Tag Archives: climate change

Video: Migration, environment and climate change – evidence for policy

Last week we chaired a debate called Migration, environment and climate change – evidence for policy. This short video gives a brief overview of some of the key points raised in the debate.

The debate was organised by the International Organisation for Migration and was part of the European Commission’s international development conference in Brussels – EU Dev Days 2015.

Environment, climate change and migrationImage: 4 June 2015, Brussels – European Development Days Migration, environment and climate change – Evidence for policy. © European Union.

The panel were:
Moderator: Alex Randall, UK Climate Change and Migration Coalition (Right)
Frank Laczko, Head of Migration Research Division, International Organization for Migration (Right – centre)
Jonah Auka, Office of Climate Change and Development, Government of Papua New Guinea (Left – centre)
Agata Sobiech, Programme Officer, Migration and Asylum Sector, DG International Cooperation and Development , European Commission (Left)


Thumbnail image: Bernd Thaller, (CC BY-NC 2.0) From Flickr


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Obama’s Tweet on climate change and conflict: is he right?

Explaining complex global trends on Twitter is always difficult. Barak Obama proved yesterday that being the president of the US doesn’t make it any easier. He tried to express the complex relationship between climate change, human movement and conflict in a 140 character tweet.

Here’s the Tweet.


Is he right?

Perhaps it seems like hair-splitting to scrutinise one tweet with the level of detail that I’m about to. But arguably Obama is shaping the debate on climate change and its consequences. So some analysis is surely required.

Here goes.

Initially Obama claims that climate change will – or already is – leading to more severe natural disasters. This is undoubtedly true. Sure, he could have said “increasing the frequency or intensity of some kinds of disasters in some locations”. But he had to fit it all in a one tweet. Missing out the different role climate change plays in shaping different kinds of disasters is probably an acceptable compromise. There is strong evidence linking climate change to heat waves and extreme precipitation – leading to flooding. And the fingerprint of climate change is visible in a number of catastrophes such as the Horn of Africa droughts.

He next claims that these disasters lead to displacement. He’s correct on this count too. Displacement is always amongst the devastating impacts of most natural disasters. If we look back across the last decade of natural disasters the displacement of vast numbers of people is a familiar image. It is often the case that even after the initial impact of the disaster, people remain in camps or other forms of inadequate accommodation for years. Obama also states that disasters cause scarcity and  stressed populations.

Finally Obama links these three factors – displacement, stressed populations and scarcity – to conflict. Specifically he links them to “global conflict”. This is where I think he’s in difficult territory. This is the point where – in my view – the balance between accuracy and jamming everything into 140 characters becomes a problem.

There is some evidence linking the impacts of climate change to increased levels of conflict. In fact the extent of this relationship was the subject of a huge academic dispute last year. What both sides of the dispute agreed on was that while climate change might be leading to more violence – it is by no means the most important factor causing conflict. Other political and economic forces will still be the most important drivers of conflict.

But this isn’t what Obama is saying. He’s arguing that climate change is going to lead to more “global conflict”. For a conflict to be global it presumable needs to involve more than one country. In fact the term “global” really suggest a large number of countries, from a number of continents all being drawn into a war.

There is little evidence that this will be a likely consequence of climate change. One of the things that academics consistently agree on is that climate change is unlikely to be a driver of inter-state warfare. It is unlikely to be a force that drives governments to use their armed forces against the armed forces of another state.

Obama’s tweet also reaches slightly beyond the evidence when it identifies the causal pathway linking climate change to conflict. The academic literature is still not at all clear on exactly how altered weather patterns lead to changes in levels of violence. While some researchers have found correlations between altered weather and upticks in violence, they have not conclusively identified exactly why one thing causes the other.

Obama’s tweet does, however, suggest a number of causes. Amongst them is displacement. There is little evidence that displaced people are a cause of armed violence. The existing evidence does not support the case that displaced people take part in armed violence, or that their presence leads to other groups committing more violent acts. It is far more likely that displaced people will be fleeing armed violence, than that they are the cause or perpetrators of violence.

This is an inaccuracy with consequences. It is not just an academic argument. Migrants and refugees already suffer shocking levels of violence and discrimination, often when they have reached places where they were hoping to find safety. One of the drivers of this violence and discrimination is the public perception that refugee and migrants are a threat, that they might carry out terrorist attacks or in some way disrupt a community or a country. A narrative which argues that displaced people might be a cause of war, terrorism or violence adds fuel to this.

So why has Obama made these connections? The Obama administration has rightly made climate change a key issue. Since the Democrats came to power in 2008 they have tried – with varying degrees of success – to legislate on reducing carbon emissions and broker various international and bilateral agreements on climate change.

