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The Complexity of the Climate Change, Migration and Conflict Nexus

Reuters/Rodi Said

By Dr. Marc Kodack

Researchers are actively assessing the interactions between climate/environmental change and migration (here) and, climate change, migration, and conflict (here and here) to increase our understanding of the diverse effects that climate change will have on populations around the world. Understanding the complex interaction between climate change, migration and conflict requires a theoretical model that can be empirically supported particularly when causality is too often assumed, but not analytically demonstrated, e.g., resource scarcity driven by climate change leads to out-migration which, in turn, results in conflict with populations living in receiving areas. We are thus looking back to a 2015 article by Brzoska and Fröhlich for a comprehensive understanding of the “environmental, economic and sociopolitical consequences of climate change contributing to migration and the different functions of migration in this context.”

Environmental variables are one influence on decisions to migrate. Other important variables include the social, political, economic, and demographic. Migration, forced or voluntary, is one of several possible responses to extreme events. Movement may be immediate, such as in response to imminent flooding, or may occur over longer time periods, such as responses to extended drought. Besides movement out of an area with no return, communities and individuals can be temporarily displaced and return after an event ends. An alternative to movement is for people to remain-in-place, never leaving at all, which when involuntary are referred to as “involuntarily immobile” or “trapped populations.” Within any of the movements that do occur, how the move is characterized may be viewed differently by an affected individual versus an outsider, e.g., an indigenous farmer may see their movement because of drought as economic, whereas aid workers may see that same movement as driven by environmental factors. Migrant destination can also be influenced by historical migration patterns where new migrants follow older routes.

Turning to climate change, Brzoska and Fröhlich discuss vulnerability and adaptation. Vulnerability depends on how exposed a community or individual is to climate change effects and how sensitive they are to these effects. Vulnerability increases when natural resources are increasingly degraded and diminished. If existing state institutions fail to respond and adapt, human security will increasingly be at risk. Political unrest, state-level non-responsiveness may increase and population migration may all become possible responses to these natural resource failings. Thus, drawing a direct line between climate change and its effects on populations can be confounded by the multiple levels of interactions that can occur.

Adaptation consists of actions taken to reduce the negative effects of climate change. While migration can be viewed as an adaptation failure when voluntary, migration can alternatively be a direct adaptation to reduce the negative climate change effects in an area by moving to an area where those effects are less severe. The decision of whether to move or not requires communities to assess their vulnerability and risk and how moving will affect existing social, cultural, and economic relationships.

When migration does occur, vice staying in a place with or without undertaking any adaptation actions to blunt environmental stresses, Brzoska and Fröhlich define four migration patterns and how climate change may influence these patterns. “Ecological-economic migrants” commonly occur today when households and individuals collectively decide to diversify their income as a hedging strategy against environmental changes, including climate change. Commonly, individual members seek out jobs in different locations and use remittances to support household members who are unable to move. These jobs may be seasonal or long-term. Remittances can fluctuate over time, with reductions further increasing stress, e.g., COVID-19 may reduce global remittances in low–and-middle-income countries by 20%, the largest drop in recent history (World Bank 2020). “Climate disaster refugees” are temporally displaced because local living and natural resource conditions are severely degraded. Such refugees are likely to return once conditions permit, or they may temporally relocate to where aid is available or where they have relatives. “Permanent climate refugees” are unable to return to local areas of origin. “Climate affected migrants” may have to change where and/or how they make a living, e.g., farmer-to-non-farming job.

Brzoska and Fröhlich end with a model on how conflict may begin. Individuals chose to engage in conflict based on their own perceptions of its utility, drawing on the overarching society’s views of conflict, who is considered a group member, and a shared worldview. Conflict is embedded in a process that is shaped by history, whether methods are available to manage conflict and its’ current levels. Whether conflict shifts to violence is based on an assessment of threats, e.g., existential threats will likely lead to a violent response.

When the four migration patterns are joined to the above model, a more nuanced view emerges over the interactions between climate change, migration, and violent conflict. For eco-economic migrants, violent, armed conflict seems unlikely. Prior to migrating, individuals will determine if the benefits of going outweigh the costs, even if they are not particularly welcome. For climate disaster refugees, violent conflict is probably low, although the number of people and how long they stay may change local attitudes over time. Permanent climate refugees are at increased risk of violent conflict if competition for resources or jobs, or perceptions of such competition, increases over time. Climate-affected migrants may come into competition or perceived competition with other groups over resources, and political forces in receiving countries may exploit such tensions, raising the possibility of conflict. If existing conflict management processes are unsuccessful, conflict may increase or shift to violent conflict. Different worldviews and who is a group member may feed into the conflict.

When trying to understand the interaction between climate change, migration, and violent conflict, we need to avoid a simple, linear causality between these three variables. We need a finer grained approach to unravel the complex origins of migration and its’ consequences, both for the migrants themselves and for the areas/populations at their destinations. Climate change effects are a serious and additional, but not the sole, environmental stressor that influences decisions to migrate. Whether those migrants will experience violent conflict is dependent on multiple variables, such as how many people are migrating, for how long, how receptive the receiving populations are, whether are not resources are sufficient for extended stays, the actions of political forces in receiving countries, and the nature of the populations migrating. In short, it’s very complicated. But it’s worth continued research, particularly as climate and other environmental security stresses continue to accelerate.

Dr. Marc Kodack is Senior Fellow at the Center for Climate and Security and former Sustainability and Water Program Manager in the Office of the U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Army for Energy and Sustainability.

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