A major contributor to the Syrian conflict? Climate change

This week marks the fifth anniversary of the start of the conflict in Syria. The costs of the war are staggering: It has claimed almost half a million lives, wounded close to 2 million people, generated 4.8 million refugees and displaced almost 7 million people within Syria.

To put these numbers in perspective, imagine a conflict that killed off everyone in Atlanta, wounded every single person in San Francisco and Dallas, led everyone in Chicago and Houston to leave the country in search of safety and drove everyone living in Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Boston and Seattle from their homes to other cities and states.

Another way to think of the scale of the war is in terms of population percentages. Imagine if the U.S. had 9.6 million people killed, 32 million wounded, 76.8 million refugees fleeing America and 96 million people displaced from their homes — that would be a catastrophe proportional to what the Syrian people have endured.

No matter how you think about it, the impact of the Syrian Civil War has been enormous. And unsurprisingly, Syria’s five-year war has unleashed geopolitical chaos.

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Yet tentative signs of progress are emerging as negotiators meet this week amid a ceasefire to discuss how to end the violence for good. And in a potentially positive development, Vladimir Putin ordered his troops to withdraw from Syria while the talks were ongoing.

As we hope for peace half a decade after the conflict’s start, it is also worth peering backward to understand how we got to this point in the first place. It may be surprising for some to learn that a major contributor to the conflict was climate change.

Starting in 2006, Syria suffered its worst drought in 900 years; it ruined farms, forced as many as 1.5 million rural denizens to crowd into cities alongside Iraqi refugees and decimated the country’s livestock. Water became scarce and food expensive. The suffering and social chaos caused by the drought were important drivers of the initial unrest.

Climate scientists have argued that global warming very likely exacerbated the historic drought, thanks to potentially permanent changes to wind and rainfall patterns. Thus, even if negotiators do reach a resolution, the underlying strains in the region may be here to stay. In fact, almost half of the countries most at risk of water shortages in the coming decades are in the Middle East or North Africa.

The sad reality is that supply disruptions are increasingly likely at the same time as the world is facing rising demand for water. The toxic combination of population increases and water-intensive lifestyles, driven by affluence, may lead to devastating price spikes. Expect water wars in the decades ahead.

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But climate change will impact more than access to water. The Pentagon recognizes global warming as a significant strategic threat, saying that it could it could cause “instability in other countries by impairing access to food and water, damaging infrastructure, spreading disease, uprooting and displacing large numbers of people, compelling mass migration, interrupting commercial activity, or restricting electricity availability.” Further, the U.S. military fears such disruptions could “create an avenue for extremist ideologies and conditions that foster terrorism.”

The conflict in Syria is a case in point. Consider three developments from the war: the rise of ISIS; the migrant crisis and the resulting political upheaval across Europe; and President Obama’s decision not to enforce the “red line” on chemical weapons — a decision that may come to define his foreign policy.

The link between climate change and the conflict in Syria is a reminder that decision-makers need to scan widely when assessing risks and opportunities. Methods like scenario planning can force us to thoroughly consider possibilities that at first seem improbable.

Think of food prices and how they may affect our world. If food prices were to fall 50 percent, who would benefit? Most of the world. Who would suffer? Food producers. Now what if food prices were to rise by 50 percent? Given families in Pakistan and Indonesia spend more than 40 percent of their budgets on food, might a price spike generate unrest in these countries?

Teasing out the global implications of truly disparate factors is critical for navigating uncertainty. However, in a world of constant information overload, this is easier said than done. Because many of us drown in data and are overrun by stampedes of information, we value focus and the ability to filter away noise. The problem with focus is it assumes we know what matters and that we know what doesn’t, enabling us to ignore what we think of as “noise.” Too often, we filter away signal with noise and miss possible insights.  We throw the proverbial baby out with the bathwater.

For that reason, we must distract ourselves out of our professional tunnel vision to successfully navigate our radically complex, intertwined world. Given the enormous potential dangers lurking ahead, forcing ourselves to connect seemingly unrelated dots will help to ensure a brighter, safer future for all.