- Andrea Duffy
- The Conversation*
At the end of the 16th century, hundreds of bandits stormed the rural Anatolian fields on horseback, looting villages, inciting violence, and destabilizing the Sultan’s power.
Four hundred years later and a few hundred kilometers away, in what is now Syria, a series of widespread protests in 2011 turned into a bloody civil war that persists to this day.
These dark episodes in Mediterranean history share key characteristics that offer a warning for the future: Both events forced scores of people from their homes. Similarly, both had their origins in politics and had dramatic political consequences.
And both were driven by extreme temperatures that are often associated with climate change.
As an environmental historian, I have researched and written extensively on environmental stresses and conflicts in the Eastern Mediterranean region.
While severe droughts, hurricanes, rising ocean levels, and climate migration may seem like new and unique phenomena in our time, past crises like the ones I just mentioned, and others, carry important lessons about how climate changes can destabilize human societies.
Let’s take a closer look at this.
Drought in the heart of an empire
We live in an era of global warming due in large part to unsustainable human practices.
Generally known as the Anthropocene, this era is considered to have arisen in the 19th century, immediately after another period of great global climate change called The Little Ice Age.
The Little Ice Age brought cooler than average temperatures as well as extreme weather to many parts of the world.
Unlike current anthropogenic warming, it was probably caused by natural factors like volcanic activity and it affected different regions at different times, to different degrees, and in very different ways.
Its onset in the late 16th century was particularly notable in Anatolia, a predominantly rural region that became the heart of the Ottoman Empire and whose limits are roughly those of present-day Turkey.
Much of their land was traditionally used to grow cereals or herd sheep and goats. They were an important source of food for the rural population, as well as for the residents of the bustling Ottoman capital, Istanbul (Constantinople).
The two decades surrounding the year 1600 were especially tough.
Anatolia went through some of its coldest and driest years in history, tree rings and other paleoclimatological data suggest.
This period also had droughts frequent, as well as frost and floods. At the same time, the inhabitants of the region suffered due to an animal plague and oppressive state policies, including the seizure of grains and meats to face a costly war in Hungary.
The Celali rebellions
Prolonged crop failures, war, and hardship exposed major deficiencies in the Ottoman supply system.
Inclement weather paralyzed state efforts to distribute limited food supplies, hunger spread through the countryside to Istanbul, accompanied by a deadly epidemic.
By 1596, a series of uprisings known as the Celali rebellions broke out, becoming the longest lasting internal threat to state power in the six centuries of the Ottoman Empire’s existence.
Peasants, semi-nomadic groups, and provincial leaders contributed to this movement with a wave of violence, vandalism, and instability that lasted well into the 17th century.
As drought, disease, and bloodshed persisted, people abandoned farms and villages, fleeing anatolia looking for more stable areas.
The famine killed many who lacked the resources to leave.
The weakening of the Empire Otomano
Before this point, the Ottoman Empire had been one of the most powerful regimes in the early modern age.
It encompassed large territories in Europe, North Africa, Middle East and controlled the holiest places in Islam, Christianity, and Judaism.
During the previous century, Ottoman troops had entered Central Asia to annex much of Hungary. They also advanced into the Habsburg Empire, threatening Vienna in 1529.
The Celali rebellions left important political consequences.
The Ottoman government managed to restore relative calm in rural Anatolia by 1611, but at a cost.
The sultan’s control over the provinces weakenedirreversibly, and internal control over Ottoman authority helped curb its expansionary tendency.
The Celali rebellions closed the door to the Ottoman “golden age” and pushed this monumental empire into a spiral of decentralization, military setbacks, and administrative weakness that would disrupt the Ottoman state for the remaining three centuries of its existence.
Climate change: a threat multiplier
Four hundred years later, environmental stress once again coincided with social unrest and launched Syria into a long-lasting and devastating civil war.
This conflict arose in the context of political oppression and the Arab Spring movement, and at the end of one of Syria’s worst droughts in modern history.
The magnitude of the role of the environment in the Syrian civil war is difficult to measure because, as in the Celali rebellions, its impact was indelibly linked to social and political pressures.
But the brutal combination of these forces cannot be ignored. That is why military experts today speak of climate change as a “threat multiplier.”
Now entering its second decade, the Syrian war has driven out more than 13 million Syrians from their homes.
About half are internally displaced, while the rest have sought refuge in surrounding countries, in Europe and beyond, greatly intensifying the global refugee crisis.
Lessons for today and for the future
The Mediterranean region may be particularly prone to the negative effects of global warming, but these two stories are far from isolated cases.
As the Earth’s temperatures rise, the weather will increasingly hamper human affairs, exacerbating conflictsis promoting migration.
In recent years, low-elevation countries like Bangladesh have been devastated by floods, while drought has disrupted lives in the Horn of Africa and Central America, sending large numbers of migrants to other countries.
The history of the Mediterranean offers three important lessons to address current global environmental problems:
- First, the negative effects of climate change fall disproportionately on poor and marginalized people, who are less able to respond and adapt.
- Second, environmental challenges tend to affect more when combined with social movements and, often the two are connected indistinguishable.
- Third, climate change has the potential to drive migration and resettlement, stimulate violence, overthrow regimes, and dramatically transform human societies around the world.
Ultimately, climate change will affect us all, in dramatic, distressing and unforeseen ways. But as we contemplate the future, we can learn a lot from our past.
* Andrea Duffy is Director of International Studies at Colorado State University.
This note originally appeared on The Conversation and is published here under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article here.
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Eddie is an Australian news reporter with over 9 years in the industry and has published on Forbes and tech crunch.