Study links climate change and war refugees

By Jean Chemnick | 01/24/2019 07:10 AM EST

A group of about 200 migrants walking north in a caravan this past fall toward the border of Guatemala and Mexico.

A group of about 200 migrants walking north in a caravan this past fall toward the border of Guatemala and Mexico. Biba/EFE/Newscom

Researchers in the United Kingdom have found the strongest link yet between climate change, conflict and migration.

The report released yesterday by authors at the University of East Anglia looked at asylum applications for 157 countries between 2006 and 2015. It found that in certain years and certain contexts, warming-related drought sparked conflicts that sent refugees abroad.

The study found the clearest climate fingerprint on the violent conflicts that erupted in western Asia and in sub-Saharan Africa between 2011 and 2015 and that resulted in migration. Climate change had a hand in the Arab Spring uprising in Tunisia, Libya, Yemen and Syria between 2010 and 2012.


Outward migration after those conflicts is indirectly linked to climate change, according to the report.

"We can say the effect of climate change on migration is causal, and it operates through conflict," said Raya Muttarak, one of the report’s co-authors.

She stressed that climate change may also contribute to low agricultural yields and gross domestic product — conditions that might set the stage for conflict or compel people to leave a country. Political and other factors may make a country more or less prone to violent conflict or outward migration. The research accounts for those factors but focuses on places where climate-fueled conflict cost human life.

Syria is a case in point. Its bloody eight-year-old civil war followed years of droughts and crop failures that caused an internal migration of Syrian farmers into city slums already crowded with Iraqi war refugees. President Bashar al-Assad’s response to the humanitarian and economic hardships led to political unrest that then erupted into war. Refugees of that conflict continue to seek asylum in neighboring countries, the European Union and beyond.

The UEA study comes at a time when defense agencies, global finance and the United Nations are all grappling with the threat climate change poses to global stability. The Pentagon sent Congress a report last week calling warming "a national security issue with potential impacts to Department of Defense missions, operational plans, and installations" (Greenwire, Jan. 18; see related story).

And climate issues, ranging from more weather disasters to scarce water resources, topped a list of economic threats ranked by business and finance leaders at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland (Climatewire, Jan. 22).

Tomorrow, the U.N. Security Council is set to hold a debate in New York on "addressing the impacts of climate-related disasters on international peace and security."

The United Nations’ most influential body has so far been hesitant to make the link between climate and security, and observers say it hasn’t built the capacity and expertise needed to fully integrate climate concerns into its work. Doing so will require the council to spend resources and pay attention to stressors and countries it’s had little to do with before, like the Dominican Republic.

The Caribbean nation has made climate change the top priority of its first turn on the Security Council, which began this month and includes chairing Friday’s debate. But while small island nations in the Caribbean and South Pacific are ground zero for climate-induced disasters like sea-level rise, they’ve rarely ranked as hotbeds of terrorism or armed conflict.

Still, Camilla Born, senior policy adviser on risk and security issues at the U.K.-based E3G, said the Security Council must move beyond its 20th-century conception of what constitutes a security risk to look at nontraditional issues like displacement and migration, both of which can be destabilizing.

"The reality is that climate change is shaping the conversations that they’re having in the Security Council now," she said. "And increasingly, that’s becoming unavoidable."