During 2015 the media started connecting climate change with the conflict in Syria and subsequent refugee movements across Europe. Many reports were in direct response to new research making this connection. Other reports mentioned this research while examining other major events such as the drownings in the Mediterranean, the refugee camp in Calais and the terrorist attacks in November 2015. But did those media reports accurately represent the research they referenced?
Some elements of media reporting accurately represented the research, especially when coverage focused specifically on events leading up to the Syrian uprising in 2011. Other media reporting fundamentally misunderstood the link between climate change and the early moments of the uprising in Syria. Many media reports argued that climate driven migration into cities created violence between migrants and existing residents that descended into wider conflict. The media reporting tended (wrongly) to present migrants and refugees as a threat to Europe and a source of chaos and violence within Syria. In general, media reports ignored research pointing towards cooperation between migrants and residents in protests against the Syrian regime. Further, in response to the situation in Syria many media reports also speculated about future human movement in response to climate change. But many of these predictions fundamentally misunderstood the way climate change could re-shape patterns of migration in the future.
Watch: Executive Summary
Section 1 looks at what the media said about the role of climate change in the Syrian conflict. Section 2 asks how much of the media’s narrative is supported by evidence. Section 3 looks at the media’s future predictions, and asks how they compare with existing evidence.
Explore the media stories
Click the map icons to explore the media stories referenced in this report. You can also follow the links to look at the original articles.
A common media narrative has emerged linking climate change with the conflict in Syria. Across a number of media stories it is possible to trace a storyline. Media reports vary in their conclusions and emphasis, but several key elements are the same. The purpose of this section is to look at what the media claimed. In the next section we’ll look at how these claims stack up against the available evidence.
Play: a common media narrative
Causes of the conflict (according to the media)
Two key points form the basis of most reporting linking climate change to the conflict in Syria, and its consequences.
First, that climate change played a role in causing and prolonging the drought in Syria between 2006 and 2009. The explanation offered by the New York Times was typical of how many outlets expressed this connection: “...extreme drought in Syria between 2006 and 2009 was most likely due to climate change, and that the drought was a factor in the violent uprising that began there in 2011”.
Second, that this drought destroyed rural livelihood and forced people to move from the countryside into Syrian cities. For example, National Geographic explained that this drought “...drove Syrian farmers to abandon their crops and flock to cities, helping trigger a civil war...”
While these two points are common across much the reporting, there is less consistency when reports look at the causal mechanism linking displacement and the start of the conflict. Further, different reports focus on different consequences of the conflict and make different predictions about the future.
A number of outlets implied that violence may have erupted over scarce resources. The Independent hinted at an explanation by pointing at other research: “relatively small shocks to supply risk causing sudden price rises and triggering ‘overreactions or even militarised responses’”. Several news stories made the link more explicitly after Prince Charles claimed he had predicted climate-driven conflicts years ago. BBC News reported him saying “some of us were saying 20 something years ago that if we didn’t tackle these issues you would see ever greater conflict over scarce resources and ever greater difficulties over drought, and the accumulating effect of climate change, which means that people have to move”. However many outlets explained only vaguely how displacement into cities might lead to conflict. For example the Daily Mail simply argued “[The drought] led to an influx of people into cities causing rising poverty and unrest”. The New York Times said the migration added to “social stresses” although did not elaborate further.
Other news reports made the case that the rural to urban migration swelled the ranks of aggrieved citizens in cities. The increased numbers and mixing of people from across Syrian society gave the early demonstrations against the regime both confidence and increased numbers. Rather than displacees and existing residents fighting each other, this narrative argues they united around attempts to overthrow the Assad regime. This explanation was prominent in a number of newer online-only outlets that reproduced a cartoon called “Syria’s climate fuelled conflict”.
Regardless of the causal mechanisms hinted at, most media reporting on the issue concludes that what started as an uprising descended into a protracted war within Syria. The conflict then involved an increasing number of armed state and non-state actors from within and outside Syria.
