Turmoil Around the Mediterranean Shores Illustrates Urgency of Climate Change Impacts

Posted on March 5, 2015 By

The risk of demographic and political impacts of climate change has recently started to gain attention, though the issue is still framed as a future possibility.  For example, when announcing the release the Climate Change Adaption Roadmap, then Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel  stated that “among the future trends that will impact our national security is climate change.”  Likewise, in an special issue of the Migration Review dedicated to climate change migration , the editors state that migration will be a consequence of “climate change in the decades to come.”  Both instances describe insecurity and instability driven by human-induced climate change as future possibilities that should be approached with planning and preparation.


This article argues that migration and insecurity due to human induced climate change are currently realized threats and that the United States along with other countries are actively engaged in responding to those realities.  Conflicts along the drought scared shorelines of the Mediterranean Sea are prime examples that climate change impacts have and currently are causing political instability and wars, with impacts beyond the countries directly impacted by the drought.  Wars in Libya, Syria, and in areas where the Islamic State (a.k.a. ISIS) is active are linked to this drought and provide clear examples of how climate change is currently shaping diplomatic and military policy.  The social strife associated with this drought extends beyond the Middle East and Africa.  European countries, including Greece, Spain, and Italy, have experienced extended periods of large scale social protests and violence.  Of note, the indirect impacts of these conflicts have reached beyond the shoreline, impacting Europe’s recovery from the financial crisis and prompting military engagements from the U.S., NATO, other allies, and non-allies. These conflicts demonstrate that we’re well past the point where we should prepare for the social and political impacts of climate change.  These impacts are upon us and America is currently responding to these impacts — although we might not recognize or acknowledge all of the forces driving the current patterns in civil strife and armed conflicts around the Mediterranean Sea.

One impact of human-induced climate change has been a major drought around the Mediterranean Sea.  This drought has sparked protests in Europe and contributed to civil wars in Africa and the Middle East.  It has been a major factor fueling the war in Syria, which has created 11 million involuntary migrants and spilt over into neighboring countries, including U.S. allies. It also provided the ungoverned territory that propelled Islamic State into one of the top current geopolitical risks.  On the Mediterranean’s southern shore, Libya and Egypt are two more drought stricken states that have experienced civil conflict.  In Libya, Gadaffi’s army was poised to inflict a massacre upon the city of Benghazi, which compelled a NATO intervention to prevent a flood of refugees from crossing the Mediterranean Sea toward France and Italy.  But Europe countries have not escaped this turmoil caused by the drought.   Indeed, the Mediterranean Sea is ringed by societies that are grappling with the migration and security threats caused, in part, by this impact of human-induced climate change.


For this reason, to say governments “should prepare” for the social impacts of climate change is deceptive. What is needed is an acknowledgment that we are “actively responding” to climate change migration and security threats.


A 2011 NOAA report details the human causes of the drought around the Mediterranean shores.  The report was followed up with a 2012 summary article in the peer-reviewed Journal of Climate.  The study concluded that “wintertime droughts are increasingly common in the Mediterranean region, and human-caused climate change is partly responsible” and further elaborated that “anthropogenic greenhouse gas and aerosol forcing are key attributable factors for this increased drying, though the external signal explains only half of the drying magnitude.”  To support this conclusion, the study authors noted that the “agreement between the observed increase in winter droughts and in the projections of climate models that include known increases in greenhouse gases. Both observations and model simulations show a sudden shift to drier conditions in the Mediterranean beginning in the 1970s” based on rainfall records that go back to the year 1902.

Climate extremes, such as droughts, are often linked to political instability, and the  countries surrounding the Mediterranean drought illustrate this trend to various degrees.  Figure 1 shows the severity of the current drought around the Mediterranean, based on the NOAA report. Figure 2, from the World Bank’s World Governance Indicators dataset for 2011, shows that many of the countries that are red on the drought map are also red on the map of political instability and conflict.  The synopsis of this region below examines the context of this observed association between the climate change linked drought and political instability.

Mediterranean Drought Map NOAA

Figure 1:  Severity of the Mediterranean drought.  Red colors indicate less rainfall and stronger drought conditions.  Source:  NOAA.


Mediterranean Conflict Map 2011 - World Bank

Figure 2:  2011 map of political instability.  Redder colors indicate more political instability and violence.  Source: The World Bank.


On the Mediterranean’s Northern shoreline, Greece, all of which appears red or red-orange on the drought map, has endured eight years of low-level civil conflict that has resulted in 5 deaths and over 300 injuries.  Triggered by many causes including corruption and widespread perceptions of police misconduct, a high rate of unemployment and rising commodities prices related to the drought have certainly fueled the waves of unrest there since 2008.  Importantly, this crisis has extended beyond Greece, requiring a broader European Union policy response.  It is considered one of the factors that dragged Europe’s recovery from the 2007 financial crisis and has even lead to Greek threats of breaking from the European Union.