This has obviously brought them into conflict with their Republican opponents, and particularly with parts of the Republican party that remain sceptical about climate change. This has lead the Obama administration to seek out arguments for action on climate change that might be appealing to Republicans – or at least be difficult for them to argue against.

The connection between America’s national security and climate change is key here. Obama (and other Democrats) have created a narrative in which climate change is a driver of terrorism and war and creates a threat to America’s national security. The Democrats’ hope is that by tapping into the traditionally Republican concerns of terrorism and national security they might go some way to neutralising the Republicans’ opposition to their climate change policies.

Has the strategy worked? It’s difficult to say. In general Republican politicians and commentators have not adopted these messages about climate change being a national security threat to the US. Climate change scepticism on the political right in America also remains strong. In fact the Republicans have even kicked back against the climate – security connections that the Obama administration has made. However, Obama has enjoyed a degree of success: he secured a bi-lateral agreement with China which could set the stage for a strong global agreement on climate change in Paris later this year.

However, we can still ask what the side effects of the Democrats’  narrative might be. The case I’m making here is that a likely consequence of making bold connections between climate change, displacement and war is that Obama has bolstered a narrative that fuels violence and discrimination against refugees and migrants.

Alex Randall.

Images: Barack Obama at White House by Pete Souza – White House (Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons)


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Climate change and the tragedy in the Mediterranean – are there connections?

This article was first published in Responding to Climate Change. 

Why are so many people drowning in the Mediterranean? The short answer is this: we cancelled the search and rescue operation.

Worse, we decided to cancel it because we knew it would make the crossing more perilous, and this – European governments hoped – would act as a deterrent to future migrants.

It may be that climate change will cause more people to attempt this perilous journey in the future. There is only one sensible answer to this. Create a safe, legal way for people to enter the EU.

If people can enter the EU legally they will not attempt the journey in dangerous boats. If they can enter legally they will not be preyed upon by traffickers. If they can live and work legally in the EU they will not be forced into slave like work and camps on the Italian coast.

The prospect of a climate change creating a bigger ‘push’ factor in Africa and the Middle East makes the creation of these safe, legal options more important.

Climate, migration, displacement - refugees cross the Med

Image: The arrival on Malaysia’s coast of a small boat with 162 Vietnamese refugees on board. The boat sank a few metres from the shore. Migrants and refugees taking risky journeys in boats is an issue across the world.  UNHCR photo unit / K.Gaugler. CC BY-NC 2.0)

‘Tough on immigration’

Climate change combined with “tough immigration policies” is a recipe for tragedy. When people are fleeing appalling situations – war, starvation, drought – they will go to great lengths to find safety. They are not deterred by borders, fences, deserts and oceans. People will risk their lives.

Attempts by developed countries to stop migration usually have limited success. As we’ve seen in the Med – cancelling the rescue operation and making the crossing even more lethal – has not put people off.

This safe and legal route cannot be something specifically for people fleeing climate change. How could we ever sort the people fleeing climate change from the people fleeing other things? This would be an impossible task. When we look at why people are attempting to cross the Mediterranean, this becomes clear.

Many of the people making the crossing are fleeing conflict. Many come from three conflict zones: Syria, the Horn of Africa, and the lingering conflicts resulting from the Arab Spring.

These people are not fleeing the direct impacts of climate change. However, we can still ask: what was the role on climate change in creating the conflict these people are fleeing?

Some evidence links the Syrian conflict to climate change; evidence also links displacement and conflict in the Horn of Africa to climate change. However, these conflicts had multiple political and economic causes.

Climate change may have made the conflict more likely, or more intense.To say climate change was the primary cause of any of these conflicts is clearly not correct. To say that climate change played no role at all in the conflicts and subsequent movement of people is not correct either.


An explanation of the conflict and refugee crisis in the Horn of Africa would not be complete without looking at the 2010-11 drought. And an understanding of the drought would not be complete without looking at the impacts of climate change on drought intensity. But climate change was clearly not the most important force causing this conflict.

The same goes for Syria. Explaining the driving forces behind the conflict requires examining the role of rural-urban migrants in Syrian cities. They swelled the ranks of the rebel forces who were prepared to fight the Assad regime. The severe and prolonged drought resulted in millions of Syrians leaving the countryside and coming to cities. So again, there may be a link to climate change.

Climate change is part of a web of forces that are resulting in people trying to cross the Mediterranean. It may not the most important factor, but it is part of the explanation.

