Climate change, forced migration and… conflict?

climate change forced migration and conflict

The impending link between the indirect effects of climate change, migration and conflict is constantly framed by top policy-makers as a security concern. Former Director of Policy Planning for the U.S. State Department, Anne-Marie Slaughter has claimed that “one of the things that we often don’t appreciate are the security implications of climate change. In many ways […] this is the oldest problem know to humankind. If your land is no longer good, you rarely wait around and accept that, you move and indelibly you move on to land that belongs to others and that creates conflict.”

Behind such statement lays the Hobbesian assumption that human nature is an uncivilized competition for survival. Nonetheless, anecdotal evidence from post-natural disasters suggests that what flourishes among people is cooperation rather conflict. In what follows I provide a summary of the current literature on climate change, migration and conflict.

The climate change and migration nexus

Throughout history, changes in climate have been responsible for the rise and fall of civilizations.[1] Since then, our human ancestors and their subsequent societies had to adjust to various climate pressures. Then, as now, migration to areas with more favorable climatic conditions has been a common adaptation measure. As climate extremes stabilized over the last12,000 years, however, most people found little incentive to be on a constant move.

Today, as the planet continues to warm due to anthropogenic climate change, large movements of people—voluntary and forced— are expected to increase from coastal flooding, severe drought and water scarcity and inland flooding.

The Fifth Assessment Report (AR5) of the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) concluded that as global temperatures continue to rise, the number of climate-related events will increase in strength and frequency. However, the impact of climate change on single weather events vary across regions on a wide range of time and spatial scales.

As a result, the science linking climate change and extreme weather events remains uncertain as empirical and methodological challenges remain.[2] Nonetheless, study after study continue to conclude that the frequency, duration and intensity of some extreme events have already begun (see Figure 1).[3]

Natural-hazards occur abruptly or gradually. Each have different causal mechanisms that influence human mobility. On one hand, slow-onset events such as drought can lead to gradual changes in environmental conditions such as land degradation and water stress. Because their effects are gradual, slow-onset events mostly result in temporary, localized, “voluntary” migration to urban areas that draw migrants to seasonal employment opportunities, or towards aid centers that provide refuge.[4]  Sea-level rise and projected temperature increases are the only two slow-onset events that are expected to result in permanent and international migration.

Natural-hazards: floods & droughts in sub-Saharan Africa, 1900-2016
Natural-hazards: floods & droughts in sub-Saharan Africa, 1900-2016. Source: EM-DAT

On the other hand, sudden-onset events such as hurricanes, heatwaves, slides and floods often cause destruction of property and a significant loss of human life, livestock and vegetation. In 2015 alone, natural disasters triggered by sudden-onset natural hazards forced 1.1 million people from their homes in 33 African countries.

For instance, in March 2017, Cyclone Enawo killed about 50 people, severely damaged the country’s telecommunications infrastructure, and destroyed 30 percent of all vanilla crops in Madagascar—leading to a spike in prices.[5] Such sudden and damaging events are more likely to cause temporary, localized, forced, migration. By some estimates, internally displaced peoples relocate, on average, 3.21 kilometers (2 miles) away from home before they return.[6]

To recap, climate change will increase the frequency and strength of natural-hazards.  Data shows floods to be in the rise in Asia and Africa when compared to past trends. People facing slow-onset events are aware of their situation and can choose to migrate. Most relocate to the nearest city and return after things get better. By contrast, victims of sudden-events are forced to migrate due to the little time (or none) to prepare for such events.

Forced migration and conflict?

Given the IPCC projections, will IDPs from natural-hazards increase the likelihood of conflict? The current literature linking environmental degradation and conflict often assumes migration to be a key in-between and conductive factor towards conflict.

A recent effort by Rafael Reuveny (2007) proposed, among other causal mechanisms, that conflict will be likely in receiving areas in response to competition, as migrants can burden the economic and resource base creating friction and promoting disputes over resources. This argument is myopic at best and dangerous at worst. First, most migration is localized after sudden-onset events and most people seek temporary relief from their immediate social network (e.g., family, friends, community leaders, etc.) before returning home to rebuild.

For instance, after Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans in 2005, it was neighbors and strangers who came to the aid of those in need. Natural disasters are times of disruption, pain, even horror.  But they are also moments when people can come together to help each other as equals.

Second, political institutions matter. Most conflict arguments neglect the crucial role that domestic and international institutions play in mitigating violence. Take nomadic pastoralists for example. The intertwined livelihood of these so-called “climate-change canaries” to ecosystems around them, combined with their poor resiliency due to their marginalization, make them particularly vulnerable to natural-hazards.

Two months ago, floods in Kenya killed approximately 9,000 cattle in the northern and coastal Kenya in areas dominated by pastoralists who had been badly hit by a drought in 2016. Fewer animals reduce income and increase hunger, as well as the length of travel to find resources. In other words, the perfect recipe for resource competition and violence.

However, the Kenyan government and international aid programs mitigated violent episodes by providing shelter, food and water to these communities. In fact, aid agencies often report that internally displaced populations are fragile and make the extra effort to ‘fit-in’ with their host populations. In fact, these attempts are often made to avoid conflict.[7]

Climate change is a threat multiplier: it hampers economic growth, increases poverty, decreases basic resources and the like. While most data on IDPs is limited, there is little evidence to suggest that IDPs from sudden-onset events increase the probability of conflict. To truly understand the complex climate—migration—conflict nexus, we must first avoid abstract narratives that are not universally shared by victims of a changing climate. Failure to clarify the perceptions that frame climate change and migration as a security concern could result in a self-fulfilling prophecy.


[1] Kennett et al. (2012); Sohn (2014).

[2] Stott et al. (2016)

[3] Hansen et al. (2016); Kreft et al. (2016); Ranson et al. (2016)

[4] Nielsen (2001); Henry et al. (2003).

[5] Rabary (2017).

[6] Zaman & Weist (1991); Hutton & Haque (2004).

[7] Guiffrida (2007).

Alfonso Sánchez

Alfonso Sánchez

Alfonso Sánchez forma parte del Departamento de Estudios Internacionales de la Universidad Loyola Andalucía.

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