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Exploring the Relationships Between Climate Change, Migration, and Violent Conflict

The following analysis is from Volume 3, Special Issue “Climate Change, Security, and Conflict” of the Peace Science Digest

Citation: Brzoska, M. & Fröhlich, C. (2016). Climate change, migration and violent conflict: Vulnerabilities, pathways and adaptation strategies. Migration and Development, 5(2), 190-210.

When climate change is framed as a security threat, it is often due to assumptions about how changes in the climate will cause mass migration, which will itself precipitate violent conflict. Major institutions—the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the U.S. Department of Defense, and the European Union among them—have thus presented “climate migration” as a serious concern for global security. The authors point out, however, that there is little evidence to back up the assertion that there is a simple, straightforward relationship between climate change, migration, and violent conflict. The aim of this research, therefore, is to investigate the plausible relationships between climate change and migration, on the one hand, and migration and violent conflict, on the other. To do this, the authors review recent scholarship in both areas and then develop their own tentative model.

A consensus largely emerged in an earlier body of environmental conflict scholarship that environmental factors like resource scarcity do not directly or by themselves cause violent conflict but rather “can contribute to the likelihood of violent conflict” in conjunction with other factors like “ethnic polarization, weak political structures and low levels of economic development,” with migration being one of the pathways by which environmental factors can facilitate violent conflict. Research on migration suggests that environmental factors are just one among many (including economic, political, demographic, and social) drivers of migration. Furthermore, while migration is one way climate change can facilitate violent conflict, it can also be seen as a potential “buffer” between climate change and violent conflict, insofar as it may “alleviate the pressures of climate change” in some cases. Nonetheless, the traditional way of understanding the relationships between these factors follows this logic: climate change → environmental change/scarcity → migration → violent conflict.  The authors argue that the existing model is inadequate, insofar as related empirical evidence is inconclusive and/or contradictory and the model itself is too simplistic.

The authors begin to complicate our understanding of these matters by first exploring the relationship between climate change and migration, noting the importance of vulnerability and adaptation to understanding variations in climate change’s influence on migration. When people are vulnerable to climate change—something that is most likely when they are directly dependent on renewable natural resources—their livelihoods and health are affected, potentially contributing to instability and mass migration to “more resource-rich areas.” Adaptation—“activities designed to cope with negative consequences of climate change”—has an ambivalent relationship with migration, as migration could be seen as a form of adaptation to climate change or as evidence of its failure, largely depending on whether and to what extent the migration in question is voluntary or forced. Both vulnerability and adaptation, then, bring to light issues related to power and inequality. Depending on one’s level of vulnerability and, inversely, adaptive capacity, one might respond to environmental stresses with passive acceptance, active in-place adaptation, or migration (forced or voluntary). The authors then identify four types of migrants who may be affected by climate change, distinguished by various factors including the distance traveled, the length of time in the receiving region, and their economic strategies once there, as well as how voluntary or forced their migration is: 1) “ecological-economic migrants,” 2) “climate disaster refugees,” 3) “permanent climate refugees,” and 4) “climate-affected migrants.”

Type Distance traveled Permanence Agency Economics at destination
Ecological-economic migrants Direction and distance depending on ‘risk capital’ and economic opportunities Temporary (seasonal, life cycle) Individuals, but often group-decided, predominantly young males Seeking to be self-supporting, primary aim: remittances
Climate disaster refugees Short (refugee camp, relatives) Not permanent, shorter periods of time Groups   Dependent on external support
Permanent climate refugees Direction and distance depending on ‘risk capital’, external support and economic opportunities Permanent Groups Seeking to be self-supporting, tapping external support
Climate-affected migrants Rerouting of migration patterns Depends on conditions Groups Seeking to be self-supporting

Table 1: Types of climate migration patterns; Source: Brzoska, M. & Fröhlich, C. (2016). Climate change, migration and violent conflict: Vulnerabilities, pathways and adaptation strategies. Migration and Development, 5(2), 190-210.

Turning to the relationship between migration and violent conflict, the authors take into consideration the type of “climate migrant” and the characteristics of the receiving country/society to assess how likely violent conflict might be. The most problematic scenarios are those where either permanent climate refugees or climate-affected migrants—those most likely to compete for scarce resources in the host area—arrive in areas with extreme resource scarcity, a recent history of violent conflict, or exclusionary identities, especially when these migrants might shift the identity balance in an existing identity conflict. There is a low likelihood of violent conflict with eco-economic migrants or climate disaster refugees, as the former generally will choose areas that are more receptive to migrants, and the latter generally will have access to humanitarian assistance and will stay in the host region only temporarily.