Moving east along the northern shore, Spain and Italy, both with large drought impacted areas, have had their share of sometimes violent civil unrest.  In Spain, nearly 8 million people have participated in nationwide protests.  Though largely peaceful, sporadic clashes between protesters and security forces have resulted in 1,500 injuries.  Similarly in Italy, where 200,000 people participated in a 2011 protest in Rome, resulting in 135 injuries and 13 arrests.

Along the southern shoreline, the persistent lack of spring rains undoubtedly contributed to the enduring nature of the Arab Spring, which started in Tunisia and quickly spread to drought stricken Egypt and Libya.  Let there be no doubt that the turmoil in these countries has manifest itself as mass migrations and growing insecurity.  Interestingly, Tunisia, the only Mediterranean country besides France that is green on the drought map, has experienced a relatively smooth transition toward democracy.

In Egypt and Libya, the transition has been bloodier and the outcome less clear.  Both countries have been engaged in prolonged conflict.  In Egypt, this conflict has pitted the military against the Muslim Brotherhood, while in Libya it has pitted militias with different clan based loyalties against each other.  In both countries, the drought fueled conflict sent migrants into neighboring countries and created ungoverned space that allowed non-state militant groups to grow into significant regional security threats.

In the survey around the shores on the Mediterranean, Morocco, on the Southern shoreline, seems to have avoided the conflict associated with the drought and to be the exception to the trend.  The drought map shows it as bright red.  However, on the political instability map the country appears cooler compared to it’s North African neighbors.  That’s not to say that the country has not witnessed mass political movements.  It is just that the movement has not escalated into an ongoing conflict.  When popular protests broke out in 2010, the monarchy responded by taking steps toward democracy, including parliamentary elections, rewriting the constitution, and appointing an Islamist from a shanty on the edge of the capital to be Prime Minister.

On the Eastern shoreline, Syria, where drought conditions over most of the country has fueled one of the major conflicts of our time, exemplifies the trend.  Here increasing food prices helped spurn a popular protest movement that quickly turned into a brutal civil war that has claimed an estimated 200,000 – 300,000 lives and displaced nearly 11 million.  NATO member Turkey hosts around 1 million Syrian refugees and continues to experience spillover violence.  Likewise for the other U.S. allies in the region – Israel, Iraq, and Jordan.


Most important from a security standpoint, the drought fueled civil war in Syria has given rise to the Islamic State.  Having originated as Al Qaeda in Iraq, this group exploited the turmoil in Syria to gain control of a large swath of territory and to acquire heavy weapons from the retreating Syrian Army.  After a rapid takeover of a large chunk of Iraq, Islamic State turned their guns on Kobani, a Syrian Kurdish town along the Turkey border.  The siege of Kobani sent nearly a quarter of a million refugees to Turkey, fueled Kurdish riots in Turkey, and engaged the United States and allies into an extended air campaign.


To be clear, Islamic State has killed Americans and citizens of other Western countries, attacked U.S. built bases and refineries in Iraq, fired artillery into a NATO country (though likely accidentally), inspired lone wolf attacks in Canada, Britain, Australia, and other western countries, complicated nuclear negotiations with Iran, threatened to send 500,000 refugees into Europe, and have threatened to attack Rome and New York.  They are one of the most urgent security threats presently.  And, as noted in a recent study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences and summarized in a New York Times report, the conflict in Syria, which propelled Islamic State to the global stage, has been fueled by the severe drought in that country.


Naturally, all these events around the Mediterranean, including the rise of Islamic State, reflect multiple causes. Climate change is not destiny.  Nor is the drought trend completely explained by greenhouse gas emissions.  Just as the drought cannot be exclusively tied to human-caused climate change, the waves of mass migration and the increasing security threats cannot be fully attributed to the drought.  Of course, the global financial meltdown of 2007 contributed to all of these conflicts.  In the Greek case, the police shooting of a teenager triggered the wave of unrest and the EU/German policy of austerity extended it.  Throughout Europe, austerity packages contributed to the economic deprivation experienced by the drought impacted countries.  The civil war in Syria escalated because of the Assad regime’s ineffective response to the drought, and it’s violent response to the protests.  The decisions of the Assad regime are especially apparent when contrasted with the Morocco’s response of granting concessions when responding to protests in that country.  Likewise, when speaking of the causes of Islamic State, one cannot ignore the role of the U.S. decision to take out a stable regime in Iraq without a plan for governing the nation after words.

Still, the civil and political trends around the Mediterranean Sea show a strong association with the drought, and they demonstrate how human-induced climate change impacts such as the drought can drive and worsen political conflicts.  Furthermore, it’s evidence that the debate around human-induced climate change needs to replace suggestions that we “should prepare for future risks” with an honest and realistic acceptance that we are currently responded to actual impacts.  At this stage, one can only speculate if Europe’s response to the recession or NATO’s response to turmoil along it’s frontier region would have been different and more effective if the strategy rested on the realization that escalating human-induced climate change impacts are driving forces behind the region’s escalating turmoil.  In a similar manner, to the extent that the drought is a root cause driving the economic crises in Greece, Spain, and Italy, then it is not immediately obvious how the austerity response addresses this cause.

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