Actually, Charlotte Church Might Be Right About Syria and Climate Change

The British singer was treated like a lunatic for saying climate change may be partly to blame for the country's civil war. But she may have a point.
02 October 2015, 9:30pm

BBC One "Question Time" screencap via The Telegraph

Charlotte Church—who Americans might remember as that precocious singer with the "Voice of an Angel" from the late 90s and early aughts—got a pretty cold reaction when she went on Friday's episode of the British panel show Question Time and blamed the current conflict in Syria on climate change.

During a conversation about the Islamic State, Syria's political situation, and the causes and possible solutions to the nearly five-year-long conflict there, Church took it upon herself to let out a big info dump about how climate change caused a catastrophic Syrian drought from 2006 through 2011 that affected the agriculture industry in the country. She followed that up with a pretty poorly constructed run-on sentence:

So there was a mass migration from rural areas in Syria, into the urban centers, which put more strain, and y'know there was—resources were scarce, et cetera—which, apparently, did contribute to, um, to the conflict there today, and so, y'know, when we're looking at—y'know no issue is an island, and we're trying to look at all the different factors in this, so I think that we also need to look at what we're doing to the planet and how that might actually cause more conflict in the world.

The crowd responded to her comment by doing an impression of a graveyard; and partway through her monologue, host David Dimbleby let out the sort of "alright," you might say to your grandmother when she's talking in a restaurant, and starting to get a teeny bit racist. Church apparently felt the burn later on, and started tweeting about it.

Can't say I had a ball on question time, that's not a Cardiff/Welsh audience that I would recognise. However thanks for your support twitter

— Charlotte Church (@charlottechurch)October 1, 2015

British publications like The Daily Mail, and The Telegraph excerpted the clip, and got plenty of mileage out of it, with commenters asking things like, "Did she read that in her colouring books?" and "What did you expect from this stupid little girl?" (Church is 29 years old).

Her timing and delivery were awkward without a doubt, but did she say anything inaccurate?

Colin Kelley, a climate scientist at the University of California, Santa Barbara called Church's monologue "basically correct." Kelley co-wrote the recent paper "Climate change in the Fertile Crescent and implications of the recent Syrian drought," published in January in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science. He was quick to point out, though, that his paper never said climate change was the sole cause of Syria's recent horrors. "She didn't say that, and we didn't say that," Kelley said.

The chain of events that led up to all this war and strife occurred during and after a very real drought in Syria that lasted from 2007 to 2010. Long story short: farming as a way of feeding your family pretty much vanished in the country's northeastern "breadbasket" region, and millions of farmers and their families picked up their stuff, and—along with hundreds of thousands of Iraqi refugees—moved west to Syria's big cities. So when the Arab Spring came to Syria in 2011, cities were overcrowded, and resources including water were scarce, helping lead to the dissatisfaction and unrest that sparked the civil war that's still going on today.

But the standard "that's weather, not climate!" objection could apply here, raising the question of whether Syria's drought was really caused by climate change. That's the crux of Kelley's paper. He looked into the records, and mapped Syria's weather patterns onto the patterns predicted by climate change models, and found that "precipitation changes in Syria are linked to rising mean sea-level pressure in the Eastern Mediterranean, which also shows a long-term trend." In other words, Kelley told us, "there's a very strong reason to believe that climate change contributed to the severity of this drought."

Syria and the surrounding region experience wet years and dry years, and that's nothing new. But according to Kelley, three out of Syria's four worst droughts have occurred over the last 40 years. Along with increases in temperature and certain kinds of atmospheric pressure, Kelley says the pattern "lines up with the time evolution of increasing greenhouse gases."

Similar ridicule was heaped on former Maryland Governor and 2016 Democratic presidential candidate Martin O'Malley last month when he said that climate change was linked to the rise of the Islamic State. Afterward, Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus called O'Malley's comment "absurd," and said it proved that "no one in the Democratic Party has the foreign policy vision to keep America safe."

Politifact rated O'Malley's statement "mostly true," and so did Kelley. "We don't mention Islamic State in our paper, but it's a pretty fair characterization," he said.

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