Consequences (according to the media)
Different media reports then claim a number of different consequences resulted from the conflict:
Several articles outlined a narrative linking climate change, via the situation in Syria, to terrorist attacks and in some cases directly to the attacks in Paris in November 2015. Time ran the headline “Why Climate Change and Terrorism Are Connected”. Immediately after the attacks in Paris the New Zealand Herald ran a comment piece linking climate change, the drought, the rise of ISIS and the attacks in Paris. The New Yorker argued that reaching an agreement to reduce emissions and prevent future climate change was key to fighting terrorism: “Why a Climate Deal Is the Best Hope for Peace”.
2. Refugees in Europe
A number of outlets focused on the refugee situation in Europe. They argued that the drought had sparked the Syrian conflict which then drove people via North Africa across the Mediterranean and resulted in the numerous drownings over the summer months of 2015. These stories emerged in response to the images of drowned Syrian refugee Alan Kurdi, and the growth of the refugee camp in Calais. The National Observer - a specialist environment and resources publication - ran a photo of the drowned toddler headlined “This is what a climate refugee looks like”. CNN ran with comments Hillary Clinton made connecting climate change and the refugee situation in Europe. Time ran a story headlined “How Climate Change is Behind the Surge of Migrants to Europe”.
Explore the numbers of people who have moved as result of the violence in Syria.
Predictions by the media
While looking at the connections between climate change and the situation in Syria some media reports made predictions about the future. Several outlets ran comment pieces arguing that a warmer planet would bring bigger, more protracted refugee crises in the future.
The Guardian ran two comment pieces: one arguing that the current refugee situation would become “the new normal”, the other headlined “Failure to act on climate change means an even bigger refugee crisis”.
The Washington Post ran a comment piece saying a warmer future would produce a Syria-like refugee crisis “times 100”. Scientific American ran a story called “The Ominous Story of Syria’s Climate Refugees” arguing the current refugee situation should serve as a warning and prediction about refugee flows on a warmer planet. The New Scientist made the case that the refugee camps in Calais were a “taste of what a warmer world may bring”.
Other outlets focused more on the possibility of a warmer planet producing more violent conflict. The Independent made the case that climate change was key in causing the conflict in Syria, but further that climate change “will trigger more war in future”. The LA Times asked “Is Syria conflict a case study for climate change?”.
Many of these news stories are based on the paper Climate change in the Fertile Crescent and implications of the recent Syrian drought (Kelley et al 2015). The paper supports some - but not all - of the media narrative. Some other parts of the media narrative are supported by other evidence, while some of it is not supported by the literature at all.
Play: comparing evidence and media reports
A simplified version of events
Kelley argued for a strong connection between climate change and drought. The majority of the paper is spent unpacking the relationship between climate change and drought, and specifically between climate change and drought in the Fertile Crescent. Most media reporting accurately reflects this.
Kelley and his colleagues then argue that the drought eroded rural livelihoods. This caused many Syrian citizens to leave the countryside and move into cities hoping to find alternative employment. Again, the media reporting reflects what the paper argues. The media reporting also broadly reflects other evidence exploring the relationship between climate change and human movement in Syria and the Middle East more broadly. Further, the media reporting and the Kelley paper were also broadly consistent with research exploring the impacts of drought on migration and displacement across the world. Specifically, there is strong evidence linking climate change impacts such as drought with patterns of rural to urban migration.
Other factors are also important in explaining the erosion of rural livelihoods in Syria - notable among these was the regime’s failure to properly manage the drought, and a history of poor agricultural policy and lack of investment that left the agriculture sector especially vulnerable. Kelley also argued that internal displacees moving due to drought were not the only people arriving in Syrian cities at the time. Large numbers of people were also crossing the border from Iraq and settling in Syrian cities. Kelley points to these other factors and much of the media reporting acknowledges these other forces as well, albeit briefly.
Linking rural - urban migration and the start of conflict
1. An unsatisfying explanation in the media reporting.
Kelley and his colleagues argued that the growing number of people in Syrian cities resulted in the start of the conflict. However they say little about the causal mechanisms that might connect internal migration to the onset of a civil war. They note briefly that newly arrived migrants lived in poverty and were neglected by the Assad regime and that this lead to unrest. However, they do not suggest why this episode of unrest escalated into an uprising, while others had not. Nor do they say anything about how relationships between newly arrived migrants and existing resident populations might have played a role in the beginnings of the uprising. They briefly state that there is evidence linking “demographic change” to unrest and conflict. They cite three papers as evidence. The first is a comment piece calling for academics who disagree on the climate - conflict nexus to work together more closely to resolve their differences. The second is a meta analysis showing a strong correlation between climate variability and violence, however this paper does not highlight migration as part of the causal mechanism explaining this correlation. The third makes the case that some kinds of demographic change can lead to armed violence. Specifically, this paper argues that rapid urbanisation exceeding available employment, and migration altering existing religion or ethnic mixes can lead to conflict.
