In 2016 I was asked to review a paper arguing that climate change had caused the Syrian uprising. I remember feeling annoyed. The paper was an obvious crossbreed of two of academia's hottest trends, climate change and the Syrian war. Someone had caught on that shortly before the start of the 2011 uprisings, Syria had experienced a drought—and even drought-induced, internal migration. Eureka! A seemingly obvious hypothesis started making the rounds at academic conferences and in journals: impoverished, disgruntled Syrian farmers, driven off their land by climate change–induced drought had risen up in frustration, stirring up the most devastatingly destructive war the modern Middle East has witnessed. This narrative engaged the middle-class Western minds of late-era capitalism, which are so receptive to the idea of the angry poor and to images of catastrophic environmental degradation.

The eager embrace of this hypothesis involved a vast labeling exercise, reducing the complexity and...

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