Had this piece go up yesterday onYahoo Politics, in which I try to parse some of the complexity inherent in the much-discussed link between climate change and civil war (i.e. in Syria). My take-away is that yes, the link is there, but no it’s not as clear-cut as, say, Bernie Sanders would have you believe.
One of the things I point out is that myriad other forces, including government corruption and ineptitude, helped tip the country into chaos. What I don’t get into is how that ineptitude contributed not only to the war, but to the water crisis itself.
From Tom Friedman’s piece on the issue:
…after Assad took over in 2000 he opened up the regulated agricultural sector in Syria for big farmers, many of them government cronies, to buy up land and drill as much water as they wanted, eventually severely diminishing the water table. This began driving small farmers off the land into towns, where they had to scrounge for work.
So by the time the drought hit, the entire system was already hanging by a thread. It’s true that we might have avoided that drought by curbing greenhouse gas emissions; but it’s also true that we might have better survived it with decent resource management.
Why does that matter? When the PNAS study linking global warming to war in Syria first came out, lots of quick-hit articles in the popular press billed it as “Climate change responsible for mess in Syria,” with just a couple sentences flicking at the nuances and counterarguments. That oversimplification allowed too many people who already don’t believe in climate change to write the whole thing off as “liberal propaganda,” or as one angry little troll put it to me, “laughable shit – making excuses for terrorism.” Nuance is important. Glossing over it doesn’t win you any converts, even if the glossing makes for flashier headlines and quicker work.
To be fair, journalists are not the only ones to blame for this kind of dumbing down; quick hit stories and sensational headlines thrive online because that’s what gets clicks, because that’s what people – even people who perpetually lambaste the media – choose to read. And there’s a real and intractable tension to contend with here, too. You can never get every single nuance into any story. Time and space are limited, no matter who you are or who you’re writing for.
But there’s also a slippery slope, where concision and efficiency can become excuses for not doing the work. And I want to remind myself to at least try to not to go down it. (None of which is to say that my Yahoo piece was a shining triumph in this regard; The point is that I’m thinking about it).
There’s plenty more to say, of course. Climate science and war and the ways in which we report on them are all complicated subjects. Friedman (in collaboration with James Cameron, Harrison Ford, and a host of others) has done a nine-part documentary on the first two that I’m still working my way through. And my editor and I got into a brief debate about the relative merits of Jared Diamond’s lauded-but-also-widely-disputed work on the broader topic of natural disaster and human civilization that’s worthy of its own separate post.
But this is it for now.