Syria: Still the proverbial canary

In September of 2013, I wrote a blog post in which I labeled Syria as the proverbial canary in the coal mine with respect to global warming. Here we are, almost exactly two years later, and I see that Syria continues in that canary role; this time with the mass migration of people seeking escape from what has become an untenable situation.

Ten years ago, the world witnessed the devastation caused by hurricane Katrina and the mass migration of as many as a million people looking to escape the storm, many of whom became refugees in their own country as a result of literally having nowhere to return. With Syria today we are witnessing the mass migration of millions of people seeking to flee a civil war in which global warming arguably played a role. So what can be learned from these events?

First, as the oceans and drought eat away at the places where people can live, there will be a steady trickle of economic refugees who will seek to relocate, similar to Syria when drought-stricken farmers were forced by the thousands to abandon their farms and villages. This migration will intensify as global warming ramps up. Fully half of the world’s population currently inhabit areas that may be literally too hot for humans to survive within the next couple of centuries. Where will all of these people go?

As with Syria, most of these people will be moving to the cities in search of food, water, and work, and we witnessed how explosive that situation became. It only took the mass migration of 15% of Syria’s population over a five year period to set the stage for civil war. In other areas of the world, hundreds of millions of people may be forced to migrate over the next century as conditions worsen in their respective regions. Can the world’s cities sustain that much influx of population? Can the infrastructure support it? Considering that, as with Syria, many of the areas that people will be fleeing from also represent where the food is being grown, how will these people be fed? How will the current urban inhabitants be fed when the farmland floods or dries up?

Secondly, as we are observing now and observed with Katrina, there will be relatively sudden mass migrations caused by events both natural and man-made. With Katrina, the people displaced by the storm fled into neighboring states to seek shelter, stressing many of the communities that took them in. With Syria, some four million people have fled the civil war to seek asylum all across Europe, stressing countries across the region. With Katrina, most of the population was able to trickle back as the region eventually rebuilt, but many elected to stay where they landed. Will the same happen with Syria’s refugees? Are the rich countries of Europe and North America prepared to periodically handle repeated and sudden influxes of refugees as events like this become more common?

Although anything can happen in the future, I believe that the current refugee crisis can provide some insight as to what may unfold over the next several decades. First, in general terms, the steadily increasing migration of people dislocated by the effects of global warming will stress the urban centers to which they will go in search of food, water, and work. At first, the urban centers will be able to absorb—and in some cases even welcome—the influx of refugees. However, over time, and as the flow of migration relentlessly increases, the urban centers will slowly become overwhelmed, particularly as they become resource starved as a result of decreasing water and food supplies. As with Syria, this can suddenly reach a tipping point and quickly degrade as more and more people seek to make due with less and less. Within the relative confines of the urban environment, cultures will clash. The haves will be under increased stress to defend themselves from the have-nots. Authority structures will become as stressed as the food and water supply. At some point, overwhelming hopelessness may lead to general unrest, rioting, and civil war.

As the world’s stress level slowly rises with the global temperature, there will be more Katrina-like and Syria-like events as the frequency of large destructive storms increases, and civil unrest boils over into civil war. This will cause sudden influxes of refugees into already stressed regions, possibly pushing them into civil unrest. There may be a domino effect as regions collapse. Democracies may fall to be replaced by authoritarian regimes. There may be regions of anarchy where no one has control. This may result in the release of nuclear and biological weapons, further increasing the world’s stress level and resulting in more waves of refugees. Fundamentalism and nativism of all stripes will be on the rise as entrenched populations seek to defend themselves from the ever-increasing influx of asylum seekers. There will be calls to close national borders. Large groups of people will be placed into internment camps. Atrocities will ensue.

On a global scale, trade barriers and protectionism may once again rise as nations feel the effects of resource shortage. Some nations may feel the need to militarily protect assets that exist in other nations, leading to civil unrest and open war. China may cease to exist as the cheap manufacturer of the world, with reverberations felt throughout global supply chains. Without closely linked trade to facilitate a global community, nations will have less need to be friendly to one another, laying the ground for increased hostilities and outright war.

The Asian block may be the first to crumble under the weight of over population and limited resources. The vast fisheries that feed this area will run dry as ocean-wide fish stocks collapse from over production. It will join the Middle East as a mass exporter of refugees as rising oceans and expanding desert claim some of the most fertile farmland in the world. The borders between India and Pakistan, and North and South Korea will be especially war prone, considering that at least three of these countries have nuclear weapons. The old saber-rattling over disputed territories between China and Japan may intensify into open conflict.

The rich countries of the west will eventually feel the strain. European countries will continue to absorb refugees from the mid-east and Asia as the populations of these areas flee starvation, unrest and civil war. This will cause a resurgence of nationalism along the European fault lines and old rivalries will return. As southern Europe becomes inundated with refugees and water, this will cause increasing stress on the European Union and possibly cause it to fail. Unified Europe may eventually disintegrate back to the warring factions that monopolized world events during the first half of the Twentieth Century. Countries that were staunch allies a few decades before will be tempted to war over diminishing resources as half of the world’s species become extinct.

The United States, in particular, will suffer as large numbers of displaced citizens flee the increasingly uninhabitable South and mid-West. The record drought that encompassed much of the U.S. in 2012 will become the new norm, and large areas of formerly productive farmland will be abandoned as people flee to the cities in search of food, water, and work. There will be more Katrina-like events, and this may result in other areas that are simply abandoned because the resources will not exist for reconstruction. This may lead to areas of anarchy within the U.S. that will require the deployment of the military. Once the precedent is set, the military will be used to supplement or even replace local authority in other areas. Authoritarianism will rise in the U.S. as Americans seek safety in the sacrifice of civil rights, as they do now. The definition of ‘terrorist’ will continue to broaden, as will the ranks of political prisoners. Many of the fruits of complex civilization that people take for granted now, from a reliable Internet, to reliable sources of electricity, water, and food will be seen as luxuries. Most will be forced to live a simpler lifestyle of limited means and options. Tent cities will become the new norm as American refugees struggle to relocate. The very rich will be able to wall themselves off for a while, but this, too, will eventually fall…


Can all of this be blamed on global warming? Of course not. What global warming represents is the tragedy of the commons writ on a global scale. It is a stressor that will increase the intensity of strife by creating civil unrest where harmony may before have been possible, and elevating civil unrest into civil war. It will break systems that are currently stressed, and stress systems that currently are not. However, we are not obligated to follow this path, and we can stop business as usual if enough of us try. Global warming is merely the fuel of the fire; the more of it we have, the hotter the fire will burn.

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