The suggestion is therefore that violence erupts between civilian populations over scarce resources and along existing ethnic or religious lines. However, as we will see, this is not what happened in the early moments of the uprising in Syria.
To this extent Kelley presents an unsatisfying explanation of the link between rural - urban migration and the beginning of the conflict in Syria. Neither the authors nor the material they cite provide an explanation of why this episode of human movement played a role in the beginning of the conflict in Syria. This elision is also present in the media coverage of the connections between climate change and the conflict in Syria. As stated previously, the media reporting either did not comment on the causal mechanism linking migration and conflict or - for example in the case of the BBC and the Independent - hinted at conflict over scarce resources as the key driver of violence. In a sense the media reporting follows the information presented by Kelley and his colleagues.
2. What the evidence says about the connection
Other explanations of the causal mechanism linking rural-urban migration in Syria and the start of the conflict do exist in the literature. Leenders argues that the additional population in the cities set the conditions for an uprising against the regime. The presence of more people, with a recent and tangible grievance (the loss of the rural / agricultural livelihoods) added to the existing aggrieved population. The rural migrants recent experience of the total loss of their livelihood - and therefore anger towards the regime - was an essential part of the uprisings. Imady argues in this sense the uprising began in the rural areas and then took hold when people moved from the countryside into the cities. The extensive migration connected people from across Syria’s social classes and ethnic groups in a way that the regime had tried to prevent. This swelling of numbers and increased social connections meant a nascent uprising against the regime finally took hold. The regime tried to prevent different groups of “urban subalterns” mixing, organising and protesting, but in the end failed to comprehensively quash the uprising.
This explanation does not form part of Kelley’s explanation of how rural-urban migration played a role in the start of the uprising. This explanation is also mostly absent from the media coverage. A notable exception to this is the cartoon produced by the TV series Years of Living Dangerously. In the cartoon, this interaction between rural and urban populations is explored. The fact that the existing residents and new arrivals cooperated on various forms of protest, rather than fighting each other, forms the core of the cartoon’s narrative. Although the cartoon didn’t attract attention from the mainstream media, it was reproduced on sites like Upworthy and UniLad.
The media used the situation in Syria to speculate about the future of climate-linked migration. Does the available evidence support their predictions?
Play: problematic predictions by the media
Kelley and his colleagues do not analyse the war that followed the uprising or the displacement of people out of Syria and into Europe. Nor do they explore or make predictions about future droughts, climate-driven refugees or conflict scenarios.
Suggestions in the media about similar future scenarios cannot therefore be said to be based on the conclusions of Kelley and his colleagues. However, in response to their paper, and more broadly to the situation in Syria, many journalists took the opportunity to speculate about future climate-linked human movement – and in particular, what form it might take.
Several characteristics typify the kind of migration and displacement the media reporting said might result from climate change in the future. Are these narratives presented by the media supported by any available evidence in the academic literature?
Large scale and en masse?
Several media reports contained predictions that future patterns of human movement would be both large scale and en masse. A number of outlets predicted that people would move in large numbers, leave the same area at the same time, and travel to the same destination. The conclusion of a Guardian comment piece stated that ”if the government continues to move backwards on climate change, then we should get ready for a much bigger refugee crisis before very long.” This suggests that future climate-linked migration would follow a similar pattern to the movement of people from Syria into Europe over the summer of 2015. The New Scientist concluded an editorial piece arguing:
This implies a relatively simple relationship between global temperatures and the number of people forced to move.
The commentators are correct in emphasising the profound impact climate change could have on human mobility. However the above quotes show that these commentators have assumed it will be fairly easy to distinguish “climate migrants” from other kinds of migrants and displaced people. When they make the case that there will be huge numbers of them they have assumed that identifying and counting such people is possible. Predicting the number of people who might be displaced by climate change in the future has proved difficult and controversial. Most scholars working in the field now focus on other questions rather than continuing to attempt predictions.
