Thomas Friedman, the acclaimed Foreign Affairs New York Times columnist, spoke last week at the World Affairs Council in downtown San Francisco. The aim of this talk was to discuss the confluence of four major 21st-century trends: the growing Chinese economy, the impact of technology on society, shifting demographics within countries, and global connectivity through trade. The most astonishing aspect of the talk, however, was Friedman’s revelation about the Syrian Civil War.
While many can come up with an entire textbook of reasons for the intractable conflict, climate change is almost never mentioned. Friedman claims the two are inextricably linked. He points to the fact that Syria experienced a particularly severe drought three years leading up to the dawn of the revolution. According to a 2015 study published by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, between 2007 and 2010 surface temperature in the region steadily increased, while rainfall dropped. This had huge impacts on food security and production. For the first time in decades, the Syrian government was importing wheat because of shortages. Widespread crop failure was experienced all over the country. Prices for basic goods skyrocketed, and as many as 1.5 million rural citizens fled to urban centers. The government, ruled by Bashar al-Assad, was now becoming more unstable. Assad was dealing with food and water shortages. Added onto that was the mounting dissent against Middle Eastern governments surrounding Syria, also known as the Arab Spring. The intense migration of rural citizens into the cities leading up to 2010 magnified the social stresses already felt by the Bashar al-Assad government. It might have even been the tipping point. Within a year the entire country would fall into chaos. Almost five years later, the conflict shows no signs of letting up.
It is easy to forget that those of us in San Francisco are also experiencing a drought. Apart from the 5-minute shower timers in the university dorms and the “Brown is the New Green” campaign signs, our overall lifestyle has not changed. Students can still go to the cafeteria and grab raspberries imported from Mexico. If we are thirsty, there is water readily available across campus. As if we could not get any luckier, our government was not built on the same rocky foundation similar to that of Assad’s (CIA World Factbook shows a 1970 coup d’état placed Bashar’s father, Hafez al-Assad into power; Bashar would later presume power in 2000). America has a strong democratic tradition combined with plentiful resources. It is a luxury that we San Franciscans can go through a drought similar in magnitude to Syria’s, yet still carry on our lives normally. However, we must utilize this luxury responsibly. It is a double-edged sword that we must pick up on the right side. Since our daily lives do not include barrages of rockets raining down on us, we have the time and space to effectively combat climate change. Compared to a Syrian citizen, our lives are fairly distraction free on a macroscale. It is with this incredible fortune that San Francisco can be a great example for the rest of the world in combatting climate change. We have the stability and resources where others do not.
Towards the end of Friedman’s discussion, he claimed that if you “change America you change the world.” As he puts it, America is the “Archimedes point” of global change. This is not to say we have all the right answers. We get things wrong, too. But as residents of an incredibly privileged and fortunate city, it is our duty to recognize our unique position in the world. We must realize we have the freedom to combat climate change while others don’t have the infrastructure nor the support to do so . I urge all of San Francisco to start using our great innovative base to implement change. Whether that is choosing to compost, or dreaming of the next Tesla Motors, our city and country has the advantage in becoming the driving force against climate change.