In summary, the authors argue that “the potential of climate migration to lead or contribute to violent conflict” is affected by the characteristics of both the population movement and the receiving region, including its economic situation and its views on the integration of refugees and migrants.  

Contemporary Relevance:

The migrant caravan that recently arrived at the southern U.S. border is often understood to be caused by the violence racking Central America, and it is to a large extent—but the picture is more complex than this. Central America has been ravaged by unusually strong hurricanes and droughts, in turn, throwing off normal growing patterns and pushing many small-scale farmers into the cities. Displaced and food insecure, these families or individuals find themselves more vulnerable than they might otherwise be to gang violence. As suggested by the present research, their immediate reason for migrating out of their home country could be another migration driver, such as violence, but an underlying cause could be food insecurity aggravated by climate change; as such, they fall somewhere between the “ecological-economic migrants” and “permanent climate refugees” identified in the research. Their migration to the U.S. border is a survival strategy, as they are simply looking for a safe place for themselves and/or their families to live where they can earn a living. Also as discussed in the research, the decision to migrate reflects existing inequalities and power imbalances in their home countries, as some people in Guatemala, Honduras, or El Salvador, for instance, are more susceptible to changes in the resource base than others, due to social and economic identities and hierarchies.

Finally, the question of whether such climate-related migration will lead to violence very much depends on the conditions in the receiving country—in this case, the U.S. (but also Mexico). The research notes that violence is more likely when the receiving country has a strong exclusionary identity, making citizens unwilling to accept migrants and fearful of an “erosion of traditions, customs and institutions by an influx of migrants from another cultural background.” This characterization aptly describes the views of many people in the U.S. who, following Trump, insist on a border wall to keep migrants out, viewing them as dangerous criminals—or at the very least as undeserving of entry into the country. Furthermore, the Trump administration’s decision to militarize the U.S. response to the migrant caravan, by stationing U.S. troops on the border, blatantly escalates the encounter between those migrating from Central America and those “receiving” them—clear evidence that the likelihood of violence in response to “climate migration” depends as much on the conditions in the receiving country as on the migrants themselves.

Talking Points:

  • The claim that there is a straightforward causal relationship between climate change, migration, and violent conflict is too simplistic.
  • The characteristics of particular population movements in conjunction with the conditions in receiving countries together influence how likely it is that violent conflict will result.
  • Different levels of vulnerability and adaptation to climate change are important factors influencing whether a group will migrate in response to environmental changes or resource scarcity.
  • The scenarios most likely to result in violent conflict are those where either permanent climate refugees or climate-affected migrants—those most likely to compete for scarce resources—arrive in areas with extreme resource scarcity, a recent history of violent conflict, or exclusionary/anti-immigrant identities and ideologies, especially when these migrants might shift the identity balance in an existing identity conflict.

Practical Implications:

One crucial insight that emerges from this research is that violent conflict is not an inevitable result of climate change, as climate change does not automatically lead to migration, and migration does not automatically lead to violent conflict. This finding does not, however, mean that we should be complacent about the security implications of climate change; rather, it reminds us that there are conditions that we (people, societies) can influence. Neither climate change nor violent conflict are simply “natural” phenomena. It is useful to remind ourselves, therefore, of that over which we do have control: the volume of greenhouse gases we are emitting into the atmosphere; the vulnerability of different groups of people to the effects of climate change and the presence or absence of effective adaptation infrastructure (physical, economic, social, and so on); the immigration policies in place to welcome (or deter) migrants; and the ideological and physical responses to immigrants when they arrive in one’s country (inclusive versus exclusive identities, a military or humanitarian response, and so on). These are all human-made problems—with human-made solutions.

For those of us in industrialized countries who act primarily as receiving regions (and who, it is worth adding, are historically responsible for the vast amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere and therefore for the detrimental climate effects unfolding around the world), this research draws attention especially to immigration policies and their security implications. If violent conflict is more likely where exclusionary ideologies/identities exist and where military responses predominate, then it makes sense—even if just from a security perspective, but also as a matter of justice—to foster more welcoming and inclusive ideologies that will not pit “natives” and “migrants” against one another and to not treat what is essentially a humanitarian crisis as a military threat.

Finally, this research draws into focus how immigration policy and climate policy are fundamentally related. If (certain) U.S. citizens are worried about too many people coming across the U.S. border, perhaps they should focus their attention on strengthening the U.S.’s commitment to the Paris Agreement and weaning the global economy off fossil fuels rather than on building a wall.

Continued Reading:

Key Words: climate change; migration; violent conflict

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