This complex web of causes tells us something about how the EU must react. The safe legal route into the EU must not be defined by what people are fleeing, but rather how vulnerable they are.

Essentially, the safe legal route into the EU must be open to anyone who needs it. Anyone who needs to escape, regardless of whether climate change has played a role in creating their distress. We explored how to do this in a series of reports.

My fear is that we do exactly the opposite. The prevailing discourse in the climate and migration discussion is one of security. Migration is seen as a problem. Migrants are seen as a threat. Climate change – we’re told – will create unmanageable migration crises.

I believe that climate change will shape migration in the future, and very likely is already. But I don’t believe that migrants and refugees are threat, a security problem or reason to pull up the drawbridge.

The security discourse tends to promote policies that are about controlling and stopping migration. But this is exactly the opposite of what we need to do.

As we’ve seen this week, trying to stop people from moving often results in tragedy. Climate change will result in more people trying to move. They only humane and logical response is to let them move safely and legally.

Alex Randall coordinates the UK Climate Change and Migration Coalition. He is author several reports on migration and climate change. He writes regularly on migration, displacement and climate change for a number of outlets.


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Podcast: when people move. Understanding how climate change creates the movement of people

Over the last two years we have collected testimonies from people who have moved as a result of climate-linked disasters. By exploring these stories we can begin to answer questions about how climate change is creating new patterns of migration and displacement. We can also begin to ask how life on a hotter planet might mean living with new kinds of disasters, and coping with the displacement they create.

The programme uses testimonies from Pakistan, the Philippines, Somalia and Mexico to examine how people have moved in response to disasters.

Programme credits:
Music: Chris Zabriskie
Cover Images: Henry Donati/Department for International Development Creative Commons (CC BY 2.0) and Russell Watkins / Department for International Development.

Phillipines: Reuters Foundation

Pakistan: Aljazeera and CDKN

Horn of Africa: UNHCR / UNU

Mexico: EACH-FOR Environmental Change and Forced Migration Scenarios. Mexico case study report.

Podcast, audio - climate change and migration

Climate & migration - funded by JRCT PWT_weblogo Lush_weblogo NSC_weblogo
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Research Round Up: Climate Change Vulnerability in Cities and the Agricultural Sector

The Impact of Climate Change, Migration & Cities in South America

Elizabeth Warn, Susana B. Adamo

Some of the world’s congested cities are situated in South America and many of them are homes to over 10 million people while continuing to grow. Better opportunities and higher salaries have long been the main drivers for people to move but lately, climate change is among the common factors behind rapid rural to urban migration. Cities such as Buenos Aires, Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo has already stretched beyond their capacity to deliver social protection to all citizens and additional migration means resources are stretched even further. Migrants with low socioeconomic status are especially vulnerable since they often live in low lying areas with high climate risk and lack the knowledge and resources to cope with such external stress. Climate change is indiscriminate and the level of impact on vulnerable people in a country will depend on cities capacity to adapt to both environmental and social changes. This article contributes to an understanding of the relationship between cities and urban migration as well as the link to climate change.

Adaptation as biopolitics: why state policies in Turkey do not reduce the vulnerability of seasonal agricultural workers to climate change

Ethemcan Turhan, Christos Zografosb, Giorgos Kallisc

In Turkey, seasonal workers from overseas are usually low skilled and lack the same  rights as the local population. Furthermore, being left outside the formal social protection system, exposed to unpredictable weather events and variations in agricultural growth makes them extremely vulnerable. While climate change impacts imply a more direct health threat they also causes an indirect risk to workers being unpaid due to loss of crop yields. Recently, the Turkish government has adopted two policies focusing on climate and social change. Although,  the authors of this article argue that the policies are in fact biopolitics disguised as adaptation strategies. Instead of targeting the root cause of vulnerability or reducing the vulnerability of seasonal workers, the policies aim to control the flow of workers in order to sustain the growth of the local economy.

Informal housing: migration, climate change and urbanisation

Image: Caroline Bourdeau / Gates Foundation. (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0) From Flickr.

Chanelle Andrén is a volunteer UK Climate Change and Migration Coalition and writes the weekly round up of new research on climate change, migration and displacement. Her background is in International Human Rights Law with specialisation in ‘Just Transitions’.

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Research Round Up: atolls, international law and resettlement

Atoll Island States & International Law: Climate Change Displacement & Sovereignty
Lilian Yamamoto and Miguel Esteban

The future of Atoll islands is not as bright as their white sandy beaches or crystal blue waters suggest, quite the opposite. In fact, recent studies show that many of the Atoll island states are predicted to submerge during the course of the century. The impending threat to their existence are due to the adverse effects of climate change forecasted such as increased coral mortality, rising sea levels and more frequent activities of tropical cyclones. These are all effects caused by high levels of greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere.

