“Climate change in the Fertile Crescent and implications of the recent Syrian drought”

Colin P. Kelly et al. 2015. PNAS, Vol. 112, No. 11, pp. 3241-326.
Before the Syrian uprising that began in 2011, the greater Fertile Crescent experienced the most severe drought in the instrumental record. For Syria, a country marked by poor governance and unsustainable agricultural and environmental policies, the drought had a catalytic effect, contributing to political unrest. We show that the recent decrease in Syrian precipitation is a combination of natural variability and a long-term drying trend, and the unusual severity of the observed drought is here shown to be highly unlikely without this trend. Precipitation changes in Syria are linked to rising mean sea-level pressure in the Eastern Mediterranean, which also shows a long-term trend. There has been also a long-term warming trend in the Eastern Mediterranean, adding to the drawdown of soil moisture. No natural cause is apparent for these trends, whereas the observed drying and warming are consistent with model studies of the response to increases in greenhouse gases. Furthermore, model studies show an increasingly drier and hotter future mean climate for the Eastern Mediterranean. Analyses of observations and model simulations indicate that a drought of the severity and duration of the recent Syrian drought, which is implicated in the current conflict, has become more than twice as likely as a consequence of human interference in the climate system.

The week before last I was working up ideas for a post I planned to call Environmental Under-Determinism. Then came the attacks in Paris.

One of my immediate responses to the visceral horror of that news was a sense that, in the context of what was going on in the world at that moment, working on a theoretical puzzle involving big ideas about the relations between human beings and the environment seemed like something of a trivial pursuit.

That response led me to confront a deeper anxiety, namely that the issues I am exploring on this blog are being outrun by events. There is a familiar argument that it is something of a luxury to worry about environmental issues, because those warrant attention only after more pressing concerns are settled. A variant of that idea is that, to put it crudely, in a world pressed by the kind of conflict Syria and too many other places suffer, the issue of climate change is even more depressing. It is not that climate change isn’t a pressing issue too. Rather, the depressing thought is that the political failure we seem to witness wherever we turn indicates that the hope for improvement embodied in climate negotiations, and other hopeful visions for an environmentally responsible future, is misplaced. How can one not think that when, before last Friday, a current association with the name Paris (after City of Light) was Conference of Parties.

Though this depressing thought might have deep roots, I hope not to cultivate its poisonous blossoms—I hope, that is, to hope. Still one must not turn away from what demands attention, while acknowledging that looking at it engages one’s own point of view. That is why I turned to Kelly et al.’s essay arguing that climate change has played a role in the crisis in Syria. I had heard of it when it appeared in March, but not read it. After thinking that the Paris attacks might properly displace attention from the Anthropocene, the essay came back to mind as the basis of the thought that the Paris attacks might be interpreted as one of the Anthropocene’s manifestations.

Kelly et al. offer a straightforward argument: anthropogenic climate change has likely contributed to regional weather patterns, in turn contributing to a severe drought from 2005-2010 that, along with government policies, crippled agricultural production in Syria. This prompted a massive internal migration in that period from agricultural regions to cities.

The rapidly growing urban peripheries of Syria, marked by illegal settlements, overcrowding, poor infrastructure, unemployment, and crime, were neglected by the Assad government and became the heart of the developing unrest. Thus, the migration in response to the severe and prolonged drought exacerbated a number of the factors often cited as contributing to the unrest, which include unemployment, corruption, and rampant inequality. (p. 3242)

Kelly et al. do not mention the Islamic State, but their account can easily be broadened to hold that the conditions which allowed for the growth and power of that murderous group include the drought, hence ultimately anthropogenic climate change. (Juan Cole, writing in The Nation offers a version of this argument.) In this sense, the horrors perpetrated by the Islamic State might be seen as an impact of climate change propagated through the medium of regional social conditions. The slaughter of diners and concert-goers in Paris, on this view, reveals that that impact can be propagated across a wider scale.

