Did ISIL Arise Partly Because of Climate Change?

Juan Cole
A member loyal to the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) waves an ISIL flag in Raqqa in June 2014. (Reuters/Stringer)

Democratic presidential contender Martin O’Malley sparked controversy this week by saying that the conditions for the rise of ISIL (ISIS, Daesh) were set by the impact on Syria of climate change, which drove farmers from their land into slums around cities and created extreme poverty. O’Malley’s assertion was immediately ridiculed on Fox News Channel and by Republican presidential hopeful Rick Santorum, who called the allegation a “disconnect from reality.” Who is right in this debate?

It should not come as a surprise that O’Malley is indeed correct, especially since he chose his words very carefully. He said, “One of the things that preceded the failure of the nation-state of Syria and the rise of ISIS, was the effects of climate change and the mega-drought that effected that region,” which “wiped out farmers, drove people to cities, [and] created a humanitarian crisis…. It created the symptoms, or rather the conditions of extreme poverty that has led now to the rise of ISIL and this extreme violence.” O’Malley did not attribute the radical extremism in northeast Syria only to climate change and drought, underlining that it was only one of the causes of the weakening of the Syrian state and the immiseration of the population, which made them so desperate that they even turned to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and his hateful beheaders for salvation. It was, however, one cause among others, he said.

Professor Hannu Juusola of Helsinki has shown in a scholarly article that in the northeast of the country—the seat of power of ISIL in Syria—between 2006 and 2010, 70 percent of farmers’ livestock died because of severe drought. Wheat production declined 18 percent in a single year, and 3 million people in the northeast were already food insecure five years ago. Syria’s underground water aquifers are few and becoming depleted or polluted. Syria is part of a vast Middle Eastern arid zone and has, of course, been subject to cyclical drought throughout history. But drought is exacerbated by higher temperatures, and we know that the world is about a degree Fahrenheit warmer now than in 1850 because since then we’ve been spewing billions of tons of powerful greenhouse gasses such as carbon dioxide and methane into the atmosphere every year. Hence, this drought is worse than previous ones. (Other scientists have confirmed Juusola’s findings.)