The Syrian Refugee exodus has been one of the most lamentable humanitarian crises we have witnessed in contemporary times. Going by the theory developed by Acemoglu and Robinson in their acclaimed book, Why Nations Fail, the dominance of extractive political and economic institutions in Syria would have made the disaster imminent, which unfortunately revealed itself as a ghastly civil war, with an authoritarian regime, rebel groups and terrorist groups vying for control of the land and in the process, creating millions of homeless who now seek peace by risking their lives and often lose it in hope for a future in distant, unwelcoming lands.
But what was the trigger point of the war? A domino effect originating from mass revolutions popularly known as the Arab Spring is unlikely, as the regime in Syria, though repressive, was considered to be relatively stable and powerful enough to suppress dissent. Then what caused the sudden uprising? According to a report published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), the severe drought in Syria from 2007-2010 was the trigger for mass dissent. It was the worst drought recorded, with unforgiving repercussions such as widespread crop failure, water shortage, death of livestock, food shortage and loss of farm livelihood. The drought caused mass migration of Syrians to cities which, coupled with influx of refugees fleeing persecution in Iraq, led to utter chaos and food shortages in urban centres.
What ensued has been known to all. Infuriated by the government’s inaction in providing relief to drought stricken areas which led to extreme depravity of means for millions, some teenagers initiated protests which quickly escalated into an armed rebellion. With the government refusing to relinquish power, and various rebel groups, being supported by funds and training from neighbouring countries and the US, and a fanatic terrorist organisation taking advantage of the situation and establishing control over a third of Syrian land, the war has sapped all life from the Syrian economy.
While pinpointing climate change as the only cause of the civil unrest, would be imprudent and erroneous, it nonetheless cannot be ignored as a catalytic factor, which is likely to cause much more severe and persistent droughts in near future, leading to a catastrophic conditions capable of wiping out 50 % of agricultural capacity off Syria by 2050, even if it recovers from the ongoing war. If nothing is done for mitigation of the impact of increase in temperatures due to greenhouse warming effects caused by carbon emissions, the region is likely to be mired in droughts which could spiral into a never ending conflict.
To sum up: global warming induced climate change can increase the probability of conflict, both external and internal, and Syria is a conspicuous example of this. We need to ask ourselves: Are the governments world-wide prepared with contingency plans to tackle unforeseen challenges that might show up in course of a dangerous warming up of the planet?
To listen to what Narendra Modi, the Prime Minister of India, a country highly susceptible to climate change, had to say to a school girl on what does he think should be done to mitigate the effects of climate change here.
Agriculture in India is largely dependent on the vagaries of monsoon, owing to the lack of use of irrigation as an insurance against insufficient rainfall. To add to the woes of farmers, global warming has made monsoon capricious and generally unpredictable, thus causing great anxiety among the agrarian population, which in many cases amounts to suicide by farmers who are unable to come out of vicious cycles of debt trap, owing to uncertainty of output.
The callous attitude of the administrators towards climate change should be perceived as a dangerous signal and failure to act upon the impending challenges might lead to ugly situations, which can destabilise the economy.
Yet another crisis that is not far in time is water shortage. News of metropolitans like Delhi facing water shortages are galore and India finds itself in conflict with its neighbours over control of water resources. Conflicts between states are also not uncommon. Development experts around the world have become increasingly concerned about water security in recent years. Floods and droughts have become quite common, often disrupting lives of millions, because of insufficient pre and post disaster management operations. The explosion of population and unplanned, often chaotic urbanisation has strained and polluted water resources, some beyond recovery. To quote evidence of the impending crisis, a hospital in New Delhi had to cancel surgeries because it did not have clean water to sterilise instruments and for its staff to wash hands.
The growth rate of the Indian GDP, one of the highest in a world burdened by the after effects of a grave recession, has been a hot topic of discussion, globally. But we need to ask ourselves, is this growth sustainable? Should not the depletion of resources be a deductible in the calculation of GDP? Is it right to value the future at a positive discount rate?
The disaster in Syria should raise an alarm bell in countries with precarious ecological balances, most importantly India and China, two of world’s worst polluters. Policies to promote sustainable development, as well as steps to mitigate impact of climate change and figuring out ways to adapt the production of primary and secondary goods to the rise in temperatures should be on the priority lists of the governments around the globe.
The developed world has a crucial role to play in this regard. The rich nations might find themselves relatively prepared to combat any impending disaster, but they are equally, if not more, responsible for global warming, thus cannot shy away from the responsibility to help out the poorer nations. As societies grow rich, it has been observed that per capita carbon emissions increase, and as a result, the US has the highest rates of per capita carbon emission, indeed, several times higher than those of India and China, whose cumulative emissions are high because the sheer magnitude of their populations.
There are no black and white solutions as regards to who should be doing what, but one workable strategy could be this: rich countries provide financial and technological assistance right now to help susceptible countries and communities adapt to climate change while they themselves seek ways to cut greenhouse emissions, principally by investing in cleaner energy and also economising wasteful production, so to say. The response has to be immediate or we should get ready for bigger crises in no time.
MA (P) Economics
Delhi School of Economics