(Un)Scientific American – Fatuous Nonsense on Climate Change & Social Unrest in Iran

Iran protest

The attribution of virtually any significant weather event to climate change is a particularly grating and ill-informed habit of climate evangelists. It is not supportable by the science, even blithe suggestions that climate change “contributed” to the severity of an event or to the frequency of particular event types are not verifiable. Making such statements is no less ridiculous than saying during a cold snap, “so what happened to global warming?”

To claim that climate change is a major driver of the current social unrest in Iran takes climate change attribution to a whole other level of bullshit. But, that’s where Scientific American went when it posted an article by Scott Waldman on January 8, Climate Change May Have Helped Spark Iran’s Protests.

According to Waldman, “The impacts of climate change are among the environmental challenges facing Iran that helped spark protests in dozens of cities across the Islamic republic.” He then says, “Rising temperatures are seen by some experts as an underlying condition for the economic hardships that led to the unrest.”

One such expert, Barbara Slavin, from the Atlantic Council, claims, “the role of climate change on the protests is “massive” and underreported by the media. The protests have largely sprung from provincial cities that climate refugees now call home, instead of the capital, Tehran.” Slavin maintains these “climate refugees” have moved from their farms into urban centres because 14 years of drought have made farming impossible.

Waldman throws in some alarmist projections – rainfall is expected to fall by 20% in the Middle East by the year 2100 and temperature to rise by 5⁰C – which are poor substitutes for observational data. Actual weather data covering 114 years from 1901 to 2015 highlight the obvious; Iran is a hot, arid country. Looking at both precipitation and temperature data over this period, a couple of things are quite striking. First, temperature has risen by about 1⁰C, consistent with global trends but hardly catastrophic. Second, precipitation has fluctuated quite dramatically, month-by-month and year-by-year but the monthly linear trend is nearly flat.[1]

Over the most recent 14-year period in the data (2002-15) the precipitation trendline for January shows a fairly steep decline but in July it shows an increase. Given that January is a wetter month in Iran than July, it is not surprising that the annual trend over this limited time frame is negative. But 14 years in terms of climate is almost nothing, using this limited data to prove climate change effects when the century-plus trend tells a markedly different story is just cherry-picking data to support your narrative.

Waldman also suggests that the worst effects of climate change in Iran, “could be curtailed with a drop in emissions from fossil fuels, a large percentage of which come from fossil fuels derived from the Middle East.” He then cites Kaveh Ehsani, an expert in Iranian politics at DePaul University, who claims, “there is a growing sense of environmentalism in Iran, in response to the drought and deadly heat waves.” But just to make sure he nails all the villains in the piece he also asserts that, “the Trump administration’s retreat from the Paris climate agreement and its larger rejection of climate policy mean that Iranian citizens are increasingly blaming environmental problems on the United States.”

Well, that’s neat and tidy. Western use of fossil fuels, the resultant changing climate, plus climate change denialism are the cause of civil unrest in Iran. The solution: stop using fossil fuels.

Waldman makes only passing reference to poor water management practices. In the abstract of a research paper, Water management in Iran: what is causing the looming crisis?, author Kaveh Madani states: “The government blames the current crisis on the changing climate, frequent droughts, and international sanctions, believing that water shortages are periodic. However, the dramatic water security issues of Iran are rooted in decades of disintegrated planning and managerial myopia.”[2]

The paper identifies three major causes of Iran’s growing water crisis: “(1) rapid population growth and inappropriate spatial population distribution; (2) inefficient agriculture sector; and (3) mismanagement and thirst for development.” Madani also posits that if Iran fails to change its water management policies and practices it risks losing, “its international reputation for significant success in water resources management over thousands of years in an arid area of the world.” In other words, the current regime in Iran has failed to adapt well to changing circumstances, certainly less well than its predecessors.

Waldman’s failure to mention population growth is a glaring omission. Iran experienced more than a fourfold increase in population over the past 60-plus years from about 19 million in 1955 to 82 million currently.[3] Half the population is under 30; it’s hardly a stretch to suggest a correlation between youth and civil unrest, particularly when those young people live under the iron rule of a despotic theocracy that limits their personal and political freedoms as well as economic opportunities.

Scientific American describes itself as “the award-winning authoritative source for the science discoveries and technology innovations that matter.” Let’s hope that the fatuous nonsense that is Waldman’s article was just a misstep into a pile of activist ordure rather than evidence of a more troubling malaise undermining the journal’s scientific authority.


[1] All climate data from the World Bank Group, Climate Knowledge Portal

[2] Water management in Iran: what is causing the looming crisis?, Kaveh Madani, August 2014, Journal of Environmental Studies and Sciences

[3] Population data from Worldometers.info, 2018