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Climate Change and the Roots of the Syrian Refugee Crisis

In separate leaks on January 25 and then on February 3, a total of 3,000 barrels of oil have poured into the rivers and forests of the Mayuriaga region of Peru, devastating not only the natural beauty the Amazon is renowned for – but most of all the lives of the nine indigenous communities in that area. These spills occurred despite orders by environmental regulators to replace portions of the 40-year-old pipeline, which is under the jurisdiction of the state-owned oil company Petroperu. Worse yet, the residents of Mayuriaga were not included in the official list of affected groups that would receive emergency government aid.

As heartbreaking as this all-too-common disaster is, its blunt physicality often allows those of us at a distance to compartmentalize the effects of environmental pollution. Images of black tar coating a landscape or flooding in toxic plumes along the course of a watershed sear our eyes; they imprint a collective reminder of how mistakes in human engineering can corrupt the normal functioning of the ecosystems in which we are embedded. However, far more insidious, unpredictable, and overwhelming events can happen when humans leave our mark not in the depths of the earth, but the air.

In the United States, the American Petroleum Institute (API) ran a task force between 1979 and 1983 to monitor and share climate change research. Members included scientists and engineers from every major U.S. and multinational oil and gas company. The projects sought to discover the links between increasing carbon dioxide (CO2) concentrations in the atmosphere, the consumption of fossil fuels, and the potential threats that the resultant environmental phenomena might pose to the industries involved. By the 1990s, however, API took a different approach and created the Global Climate Coalition (GCC). The GCC initiated a wave of lobbying campaigns against governmental regulation of greenhouse gas emissions like CO2. It exploited the scientific uncertainties in the early modeling efforts of climate science to implant doubts in the minds of politicians and citizens about the validity of the trends that correlated anthropogenic fossil fuel use with rising global temperatures.

For many of us, the concept of ‘uncertainty’ means an utter lack of knowledge, potential misunderstanding, or even falsehood. The context in which ‘uncertainty’ is used in scientific research is very different. There is a wide scientific consensus that human consumption of fossil fuels has contributed directly to planetary warming, primarily over the last 50 years; there is less certainty about exactly how much global temperatures will rise in the future, and what that will mean for different regions because of the huge variation in geography, weather patterns, and elevation above sea level. (To learn more, read this report from the National Research Council.)

The complex feedback loops between the gaseous composition of the air, the acidity of the oceans, the cycling of nutrients like phosphorous and nitrogen, and the more familiar circulation of water all interconnect to sustain the unique biochemistry of our planet. When one of these systems is ‘upset’ to a degree outside of the norm (in terms of geological time), it can cause a cascade of other effects that humans – and all other living beings – have not been prepared to deal with. From 2006 – 2010, the country of Syria suffered the most severe drought ever recorded. Climatologists maintain that this drought was exacerbated by climate change: crops and animals died, and an estimated 1.5 million Syrian farmers were displaced. Food insecurity, economic depression, and social instability contributed sparks to the explosion of chaos now infecting the entire Middle East. The terrifying journeys endured by millions of refugees, who flee not only from Syria but also many countries throughout Africa and Asia, have been depicted in countless news reports, photo montages, and stories of relief efforts. Unfortunately, the impacts of climate change on populations of people already made vulnerable by discrimination, poverty, disease, malnutrition, and violence have not often been accounted for.

I strongly encourage anyone with questions about climate change to investigate further, possibly through resources like those offered by Katherine Hayhoe, who is a Christian, a climate scientist, a professor at Texas Tech University, and the coauthor of the book A Climate for Change: Global Warming Facts for Faith-Based Decisions. Even more importantly, it is essential to advocate for and participate in local and international efforts to mitigate climate change and show compassion to all people forced to flee from their homes because of it.

Our minds find it difficult to comprehend the invisible components of the air that we inhale with every breath – much less how humans could have such a hazardous power in altering that balance. It is just as difficult, but absolutely vital, to welcome the refugees of the climate change we have caused, in the spirit of the God who loves and redeems all of us who are broken.

Editor's note: Are you interested in answering Jennevie's call to participate in climate advocacy? Consider signing up for the Office of Social Justice's Creation Care special updates to stay in the loop on upcoming opportunities. 

[Image: Flickr user United Nations Development Programme]


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