“This is what climate change is doing to Iran” blares the headline of a Vox article containing dramatic images of Iran’s desiccated Lake Urmia, which has shrunk to 10 percent of its original size in a matter of decades. “Lake Urmia, in the mountains of northwestern Iran, was once a source of national pride and one of the country’s top tourism destinations,” writes Vox in the lede. “It’s emerging now as something else entirely: Iran’s most visible symbol of the damage being wrought by global climate change.”
Later on, the article pivots to criticizing U.S. Republican ignorance on climate change relative to the allegedly enlightened view of the Iranian mullahs. “Donald Trump and many of his fellow Republicans doubt the existence of climate change,” says Vox. “The clerical leaders of Iran, widely derided in the US as a backward theocracy, accept that climate change is real — and that concrete measures need to be taken to fight it.”
As James Hitchcock points out, there’s just one problem: The disappearance of Lake Urmia has very little to do with climate change. The overwhelming cause of the desiccation is the diversion of water for irrigation of farmland.
A recent paper by Iranian scientists dubs Lake Urmia’s woes “Aral Sea syndrome”—a reference to the lake between Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan that was almost entirely drained by Soviet efforts to irrigate the desert. Similarly, according to the paper, “drastic changes to [the health of Lake Urmia] are primarily consequences of aggressive regional water resources development plans, intensive agricultural activities, anthropogenic changes to the system, and upstream competition over water.” According to the Guardian, “the research undermines any notion of a crisis caused primarily by climate changes.”
Similarly, Scientific American recently asked a prominent Iranian botanist why the lake is receding. His answer: “The main reason is the extensive water use in the basin, which happened after 54 dams were constructed in the area. There are only eight permanent rivers, so there is no chance for running water to flow into the lake. There are also a lot of wells, which pump water from underground aquifers. These two pressures prevent water from accumulating in the basin.”
Now, climate change may affect efforts to restore water that has been diverted over the years. Vox cites a paper arguing that “under scenarios of moderate or intense climate change, the current plan will not be sufficient to protect the lake.”
But the impression conveyed by the article—that climate change (and apparently the American right’s ignorance of it) has played a leading role in wiping out a spectacular Iranian natural resource, despite the earnest efforts of the mullahs—is highly misleading. The tragic disappearance of lake Urmia is first and foremost a story about regional water mismanagement, with climate change only playing a role on the margins.
Stories like this one highlight the necessity of more responsible climate advocacy. Man-made climate change is real and must be addressed by public policy. But implausible mainstream media assertions that any and every undesirable change to the environment anywhere in the world can be pinned on troglodytic American conservatives do not do this cause any favors.