Imagine you are a scientist charged with studying your country’s climate. As you tour the north, you find whole villages abandoned. Fields of corn seem to have vanished from the landscape, as have the rice croplands. It takes five years to write your report. You are a careful person.
The 164-page document has a picture of the country’s ancient, beautiful city of Palmyra, a UN World Heritage site, on the cover. It explains that your country, the cradle of Western civilisation and agriculture, is staggering under the weight of drought – the worst in recent history. Thousands upon thousands of families have left their farms. They are streaming into cities along with refugees from Iraq and Palestine. They need water, sanitation, health care, schools and jobs.
The country in question is Syria. The final report was submitted to the United Nations in 2010. At the time internal refugees – estimates of their numbers range from 500,000 to 1.5 million – were crowded outside Aleppo and Damascus. A year later tens of thousands of Syrians, including the frustrated landless farmers, staged protests in the Arab Spring of 2011. President Assad killed the protestors and bombed their neighbourhoods.
And thus begun the long, dreadful civil war. It started over famine, water, heat, the loss of land, the desperation of homelessness. The same families who once sought justice in their own land now walk, in their thousands, into the cities of Europe. They have left the Fertile Crescent because it has become a desert – there is no place to grow crops, no work left there to do. That ancient city of Palmyra? It was destroyed.
Yousef Meslmani was a project director on the study. His work on the climate report was one of his last acts as a government official before he fled the country with his family in 2013 to escape spiralling levels of violence. It was the last report that Syria sent to the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change before war hit, contributing to the IPCC’s assessment, in its fifth report, that the Eastern Mediterranean will face increasing heat and drought. Meslmani saw the damage firsthand – the dry wells, the empty villages.
It was not the first time drought has devastated a region of Syria. In 1978 a Yale archaeologist named Harvey Weiss began excavating the city of Tell Leilan, part of the ancient Assyrian empire, situated in what is modern-day northeastern Syria. Wherever Weiss and his team dug, they encountered a layer of dirt that contained no signs of human habitation. Even earthworms were absent.
This layer corresponded to 2,200 to 1,900 BCE – around the time the ruling Akkadian empire fell in ancient Assyria. According to some Biblical scholars this area is also where the Tower of Babel was erected and then destroyed – and the people scattered, as Genesis tells us, “over the face of all the Earth”.
I am an academic, like Meslmani. I imagine what it must have been like to see the effects of climate catastrophe firsthand, to hope the president would pay attention to the unfolding disaster and consider your policy advice. And I imagine what it must have been like to be ignored, knowing what would happen, knowing that you, too, were going to have to pack your belongings, wrap your notebooks and instruments in thick paper and leave your homeland.
The Syrian farmers are among the first people who cannot return to a lost landscape – even if the civil war ended. This is not some radical theory: in May 2015 the Proceedings of the American National Academy of Sciences published a paper by climate scientist Colin Kelley from the University of California Santa Barbara and other scientists concluding that drought, while not solely responsible, “was a major cause of the Syrian crisis”.
If as you read this, your land has rain, your shores are sound and your government is committed to creating infrastructure, shelter and providing compensation when the climate crashes, you are lucky. The millions of refugees from Syria are not. Climate change has made this world a fragile place. Climate refugees cannot go home. Last October was the warmest October on record. More and more families will leave their places of origin.
The Syrians will not be the last to seek refuge in other lands.
Laurie Zoloth is a professor of medical ethics and humanities at Northwestern University, Chicago.
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