In 2015 the media exploded with stories about the link between climate change and the violence in Syria. But did they get it right?

This digital report argues that while there are important links between climate change and the Syrian situation, the media has got it wrong. This report makes a powerful case for a more accurate and subtle relationship between climate, drought and the ongoing conflict and refugee situation.

Read, watch and listen →


This interactive digital report includes:

  • Videos, animations and infographics explaining the relationship between climate, drought and conflict in Syria
  • Mini-podcasts outlining what the media said about the situation and whether they got it right
  • Interactive maps showing the situation in Syria and how the media reported it.

Read, watch and listen →

Through maps, animations and podcasts this digital report argues that climate change did play an important role in the beginning of the conflict. However, it makes the case that the media fundamentally misunderstood the role internal migration played in starting the conflict. While many media sources argued that violence erupted between migrants and residents over scarce resources, this report argues that the initial uprising was in fact an act of cooperation and an attempt to overthrow the regime.

Read, watch and listen →

Images: Images: UNHCR. (CC BY-NC 2.0), European Commission DG ECHO / Dina Baslan (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Syria and climate change: did the media get it right?

Syria and climate change: did the media get it right?

Alex Randall

Alex is programme manager for the Climate and Migration Coalition

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?

Play introduction

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.

What the media said about climate change and Syria

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”.

“…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” New York Times

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”.

Protracted 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:

1. Terrorism 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”.

In spite of what many news stories claimed, most Syrian refugees remained in countries next to Syria. Displacement linked to climate change is likely to follow similar patterns with people moving internally or to nearby countries.

Refugee numbers

Explore the numbers of people who have moved as result of the violence in Syria.  

Key resource

Climate, migration, neoliberalism

The lecture sketches out a history of neoliberalism, and then looks at how the culmination of this political thinking is reflected in the policies that are being created to address climate change and migration.

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?”.

A police officer at the refugee camp in Calais known as The Jungle. There have been various camps around Calais since 1999, where migrants set up camp on unoccupied land, moving to new locations when camps are closed down by the French authorities. Conditions in the camps are poor, typically without proper sanitary or washing facilities and accommodation consisting of tents and improvised shelters. Image: Squat Le Monde (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Related video

Climate, migration, neoliberalism

The lecture sketches out a history of neoliberalism, and then looks at how the culmination of this political thinking is reflected in the policies that are being created to address climate change and migration.

Comparing evidence and media reports

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.

The movement of people is often not en masse. Rather than entire communities or households leaving together it is frequently the case that some household members leave while others remain, and this distinction is often highly gendered. Image (Above): A drought in Syria made farming increasingly difficult and badly weakened rural livlihoods. Image: Joel Bombardier (CC BY 2.0)

Related video

Climate, migration, neoliberalism

The lecture sketches out a history of neoliberalism, and then looks at how the culmination of this political thinking is reflected in the policies that are being created to address climate change and 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

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