If you get your information from news headlines, the migration crisis currently bedeviling Europe might seem to have come out of nowhere. And people don’t seem terribly interested in digging into the roots of the crisis. It is simply assumed that people are fleeing war, poverty, and ISIS. Especially ISIS.

But what most people don’t seem to realize—or don’t want to talk about—is how much this crisis has its roots in climate change. The clearest example of this is Syria, the origin of the vast majority of refugees.

The facts here are incontrovertible. Study after study shows that the political unrest and civil war in Syria can be traced to an unprecedented drought since 2006—the worst since the dawn of agricultural civilization in the fertile crescent. The results of this severe and prolonged drought were devastating. Nearly 75 percent of farmers suffered crop failure. Herders in affected regions lost 85 percent of their livestock. 800,000 Syrians lost their livelihoods. And two to three million were pushed into poverty. And the mass migration began even before the war, with about 1.5 million people flooding into cities.

In a country plagued by poor governance, political repression, and inter-communal tensions, this was a recipe for disaster. And the dictator Bashar Al-Assad reacted to dissatisfaction with a shocking level of brutality and callousness.

Unfortunately, the Iraq war only added more fuel to this raging bonfire. There is now no doubt whatsoever that the American invasion and occupation of Iraq was beyond disastrous, leaving behind an unprecedented level of chaos and carnage—not only in Iraq, but in Syria too. It led to the rise of ISIS and the annihilation of the 2000-year old Christian community in that region. And yet we should remember that most Syrian refugees are fleeing Assad, not ISIS.

As climate change progresses, we are bound to see far more of this toxic mix of mass migration, civil instability, and hostility between ethnic and religious groups. It has happened before. Religious historian Philip Jenkins has argued that the rise of religious hatred and violence in the 14th century can be traced to the travails of climate—to a localized cooling in parts of northern hemisphere known today as the “little ice age”. This was a time when Christian Europe started persecuting the Jews in earnest. And it marked an abrupt end to centuries of fairly peaceful co-existence between Christians and Muslims in the Middle East.

And today, we can see this pattern play in out in other regions besides Syria—in the Sahel region of West Africa, for example. As the Sahara desert encroaches southwards, the pastoralists also migrate. In doing so, they bump into settled farming communities, causing tension. This tension is made worse by the fact that most of the pastoralists are Muslim of most of the farmers are Christian. Just as ISIS exploits the social disruption in Syria, Boko Haram exploits the social disruption in Nigeria.

What to do about all this? First, the whole world must deal with climate change—agree to a binding agreement to decarbonize over the course of the century. This is non-negotiable.

More immediately, the richer world must welcome these migrants with open arms. After all, it’s the Christian thing to do. But even more than that, there is a basic moral obligation at play here—the countries that benefited most from fossil fuel-led economic progress need to take responsibility for the fallout in poorer parts of the world. As Pope Francis noted in Laudato Si’, there is an ecological debt between north and south. One way to pay this debt is to open the door to refugees. Another is to provide the needed financial resources to these countries to deal with the effects of climate change.

When it comes to Syria, this obligation is even greater for countries like the US and the UK, the countries that initiated the disastrous Iraq war. We need to see some humility and atonement here—including a far greater willingness to rehouse the persecuted and the dislocated, along with a massive “Marshall Plan” style reconstruction effort for the entire region. As the old saying goes, “you break it, you buy it”. That means countries like the US need to stop shirking their duties and responsibilities. And they also need to stop “breaking things” in the first place, by too frequently opting for the easy option of war-making over the harder option of peace-building.


Anthony Annett is a Gabelli Fellow at Fordham University and a Senior Advisor at the Sustainable Development Solutions Network. 

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