Miss Church appeared on the BBC's Question Time. Presumably because it was in Wales and she's got herself a new reputation as a left wing activist. During the debate Miss Church had this to say:
‘Another interesting thing with Syria actually, lots of people don’t seem to know about it, is there is evidence to suggest that climate change was a big factor in how the Syrian conflict came about, because from 2006-2011 they experienced one of the worst droughts in its history.
This of course meant that there were water shortages and crops weren’t growing so there was a mass migration from rural areas of Syria in the urban centres which put more strain and resources were scarce etc which apparently did contribute to the conflict there today, and so no issue is an island, so I also think we need to look at what we’re doing to the planet and how that might actually cause more conflict in the world.’
On the face of it, this is nonsense. It's not exactly like there's never been a drought before in the middle east:
Now Elijah the Tishbite, from Tishbe in Gilead, said to Ahab, “As the Lord, the God of Israel, lives, whom I serve, there will be neither dew nor rain in the next few years except at my word.”
But there's a lot of support for the idea that the drought beginning in 2007 was a factor in creating the Syrian civil war:
Before the Syrian uprising that began in 2011, the greater Fertile Crescent experienced the most severe drought in the instrumental record. For Syria, a country marked by poor governance and unsustainable agricultural and environmental policies, the drought had a catalytic effect, contributing to political unrest. We show that the recent decrease in Syrian precipitation is a combination of natural variability and a long-term drying trend, and the unusual severity of the observed drought is here shown to be highly unlikely without this trend.
It doesn't really matter whether the reason for the drought is long-term (i.e. global warming or climate change) or short-term (simply a bad run of dry weather) but it does seem plausible that the impact of that drought on a rural population will be considerable. This doesn't mean that the consequence of drought need necessarily be violent upheaval - it's clear that this hasn't occurred in the wider Fertile Crescent (and that there's some doubt about the data).
More interesting here is that idea that it is urban-rural migration that's the culprit rather than the climate. Miss Church says that there was a 'mass migration' of this sort in Syria. But this may simply reflect the world-wide trend for people in rural areas to move to cities.
Today, the words rif and medina have developed not just geographic connotations, but social ones as well. The rif not only describes village farmers but those urban poor living in the slums sprouting up around Syria’s cities. This “village-izing” of Syria’s ancient cities has changed the complexion of urban space with the growth of large unplanned, parallel communities of urban poor.
There's nothing peculiar about this pattern - it's repeated in developing countries across the world (despite the best efforts of the development industry to stop people in poor rural communities exercising this liberty). And, given that we're talking about the growth of violent revolutionary forces - in this case Islamist forces - perhaps this upheaval has contributed? It does seem that these marginal communities contributed to the rise of Islamist parties in Turkey and to the challenges in Egypt:
Shrinking opportunities in the countryside have led to a steady rural-urban migration. Cities have grown at twice the rate of the general population in the last two centuries. This has led to overurbanization, this is, more people in the cities than can be properly housed, educated, or gainfully employed...it is estimated that the population of Greater Cairo has grown from about three hundred thousand in 1800 to over twelve million in 1995. With this phenomenal demographic growth have come serious problems. Much of the discontent that has been channeled into militant Islamic activism is a direct or indirect outcome of population pressures and overurbanisation.
I've no doubt at all that the five year drought may have accelerated the movement from country to town in Syria and indeed that, as we've seen in other places, this dislocated new urban community provides a place for a radical, non-traditional and violent version of Islam to thrive. It's too simplistic - and therefore wrong - to try and claim that it's climate change that did it but, if climatic alteration contributed to an accelerated rate of internal migration, then we are equally wrong to dismiss what Charlotte Church said as complete nonsense.