Revisiting and Reinforcing the Climate-Conflict-Migration Nexus

The Hague Declaration on Planetary Security signed in 2017 outlines six action areas that require special attention, necessitating “concrete steps” at both global and local levels. The action areas are specifically targeted at geographic regions that are relatively more vulnerable than others due to their conflict sensitivity. At the same time, the declaration makes a special case for working towards enhanced coordination on migration, affected by climate-related security risks, which is emerging as one of the biggest issues that humankind faces presently.

Until recently, the linkage between climate change and migration has largely been contested, primarily due to the lack of quantifiable, empirical evidence. Much of the focus had been on the island nations whose populations could be and are already affected by storm surges and sea level rise. Similarly, forced migration from countries of West Asia such as Syria and Iraq due to political turmoil and violent conflict has also been linked to climate change in several studies. Yet, without a robust evidence base, this kind of conflict determinism was met with more criticism than acceptance.

However, a study published in Global Environmental Change in December 2018 (and summarised here), attempts to assess the determinants of refugee flows and asserts that “climatic conditions, by affecting drought severity and the likelihood of armed conflict, played a significant role as an explanatory factor for asylum seeking” during 2010-12. It generates statistical data that establishes “the causal path from climate change to violent conflict and cross-border migration” by specifically looking into the Arab Spring. This is perhaps the first scientific paper that brings out the causal link between climate change and asylum-seeking empirically in a particular context – Western Asia and Northern Africa. It concludes that “climate change thus will not generate asylum seeking everywhere but likely in a country undergoing political transformation where conflict represents a form of population discontent towards inefficient response of the government to climate impacts.” Drawing the link between political transformation and inefficient response of the government towards climate variabilities, this study has been able to put a spotlight on the relevance of factoring efficient climate action in policies concerning migration, without overblowing the effect of climate change on migration.

The study can bridge the gap between causes, effects and processes in climate migration studies that has been plaguing meaningful action on the issue. The linkages are complex as they are not always linear and are affected by intervening variables. The impact of climate change on migration can be expressed in terms of its influence through other dynamics (political, social, economic, demographic etc.), but the interactions between them cannot be considered homogenous. A recent study published by International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD), involving over 350 researchers and policy experts and 185 organisations claims that “two-thirds” of the Himalayan glaciers could melt by 2100, if greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions are not reduced. It goes on to state that even if the targets of the Paris Agreement are achieved, “one-third” of the glaciers are expected to recede. These glaciers that feed the major rivers of South and Southeast Asia are critical for the survival of more than 250 million people in the region.

Many parts of this region are already experiencing severe water stress and consequently, rural-to-urban migration due to crop failures. The study draws clear linkages between environmental and climate hazards and migration, quoting the case studies of Chittagong Hill Tracts of Bangladesh (affected by “irregular rainfall, temperature rise, deforestation, river erosion, landslide, drought/lowering of water level and flash floods”), and Chitwan valley of Nepal among others. However, these demographic movements can at best be characterised as “local mobility”, at times leading to internal (other districts of the same country) or overseas migration. In fact, studies have shown that communities such as farmers have been using labour migration as an adaptation tool/strategy to develop resilience to climate change, as concurred by the study on The Hindu Kush Himalaya Assessment Mountains, Climate Change, Sustainability and People. Floods and droughts caused by climate variability in the region have the potential to intermingle with the existing political, economic, social and demographic problems, causing both internal and cross-border migration.

After the adoption of the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration (GCM) by the UN in 2018, much needs to be done in the direction of mainstreaming climate change in it and other agreements, mechanisms and institutions that deal with migration and displacement. The fact that a climate migrant or climate refugee is not legally recognised will continue to come in the way of institutionalising policy responses and mechanisms that are imperative in light of unprecedented migration waves across the globe, although efforts have been made in this direction in a few countries and regional bodies. The African Union, for instance, has incorporated environmental issues in its migration policy framework and plan of action, aimed at improved data collection and effective mitigation strategies. Nevertheless, the lack of universal legal recognition has also rendered collection of official data on the number of people that have moved from their homes due to climate change directly or socio-economic and/or political changes (including conflict) triggered or exacerbated by climate change difficult, especially when it comes to international migration.

Even while crafting global responses to climate change and its impacts, it is equally important to plunge into the local and regional settings that are in need of context-specific policies and frameworks. Countries that are experiencing outflows or inflows or both, as a result of various dynamics, including climate-related security risks, are in need of different types of assistance, whether is in the form of knowledge, finance or capacity. Planetary security requires more holistic and comprehensive solutions that take into account both human and ecological security, which have to be integrated with national security strategies as much as regional security architectures and international security mechanisms.   


Dr. Dhanasree Jayaram is Postdoctoral Researcher at the Institute of Political, Historical and International Studies hosted by the University of Lausanne, Switzerland; Co-Coordinator at the Centre for Climate Studies and Assistant Professor at the Department of Geopolitics and International Relations, Manipal Academy of Higher Education, Karnataka, India.


The Planetary Security Conference will take place on 19th and 20th February 2019 under the theme #Doable, seeking to catalyse policy adjustment and action on the ground tackling security risks emanating from climate change and other environmental stresses.

[The views expressed in this article are personal.]