As the civil war in Syria shows no sign of slowing down, prompting millions of refugees to flee from that war-torn shell of a country towards an overwhelmed Europe, a study appearing in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences earlier this year added an entirely new perspective to my understanding of the causes of the current crisis. The broader implications of the research provide a chilling reality check for the future of our planet as a whole.
In the paper, lead researcher Colin Kelley claims that climate change was a key contributing factor to the war in Syria that has claimed as many as 300,000 lives to date. A prolonged and devastating drought from 2006 to 2010, exacerbated by the Syrian’s regime’s failure to prepare or respond effectively, led to a mass migration of some 1.5 million rural workers who, without sufficient water, could no longer farm their lands and headed for the cities.
This unprecedented concentration of “angry unemployed men” – what Kelley calls a “huge population shock” in Syria’s most affected urban centers – may have helped “trigger [the] revolution,” says Aaron Wolf, a water management expert at Oregon State University. Other factors – broad feelings of discontent in rural areas and the growing gap between rich and poor during the 2000s – undoubtedly played a role as well, adds Dutch researcher Francesca de Châtel.
Now, a long-term decline in rainfall in the Fertile Crescent, which includes Syria, has been ongoing since 1931. But the researchers determined that “natural variability on its own” was unlikely to account for the trends that led to the massive drought. Their models only worked when they included man-made greenhouse gas emissions, which made the drought in Syria more than twice as likely and “was the reason it was the most severe drought they have ever had,” says Kelley.
If the research is correct, and climate change helped precipitate the events that have overtaken Syria and the region – including the rise of Islamic State, the ascendancy of Iran and direct Russian involvement, not to mention the wholly unpredictable effects such a large-scale population movement will have on European political sentiment and the already faltering economies on the continent – then some of the bleak futures predicted in the postmodern, ecological collapse branch of science fiction writing may be closer than we think.
If all that isn’t terrifying enough, a new book by Yale University history professor Timothy Snyder argues that climate change could lead to a resurgence of Hitler- esque geopolitical thinking – and not just in the Middle East.
“The Holocaust may seem a distant horror whose lessons have already been learned,” Snyder wrote in a New York Times op-ed. “But sadly, the anxieties of our own era could once again give rise to scapegoats and imagined enemies, while contemporary environmental stresses could encourage new variations on Hitler’s ideas, especially in countries anxious about feeding their growing populations or maintaining a rising standard of living.”
Snyder’s book is called Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning. In it, he argues that Hitler believed in a concept called Lebensraum, German for “habitat” or “ecological niche.” According to Snyder, Hitler posited that races need “ever more Lebensraum in order to feed themselves and propagate their kind.”
But natural resources are limited and Hitler “denied that [advances in] agricultural technology could alter the relationship between people and nourishment.”
Hitler’s first conquests, then, were countries with fertile soil, like Ukraine, that could help feed the German people.
In order to allocate these limited resources, Hitler held that “nature demanded that the higher races overmaster and starve the lower,” Snyder writes in his book. This struggle “was indefinite and eternal.”
It did not bode well for the Jews. (Snyder clearly doesn’t side with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s widely discredited “the mufti made me do it” hypothesis for the Holocaust.) Looking at the contemporary landscape, Snyder is alarmed that climate change deniers, particularly in the US (“the only country where climate science is still resisted by certain political and business elites”) have an “intellectual stance that is uncomfortably close to Hitler’s.”
But the real problem may be in places like Asia.
“The danger is not that the Chinese might actually starve to death in the near future, any more than the Germans would have during the 1930s,” says Snyder.
“The risk is that a developed country able to project military power could, like Hitler’s Germany, fall into ecological panic, and take drastic steps to protect its existing standard of living.”
Reading these dual analyses – Snyder’s warnings of how another Holocaust could evolve and the way in which climate change has already led to mass murder just across Israel’s northeastern border – has left me profoundly distressed about the future of humanity.
I always maintained a basically optimistic outlook; that the future held nothing but promise. The world was becoming less violent and more moral; technology was addressing all manner of malady: disease and hunger and poverty. We cracked the human genome; how long until we come up with a cure for cancer... and old age itself? After all, we’ve put the power of a super computer in the hands of billions of people. Certainly we will come up with a solution to climate change too.
But maybe we’re too late already.
Extreme weather, in just the past few years, is becoming “normal.” This past summer was the hottest on record, just about everywhere. The crazy dust storm that blanketed much of the Middle East in September may have been a climate change casualty, impacted by the decline in farming in Syria and Iraq as a result of both drought and war, which harmed the soil crust, says Prof. Arnon Karnieli of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. That storm, which traveled mostly at ground level, carried along dirt and dust particles that were already precariously loose. The dust particles in the air in the September storm were larger than any that had been previously recorded.
Climate has felled civilizations before ours. Between 1250 BCE and 1100 BCE, nearly all the great civilizations of the eastern Mediterranean – Egypt of the pharaohs, Mycenaean Greece and Crete, the large Canaanite city-states – were destroyed. A study in the Journal of the Institute of Archaeology of Tel Aviv University from a few years back tried to understand why. Researchers investigated pollen grains at the bottom of Lake Kinneret. Radiocarbon dating revealed 150 years of severe drought in exactly the years those civilizations collapsed.
While we may not be able to reverse the inevitabilities of contemporary climate change, Israeli technology could address some of the more immediate problems of lack of water. Seth M. Siegel’s new book Let There Be Water: Israel’s Solution for a Water-Starved World documents Israel’s remarkable water history – from the creation of the Mekorot national water company in the 1930s and the establishment of the National Water Carrier in 1964, through the development of drip irrigation, to the modern marvel of desalination and sewage treatment that has given Israel, which just a decade ago was considering importing water from Turkey, an actual water surplus.
Calling Israel a “water superpower,” Siegel suggests that if countries currently at war with or boycotting Israel could put aside politics, Israeli innovation could be enormously beneficial.
It’s already happening in China where the Chinese- Israeli “Water City” project in the city of Shouguang is designed to promote commercial-scale implementation of Israeli water technologies, in areas such as desalination, sewage treatment and irrigation. Why not elsewhere in our fraught region? “The time to act is now,” Siegel told The Jerusalem Post’s Sharon Udasin in a review of his book. When it comes to water technology, “Israel has shown [it knows] how.”
There is still room for the optimism of youth. Indeed, human ingenuity has made some pretty breathtaking breakthroughs in other areas. Consider energy. Yuval Harari, in the online course version of his best-selling Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, notes that, “the common fears that we are running out of energy [in the form of fossil fuels] are probably exaggerated.” In the past, “every few decades we discovered a new energy source as our knowledge became better and better.
So the sum total of energy at the disposal of humankind keeps growing, not shrinking.” The world does not lack energy, Harari argues. “What it really lacks is the knowledge necessary [so far at least] to harness and convert existing energy [such as the sun] to our needs.”
Can we do the same thing for climate change – that is, develop the knowledge to halt its man-made effects in time, before it leads to irreversible planetary damage, endless population upheavals and multiplying murderous unrest? I’m not giving up my optimist card just yet. And I have a feeling that Israel is going to play a big part in the ultimate drama of our lives.The author is a freelance writer who specializes in technology, start-ups and the entrepreneurs behind them. More at www.bluminteractivemedia.com.