But that account seems a bit thin. Indeed Kelly et al. concede that their view suggests a kind of environmental determinism (though they don’t use the term) that offers an over-simplified explanation of social and historical phenomena. They acknowledge as a fundamental objection

that data-driven methods do not provide the causal narrative needed to anoint a ‘theory’ of civil conflict, and the quantitative work on climate and conflict has thus far not adequately accounted for the effects of poor governance, poverty, and other sociopolitical factors. Our analysis of the conflict in Syria shows an impact of an extreme climate event in the context of government failure, exacerbated by the singular circumstance of the large influx of Iraqi refugees. (p. 3245)

The failures of the Assad regime, and the wave of over one million refugees fleeing the war and chaos that followed from the U.S. invasion of Iraq, are not climate phenomena; Kelly et al. agree that a full explanation of the Syrian civil war cannot be based climate factors alone, but must include “other sociopolitical factors” as well.

It is clear, then, that an “environmentally deterministic” story running back from the outrage in Paris to the Islamic State to civil breakdown in Syria to drought to anthropogenic climate change is explanatorily inadequate. But further, against the impulse to bring the outrage in Paris under the rubric of the Anthropocene is an intuition that it is perhaps unseemly to think this way. The victims—and here I am thinking of all of the Islamic State’s victims, who are mostly Syrian and Iraqi—were specific human beings, whose particular identities and suffering might be effaced by the Anthropocene as a geophysical abstraction. Their pain was not an epiphenomenon of an Earth System process. More importantly, a “causal narrative” (especially a sound one) tracing civil conflict to climate phenomena threatens to displace the moral culpability for the Islamic State’s crimes to some undefined and amorphous agency (people who drive cars? who use electricity?)

Nonetheless, taking the Anthropocene seriously seems to demand that we see some connection between broad Earth System processes and specific events in our lives—why else do we think of the Anthropocene as dangerous? Further, I keep going back to a quote from Jamie Lorimer that Noah used a while back: “the recent diagnosis of the Anthropocene represents the public death of the modern understanding of Nature removed from society.” This statement encapsulates the repudiation of dualism that is at the core of many intellectual responses to the Anthropocene: it is no longer tenable to think of Nature and Society as ontologically distinct—they are not two things but at most two names for the same thing. Thinking that way suggests that there is, after all, some sense or other in which what happened in Paris is a manifestation of the Anthropocene. But just what is that sense?

So I guess I’m working on a post on environmental under-determinism after all. I will try to develop this idea in later posts, but I will float it now. It is not original or (I think) surprising; it is simply that though there is a single thing we denote when we speak of Nature and Society, the discourses we have for speaking about it are fundamentally different, and not always (or ever?) translatable from one to the other. Thus, when we use the language of geoscience to describe the physical setting in which social phenomena occur, we cannot help but fail to explain features of those phenomena that can only be explained in social terms. It is not that social phenomena are under-determined by environmental phenomena; in a fundamental sense they are the same phenomena. Rather, social phenomena are environmentally under-determined in the sense we are not able to use an understanding of the environmental phenomena framed in a natural science discourse to predict or explain them.

I myself have two touchstones for this idea of environmental under-determination, which I list under Further Reading; I would be grateful to learn of what I am sure are many other sources that explore it.

Dipesh Chakrabarty. 2009. “The Climate of History: Four Theses.” Critical Inquiry 35, pp. 197-222. Chakrabarty addresses the interplay between the disciplines of natural history and human history, and the pressure put on the distinction by the Anthropocene.
Donald Davidson. 2001. “Mental Events.” In Essays on Actions and Events (Oxford: Oxford University Press). Davidson offers a position on the relation between mind and body called “anomalous monism,” according to which mental events (thoughts) are physical events (e.g. interactions between neurons), but the discourses we use to explain each cannot be translated into each other. Thus, he holds, there can be no laws that identify specific brain states with specific mental states. I see the relationship between mind and brain Davidson describes as a possible analogy for the relationship between social/cultural phenomena and the environment.

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