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The Metric

Aug 5, 2015

What Ignited the Arab Spring?

It's not entirely what you think. While factors like poverty, unemployment, and censorship all played an important role in igniting protests, scholars have recently shown that climate change is also to blame.
Photo from Flickr by yeowatzup.

The inherent threats of climate change already loom large in popular consciousness: severe weather, drought, rising seas, biodiversity loss. Recent local and geopolitical crises—from demographic and social debates over water resources in drought-struck American states to an ongoing civil war in Syria—are highlighting climate change’s potential to drive conflict indirectly. The United States Department of Defense’s release of the “2014 Climate Change Adaptation Roadmap” recognizes climate change as an issue of national security, labeling it a “threat multiplier,” with the potential to exacerbate hunger, poverty, disease, and even terrorism.  And studies of upheavals related to “The Arab Spring” have yielded insights into how impacts of climate change can lead to prolonged violence. 

The story of the Arab Spring has its popular narrative: authoritarian regimes and the rampant poverty, unemployment, and censorship they fostered eventually led to such discontent that the people rose up. By 2011, regimes had fallen or were close to being toppled, with no shortage of bloodshed. However, in retrospect, numerous studies have arisen pointing toward lesser-known factors to those upheavals: climate change, extreme weather, and poor policy decisions

“Bread, Freedom, Human Dignity!”


Protesters in Tahrir Square a year after the 2011 Revolution. Photo from Flickr by Gigi Ibrahim.

Egypt is the world’s largest importer of grain, making it sensitive to changes in prices, which began to rise in the summer of 2010 and more than doubled by February of 2011. The jump in prices points back to climate change and extreme weather that affected wheat crops all over the world, including Canada, China, and Russia. In Russia’s case, droughts and bushfires cut the wheat harvest in 2010 by over a third. As a result, Russia placed quotas on its exports, and Egypt received 1.2 million tons less than it had in 2009. The resultant inflation, coupled with the government’s decision to reduce food subsidies, exacerbated economic dissatisfaction in a country where a large portion of incomes are spent on food. Given that among the popular chants that rang out from Tahrir Square was the cry: “Bread, Freedom, Human Dignity,” the role of the high cost of bread, provoked by climate change, cannot be denied.

Four years after the Egyptian Spring, Egypt has seen the rise and fall of another president, culminating in the election of Abdel Fattah el-Sisi in 2014. Although it is unclear how durable Sisi’s regime is, what is clear is that he must take major steps in improving Egypt’s economy, which only declined following the ousting of Hosni Mubarak in 2011 and Mohammed Morsi in 2013. With poverty rates at 26% and increases in youth unemployment, economic reform is a top priority. Initiatives to lessen the budget deficit by decreasing subsidies have taken shape in a reformed food subsidy program and cuts in fuel subsidies.

However, with about 75% of Egyptians relying on the ration cards provided by the new subsidy program and Egypt remaining the world’s largest importer of wheat, the country remains sensitive to changes in wheat prices like those that factored in to the 2011 revolution. Thus, while efforts are being made to stabilize Egypt, it continues to be susceptible to the effects of climate change and extreme weather. 

Syria: Climate migrants/conflict migrants


Syrian refugees waiting to register with the UNHRC in the town of Arsal. Four million Syrians have registered as refugees since the conflict began. Photo from Flickr by the UNHRC.

The worst three-year drought on Syria’s instrumental record began in the winter of 2006/2007. Although the land is prone to frequent droughts, a study released in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences argues that this drought cannot be attributed to natural variability. The region’s long-term trends in rainfall and surface/soil temperatures correlate well with climate change models. With two-thirds of crops relying on rainwater and an increasingly limited supply of groundwater, it did not take long before Syria saw the devastating effects of the drought.

Herds of livestock died and the prices of many crops more than doubled. Moreover, the food subsidies on which many depended were cut. Between two and three million rural residents were reduced to extreme poverty. These events led to the migration of 1.5 million people from Syria’s countryside to urban centers. Coupled with the influx of refugees from Iraq, this mass migration fueled conditions of unemployment and poverty that were central to the beginnings of conflict in Syria.

With unemployment rates hovering as high as 30%, migrants were forced to compete for jobs and resources that were already scarce, only increasing tension and discontent. Dara’a, an agricultural city in the southwest of Syria, was one city suffering the effects of the drought. The vulnerability and discontent it fueled were enough to lead a group of youth to spraypaint a wall with protests against the government. Their arrests were met with protests in Dara’a that soon spread throughout the country.

Since then, Syria has been immersed in a civil war with no end in sight, as the many warring groups reached an ongoing stalemate nearly two years ago. Nearly four million Syrian are now registered as refugees, and more than 200,000 have been killed. And, since 2011 alone, more adverse weather coupled with the conflict has led to half of both livestock and cereal harvests to fall. Food production in Syria has collapsed, and nearly 10 million people in the country are food insecure.

Weather patterns

While it would be incorrect to say that climate change caused the conflicts in Egypt and Syria, they serve as examples of the ways in which warming temperatures can act as a threat multiplier in areas where the conditions for conflict are already present. Egypt’s case especially demonstrates that climate change is a global problem, with shifts in grain production in Eastern Europe having powerful ripple effects in a region far away. Furthermore, the cases of both Egypt and Syria exemplify the importance of sustainable economic policies. In both situations, decisions to cut food subsidies only compounded the problems for citizens who had grown dependent on them and could not provide for themselves due to the strains provoked by climate change.

As the effects of climate change become more and more prominent, the cases of Egypt and Syria will cease to be unique. Climate change isn’t the only villain in environmental conflicts, though. With issues like water scarcity becoming ever greater, it is possible to find signs of conflict elsewhere, whether around disputes about water management, biodiversity and conservation, or otherwise. And although the conflicts in the Middle East were nationally driven, protests like the ones that took place in Gezi Park remind us that local environmental factors can also be the culprit.