Atoll islands are one of the most vulnerable categories of actors in the debate about climate change and this book aims to examine the scientific reasoning behind the assumption about their tragic future as well as answer questions about the social and physical effects of land loss and sovereignty.

Climate Change & Displacement: Learning from Resettlement in the Development Context
Hari Mohan Mathur

Humanitarian agencies protect and support people that have had their human rights violated often as victims of war and conflicts. Recently, in a world where many places are becoming uninhabitable due to extreme weather events a new group of victims have entered the humanitarian work field known as climate-displaced groups. These are people forced to migrate from their homes and resettle in someone else’s as a response mechanism to climate change impacts. This will be the case for the people of Atoll islands and other coastal areas but also affect people in other parts of the world that are subject to drought, flooding etc. This article highlight issues that especially humanitarian organisations face in finding adequate land and identifying resettlement options to secure a sustainable livelihood for climate-displaced people.

atoll island_ recent research shows many atoll islands face international legal challenges affecting their sovereignty as climate change threatens their existence

Image: Satellite picture of the Atafu atoll in Tokelau. NASA Johnson Space Center Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

Chanelle Andrén is a volunteer UK Climate Change and Migration Coalition and writes the weekly round up of new research on climate change, migration and displacement. Her background is in International Human Rights Law with specialisation in ‘Just Transitions’.

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Interactive Google Map – Historical migration and displacement in the Pacific

Cyclone Pam raised the question of population relocation in the Pacific. The idea of people moving within the Pacific is often presented as entirely new. The media present Pacific people as unchanging, having inhabited the same place for milenia. For some people this is true, however the history of the Pacific has also been shaped by people moving. Much of this has been forced movement. Entire populations were removed and relocated, at various points by slavers, colonial authorities or foreign governments.

This history is vitally important to thinking about climate driven migration, displacement and relocation in the Pacific. We’ve mapped some of these relocations and episodes of migration on to a Google Maps layer. We’ll be adding more over the coming weeks.


During the 19th Century the practice of tricking — or simply capturing —  people from Pacific islands was rife. Ships cruised the Pacific capturing people and taking them to work on plantations in Australia, Peru and Fiji. The Polyneisan islands were target during the 1860s, primarily by slavers taking people to Peru.

The Google Map shows the places a group on Tongan slaves were transported to. They were captured on Ata atoll in Tonga. They were transported to a Callau on the West coast of Peru. By the time they arrived, the Peruvian government had banned slavery, so they were put on another ship to be sent back. A corrupt ex-Slaver got he contract to transport them, but dumped them on an uninhabited island of the coast of Costa Rica. When the Peruvian government heard, they sent another ship to retrive them. By this point many had died of small pox. Rather than returning them to Tonga, they took them to Paita, a town in northern Peru.

Pacific islander labourers on a Queensland pineapple plantation, 1890s. Image: Creative Commons / public domain via Wikipedia

Pacific Island labourers on a Queensland pineapple plantation, 1890s. Image: National Library of Australia. Public domain from Wikimedia.

Phosphate mining

In 1945 the population of Banaba Island (Ocean Island as it was called) were move to Rabi island in Fiji. The company mining the island had been agitating to have the citizens moved for decades. The Banabans moved from what is now part of Kiribati to what is now part of Fiji.

“Land Hunger” movements

In 1936 British colonial authorities decided that the Souther Gilbert Islands (now Kiribati) were too crowded. They also wanted to extend the British presence further East into the Pacific. So they moved people to the remote and unihabited Pheonic islands. Having British subjects living on the islands would extend the British sphere on influce in the region. The reloaction did no go well. The islands we badly affected by drought. The onset of the second World War made supplying the islands almost impossible. By 1963 British authories decided that the plan had been a total failure and evacuated the islands.

Nuclear testing

Unclear tests - Pacific islands. Climate change and relocation

The “Baker” explosion, part of Operation Crossroads, a nuclear weapon test by the United States military at Bikini Atoll, July 1946. Image: United States Department of Defense. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Many people were moved, re-moved and evacuated during US nuclear tests in the Pacific. The most famous relocation is of Bikini Atoll, which becme the centre of three decades of nuclear explosions. However the story of the nuclear relocations is not simple. People were not moved once, to a new safe location. For example, the Bikini residents were moved, then moved again when their new home was completely unlivable. Hundreds of people were also evacuated from supposidlty safe islands they had been relocated to. Botched nuclear tests sometimes meant whole populations were suddenly exposed to falling radioactive ash, and had to be suddenly evacuated, and then perminetly relocated.

