Analysis

Trump's Climate Policies: Bad News for Survival in the Middle East

Don't gloat, settlers: Donald Trump reversing the inches gained against climate change will bring Syria-style chaos closer to you.

An Egyptian farmer squats on cracked soil of a farm previously irrigated by the Nile river, June 5, 2013.
Reuters

Israelis lauding Donald Trump's victory and chomping at the bit to start pouring the cement in the settlements should look over the border at what's happening in Syria, and wipe the smile off their faces.

Like other Republicans, Trump thinks – or says – that climate change is a global conspiracy to stop people using internal combustion engines God created for them. In conservative political circles, climate change isn't even a permissible subject to debate – the verdict that it's a fraud has been rendered, and that's the end of it. Trump has stated that he intends to withdraw funding for clean energy development and climate change research: we can only hope he lied about that too.

But the evidence for global warming is absolute enough that people without any obvious ax to grind are dealing with it as a fact, not speculation. Take Moody's Investor's Service, which went so far this week as to issue a report explaining how it factors the impact of climate change into assessment of a country's credit risk.

Climate change in Syria

Moody's didn't waste time discussing whether global warming is for real (worldwide temperatures have been rising steadily over the last 40 years) or whether it is caused by human activity (probably about half the change is due to that, according to at least one key study), because these are scientific facts.

The number of natural disasters, such as floods, wildfires and drought, has shown a concomitant rise with global warming, as has the money cost of the disasters. That's an inescapable economic fact that policy makers have to cope with even with a climate-change denier moving into the White House next year.

So what does all this have to do with Syria?  The usual explanation for why Syrians rose up in rebellion in 2011 was to bring down the repressive Assad regime and bring freedom and democracy to their country. No doubt that was the proximate cause: revolution was in the air. But the deeper reason is that from 2006, the country began to suffer its most severe drought in centuries. By 2009, some 800,000 Syrians had lost their livelihood and by 2011, when the country experienced its first political convolutions, some one million farmers had fled to the cities in search of work and food. It was a combustible situation and the Arab Spring was there to light the match.

The six years of civil war have led to 500,000 deaths, millions of refugees and untold economic damage that haven't just destroyed the country, but have reverberated around the world. Refugees have flooded Europe and angry Muslims have been motivated by the struggle to commit violent acts as far away as California. Climate change in Syria isn't just Syria's problem, it's the world's problem.

Precious water being squandered after airstrikes on Aleppo, Syria. September 24, 2016.
Abdalrhman Ismail , Reuters

Moody's doesn't rate Syrian debt, and so it didn't get any notice in the agency's report (there are only 26 letters in the alphabet and Z-minus-minus probably wouldn't fully capture the risk). But Syria is the kind of country that is most vulnerable to climate change. It was mostly desert to begin with and as the planet grows warmer and desertification spreads in the Middle East, more and more of the country is turning that way. The economy is weak and undeveloped and doesn't have the institutional mechanisms or good governance needed to cope with disaster and find solutions for counteracting the impact.

Nature – that is to say, climate change – was to blame for Syria's drought, but for the ordinary Syrian peasant, waving his fist at the Chinese with their coal-fired power plants or at gas-guzzling American drivers wasn't going to provide much gratification. He blamed the government, which wasn't entirely unfair.

The impact of climate change in Syria was exacerbated by mismanagement, for instance allowing farmers to pump unlimited supplies of underground water and encouraging inefficient irrigation practices. And when the crisis exploded, the regime did nothing to cope with the internal refugees and economic crisis it faced.

Moody's doesn't rate Israel as one the world's countries susceptible to climate change, because we have the technology and institutions to cope with our desertification problems and the threat of the Tel Aviv beach moving several miles eastward. But none of our neighbors do, which is why Lebanon and Egypt are rated as susceptible. And the Golan Heights have, together with Syria, been suffering from drought since 1995.

What it all means is that the chaos and suffering we're seeing in Syria now will inevitably be the kind of problem Israel will have to contend with right over its borders. And with Donald Trump in the White House ready to roll back the limited efforts at containing climate change that have already been achieved, the day could be sooner.