Climate change impacts are more likely to create human movement that does not fit the predictions of these recent commentators. In its review of the evidence the IPCC does also state that climate change impacts will have an impact on human mobility. However, much climate-linked migration will not be en masse. In response to slow onset disasters like drought, desertification and sea level rise, people will often move one by one or in small groups from the same household. A few household members may move away from the affected area hoping to find work elsewhere and send remittances home.
Forced and ‘refugee-like’?
Another key feature of the future migration journalists predicted was that it would be forced rather than voluntary and that it would essentially be refugee-like. The people moving would be very similar or indistinguishable from ‘conventional’ refugees at the moment. Time magazine quoted John Kerry making this point:
Secretary of State John Kerry warned that climate change could create a new class of migrants, what he called “climate refugees” at a conference on climate change in Anchorage, Alaska. “You think migration is a challenge to Europe today because of extremism, wait until you see what happens when there’s an absence of water, an absence of food, or one tribe fighting against another for mere survival,” he said.
A Washington Post columnist created a similar image of the kind of human movement he thought would result from climate change.
Although much climate-linked migration will be forced and rightly categorized as displacement, climate impacts will also create human movement that will appear more like voluntary labour migration. As well as incidents where people are forced to move immediately by disasters, it is also likely that many people will engage in planned relocation. In such cases communities will decide to move in an organized and coordinated fashion to a new location, often with the consent and assistance of the receiving area. This kind of movement obviously avoids the crisis-like nature of the movement described by the journalists. It is also possible that future climate-linked migration will be seasonal and circular. People may move during periods of climate-linked stress, and then return when conditions improve. Again, this does not fit the forced and crisis-like picture painted by the journalists’ predictions.
Across borders and continents?
Finally, journalists tended to assume that future climate-linked migration would be across international borders, and even between continents. A Guardian columnist predicted that in the future, people from southern Europe would have to move across borders to northern European countries as a result of climate change:
“In other words, the Mediterranean countries currently trying to cope with migrants from other parts of the world may eventually have a migrant crisis of their own. One day there could conceivably be Italians and Greeks in camps in Calais, as their own countries become even hotter and more arid”.
Other journalists predicted that the movement would also be from developing to developed countries. Again, the New Scientist argued in its comment piece on the issue:
In the city of Alexandria alone, just a 0.5-metre rise in sea level – likely well before the year 2100 – would displace around 1.5 million people and result in 200,000 job losses, according to a 2004 study. It seems all too plausible that the situation in Egypt could deteriorate to the point that many people try to enter Europe (Le Page, 2015).
Although these journalists claimed that people would be crossing international borders, much climate-linked migration is likely to be internal rather than international. When people do move as a result of climate-linked events, they are likely to move short distances, not travelling any further than necessary to reach safety. In cases where people do cross international borders it is most likely they will move to neighbouring countries. After being displaced, rather than staying permanently in their new location it is often the case that people return to take part in reconstruction.
When journalists and commentators responded to the situation in Syria and new academic research, they did so with mixed levels of accuracy. When reporting the conclusions of specific scientific papers, their commentary broadly reflected the scientists’ conclusions. However when they began examining why and how an influx of people into Syria’s cities might have played a role in the uprising, their conclusions were not well supported by existing evidence in the academic literature. In fact it could be argued that most media reporting and commentary examined in this paper reached the opposite conclusions than those supported by the literature. The narrative chosen by the media often represented refugees and migrants as a source of chaos and violence, when in fact there is little evidence to support this.
While reporting on the situation in Syria and the movement of people into Europe many journalists and commentators also included predictions about future episodes of climate driven human movement. These predictions about the kind of movement that might happen are not well supported by existing evidence.
About the author
Alex Randall runs the Climate and Migration Coalition, a network of refugee and migration NGOs working together on issues around climate change, and is the programme manager for Migration and Climate a Climate Outreach. He was lead author on the Moving Stories report, which explored the real lives of people displaced by climate-linked disasters. He has written frequently for the Guardian and other outlets on climate change and migration. Get in touch.
This work would not have been possible without the support of the following organisations.