Unpacking climate, migration and armed conflict

Kate Burrows

Kate Burrows is a PhD candidate at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies. Her research focuses on the public health impact of climate change and environmentally driven migration.

Climate change related displacement and migration are often viewed as security concerns, particularly among policy makers and the media. Headlines in recent years, for example, have focused on drought and environmental refugees in Syria, attributing some of the violence in the region to climate change and related displacement. However, increasing research in this field suggests that we should not view the pathway between climate change, migration, and conflict as linear. While the risk of conflict may increase as a result of climate-migration, we shouldn’t claim that climate change related migration will cause new conflicts.

Our recent paper explores the non-linear nature of this relationship by separately investigating the links between climate change and migration, and between migration and conflict. We focused on highlighting the areas where academic literature is inconclusive or contradictory. Our goal was to better understand where our collective knowledge is still lacking and to identify areas that require further research.

We found that most research agrees that climate change could impact migration, but that the estimates for how many people might be affected and where and how they will move are still uncertain. For example, some studies that we reviewed found a reduction in rates of migration as a result of environmental changes. Recent research presents a nuanced view of the environment as one of many factors that may drive migration (in addition to economic, political, and social causes, among others). The main question is how significant is the environment relative to these other factors in influencing population movement. To answer this, we suggest focusing on local contexts, including whether or not residents are dependent on natural resources (and therefore would be directly impacted by environmental changes), and if migration is an economically viable option.

It is also clear that in some cases environmental migration can influence conflict, particularly over scarcity of resources. However, certain studies also show that conflict sometimes decreases after natural disasters. This suggests that we cannot assume that climate-migration will increase risk of conflict, but again that it will be deeply dependent on the local context. We found that perhaps more important than the presence of environmental migration is the presence (or absence) of stabilizing factors such as stable governments, infrastructure, and education. In addition, a history of conflict could make large increases in migration more likely to result in instability or insurrection.

In summary, our review found that climate change is likely to affect human migration and that this could impact conflict; however, this may include situations in which migration and/or conflict are reduced. The role that climate change will have on the displacement of people and the risk of conflict depends greatly on the local context and we cannot assume that the effects will be consistent from place to place. This supports a need for locally defined policies and solutions for preparedness to mediate potential negative effects of climate change and climate-related migration.

Kate Burrows is a PhD candidate at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies. Her research focuses on the public health impact of climate change and environmentally driven migration. This article is based on the paper Exploring the Climate Change, Migration and Conflict Nexus.

Cover / thumbnail image: Andrea Volpini (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0) from Flickr.

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