect it to happen in Syria,” said Seattle journalist Alex Stonehill, who visited Syria in 2010, its last year of peace.
Politicians go AWOL from climate war
The haunting picture of Kurdi’s corpse galvanized Canadian politicians of all stripes into action, but their focus so far is on helping refugees, not addressing the part that climate change played in destroying Syria.
“It was Bashar al-Assad’s decision to wage a civil war against his own people,” said Marc Garneau, placing the blame squarely on Syria’s strongman. “The refugees are fleeing their country because of a brutal dictator.”
However he did acknowledge that climate change would raise geo-political tensions in some regions, echoing the Pentagon’s 2003 predictions of intensifying struggles over food and water sources.
“Certain countries will experience drought and other catastrophes,” said Garneau, while stressing that it was no excuse for al-Assad’s ongoing brutality.
Garneau said that a Liberal government would resettle 25,000 Syrians in Canada, a number matched by Elizabeth May’s Greens. The NDP are promising, if elected on Oct. 19, to allow 10,000 people in under government auspices and an unlimited number via private sponsorship. Stephen Harper’s Tories are stressing that Islamic State atrocities are the “root cause” of Kurdi’s death.
Amnesty International also joined the fray, writing an open letter to Stephen Harper asking his government to admit 10,000 displaced Syrians to Canada on Sept. 3.
“We need to send a strong signal to the government,” said Garneau.
But the strongest signal of all may yet be the image of a dead toddler on a desolate beach. An image of war – and a changing climate.
Note: Kurdi’s aunt told the Canadian Press her nephew’s first name was spelt ‘Alan’ – not Aylan or Aylen as originally released by Turkish government.