In 1946 the US Navy moved the population of Bikini atoll to Rongerik, 200 Km to the East. By 1948 it was clear that Rongerik was uninhabitable and they were moved again to Kwajalein.

In 1954 the US detomated a bomb with 1000 times the power of the weapon that destroyed Hiroshima. The “unfavourable” weather conditions meant that the Bikini islanders (who had already been relocated) were exposed to high levels of nuclear fall out. The wind blew a fine layer of radioactive grey dust over their new islands. Two days later the Navy arrived and evacuated the islands.

The examples here paint a picture of failed and botched relocations. While distressing, these stories are vital to understanding how relocations have failed in the past. When the impacts of climate change require yet more movement in the Pacific this history -and the lessons from it – become vitally important.

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Visualising migration and climate change. What can web and social media data tell us about public interest in migration and climate change?

Using data from Google News, we have found that while the total amount of reporting on climate change is decreasing, the proportion of those stories that mention migration is increasing. Read on to find out why. 

Statistics are a notoriously controversial topic when it comes to migration and climate change. The very idea of defining a “climate migrant” and then counting their numbers is fraught with problems. However, data on the public’s interest in migration and climate change is surprisingly easy to find, and even visualise.

With freely available data we can begin to answer questions like: have the public been searching the internet for information about migration and climate change more? Are journalists writing about climate induced displacement more or less in the last 5 years?

One quick caveat. We’re using a lot of phrases that we know are controversial such as “climate refugee” and “climate migrant”. While acknowledging that these phrases are a contested, the frequency with which they are used online is a useful benchmark of public interest.

The Google News service allows searches within a date range. This means we can compare year by year how many news stories are written about climate change and migration. This graph shows news stories that contain the world “climate” and any one of the words “migration”, “displacement” or “refugee”.

This shows us several interesting things. First, a lot more is being written about the topic in the last few years. This is also a graph the number of articles that are specifically about migration and climate change. The key words are in the title of the article, not just anywhere in the text. However, between 2004 and 2015 there is also a lot more online news and blogging. So while  more is being written about migration and climate change, more is also being written about every other topic. We don’t know whether the proportion of stories on migration and climate change has increased or decreased. But we can look at how much of the climate change coverage was about climate change and migration.

This graph shows two things. In red is the total number of news items about climate change. This seems to have peaked and gone into decline. The blue columns show the number of climate change news items that also mention migration (or displacement or refugees). So although the total amount of climate change coverage is declining, the percentage of it that mentions migration is increasing.

Why is this? The total amount of climate change reporting has declined over the past 5 years. After the hope and then disappointment of the Copenhagen climate talks, climate change became less of a story. At the same time, when journalists are writing about climate change they are now far more likely to write about migration and displacement linked to climate change. Perhaps there is a need to produce more compelling and dramatic stories. Whether this produces helpful or unhelpful news stories is another question.

What does this tell us? Journalists and editors are less willing to write (or commission) stories on climate change. They must believe (rightly or wrongly) that the public are less interested in climate change. They probably also see that migration has become a deeply controversial media topic – an issue that the public want to read about. So in recent years, writers have used migration as a way of adding a new and controversial angle to their climate change reporting.

These stark changes in media reporting do not seem to have have had an affect on the public interest in migration and climate change. Or public interest in the issue does not seem to be the driving force behind the changes in media reporting.

climate change and migration data from Google Trends
google_trends_key This shows how often people have searched for phrases relating to climate change and migration. It gives some insight into public fascination with the topic as it shows how frequently people spontaneously look for information on these subjects. While searches for each phrase vary significantly, they no not follow the same pattern as the media reporting.

This graph shows the number of academic journal articles published on migration and climate change every year. The data comes from Google Scholar that archives academic articles.


The graph shows a steady increase in interest, with perhaps a slight decline during 2014. We will have to wait until the end of 2015 to see if this decline continues. The graph does show a growing and significant interest in the issue within the research community, which is positive.


The key issue here is the changing media coverage – with less coverage about climate change in general, but more of that coverage about migration. If journalists are increasingly framing climate change as a migration issue,  it is increasingly important to make sure these stories are accurate. It also becomes more important to encourage journalists to consider how they portray migrants and refugees in their reporting, and the impact this can have on the people they are reporting about.

Alex Randall coordinates the UK Climate Change and Migration Coalition. He is author several reports on migration and climate change. He writes regularly on migration, displacement and climate change for a number of outlets.


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