Leonardo Dicaprio talks to President Obama about climate change and the Syrian War.

Leonardo Dicaprio talks to President Obama about climate change and the Syrian War.

At the end of Leonardo DiCaprio’s new climate change documentary “Before the Flood,” President Barack Obama tells the actor that climate change may have played a role in the current Syrian refugee crisis. “There’s some really interesting work…showing that the droughts that happened in Syria contributed to the Syrian civil war,” says Obama.

The link between the Syrian refugee crisis and climate change has become conventional wisdom among many political leaders, foreign policy wonks, and climate advocates, introducing to the national discourse the term “climate change refugees.”

For example, Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton suggested at a town hall in 2015 that climate change was one of the major factors contributing to the crisis. Secretary of State John Kerry later came to the same conclusion at a speech to 2,000 people in Norfolk, Virginia, saying, “It’s not a coincidence that immediately prior to the civil war in Syria the country experienced the worst drought on record.”

Some academics and experts, however, suggest the focus on climate change oversimplifies the origins of the Syrian conflict, deflecting attention away from the Assad regime’s catastrophic mishandling of the drought, and other complex factors.

In the winter of 2007-2008, Syria suffered one of the worst droughts in the history of the country. Rainfall had fallen below eight inches a year in most regions, which is the minimum required to sustain un-irrigated farming. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Foreign Agricultural Service, it barely rained between October and December, an important planting period, and in the months that followed.

In some parts of the country, all agricultural production ceased. Crop failures reached 75 percent and nearly 85 percent of livestock died of thirst or hunger. The drought left many Syrians who rely on agriculture for their livelihoods to compete for food, water, and jobs.

Too simple of a narrative?

In the years since, several studies have linked the drought and climate change to the Syrian civil war. For example, a 2014 study at the Proceedings of the National Academy of the Sciences concluded that “a drought of the severity and duration of the Syrian drought has become more than twice as likely as a consequence of human interference in the climate system” and “human influences on the climate system are implicated in the current Syrian conflict.”

Yet Geoffrey Dabelko, professor and director of the environmental studies program at the George V. Voinovich School of Leadership and Public Affairs at Ohio University in Athens, Ohio, warns that when academics apply the “climate change refugee” narrative to the Syrian refugee crisis, they stand to miss out on some complexities.

He says that “climate change refugee” can be a problematic and misleading term for at least two reasons. “Refugee” is a formal legal term for people who cross international borders fleeing specified threats, like war, threat of torture, or persecution. Refugees are internationally recognized and those countries receiving refugees are legally obligated to provide specific services to them.

“In the case of movement and mobility of people around climate change, they are not necessarily moving around boundaries, there is a lot of movement within countries. [Climate change refugees] also do not have internationally recognized status,” says Dabelko.

Further, Dabelko, who also works as a senior advisor at the Wilson Center International Center for Scholars, says that the term assumes that people are migrating for a single reason. “When we reduce the description of why people move to a single adjective, it often does injustice to the complexity of what’s causing [that migration].”

Betsy Hartmann, a professor at Hampshire College who teaches development studies, also sees problems with applying the “climate change refugee” narrative to the Syrian refugee crisis. “Saying [the Syrian refugee crisis and civil war] is due to climate change is a naturalization of complex economic and political processes.”

Political context matters

Journalist Francesca de Chatel’s offered a similar line of criticism in her 2014 article at the journal Middle East Studies. De Chatel notes that Lebanon, Palestine, Israel, and Jordan were also effected by the drought in 2007, but Syria was the only country where civil unrest erupted as a result.

She argues that this is because of the Assad regime’s mismanagement and poor policies in response to the drought’s devastating effects. As the drought intensified, the Assad regime cancelled several state subsidies. As a result, the price of diesel fuel and fertilizer multiplied, further burdening Syrian farmers.

De Chatel argues that “it was not the drought per se but rather the government’s failure to respond to the ensuing humanitarian crisis that formed one of the triggers of the uprising, feeding discontent that had long been simmering in rural areas.”

When discussing the Syrian drought’s relationship to the ensuing civil war, Dabelko says academics and policymakers must refrain from simplifying the problem to “climate change caused the war.”

“A full account of the [Syrian civil war] would include historic levels of drought in rural areas populated by people who are not Alawites and not supporters of Assad who are unable to meet their needs in the rural areas,” Dabelko says. “[Those people] came to the urban areas, seeking redress, and were rebuffed by the government. Those grievances around food insecurity and the inability to earn an income from agriculture are part of what then motivated the protests.”

Stories about “climate change refugees” continue to circulate in the media and politicians continue to turn to the phrase when discussing Syrian refugees. Dabelko suggests that this may have to do with journalists’ need for dramatic headlines.

“Simplicity is easier to report than complexity…this is a challenge with covering complexity. We’re not good at it, we’re not good at formulating policies to address it, we’re not good at telling those stories. We like simple explanations and this gives us one.”