Migrants, Environment, and Mobility

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Editor: Barbara J. McNicol
Date: 2021
Document Type: Topic overview
Pages: 2
Content Level: (Level 4)

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Migrants, Environment, and Mobility

Presently, the world is suffering from the highest number of refugees (people forcibly displaced from their homes) in human history, and a fear of this movement is shaping politics around the globe. Many of these are environmental refugees or climate refugees who are being forced away from homes due to changes in their environments. These changes can come in the form of drought, weather pattern changes, or reduced access to food and shelter due to the consequences of natural disasters. These changes, in general, compromise citizens' well-being and quality of life. Together with political tensions, these changes cause people to become refugees, often driven from their homelands.

Examples of countries that have produced environmental and climate refugees are Syria, Nigeria, and Iraq. Syria's civil war (which has forced more than a quarter of that country's 24 million people to leave their homes) has roots in global warming, a changing climate that has spurred drought and destroyed the area's agricultural base. This is true also in Nigeria and Iraq, where disruptive land changes due to climate played a role in the rise of ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant). Under the right circumstances, environmental and political changes converge to create major migrations within countries or to other countries of the world.

The erosion of sustainable lifestyles and livelihoods (the ability to support oneself with the biological necessities of life) is a major factor in a worldwide surge of environmental or climate refugees. John R. Wennersten and Denise Robbins's work in the journal Science titled “Rising Tides: Climate Refugees in the Twenty-First Century” makes a case that with a changing climate, the likelihood of extreme weather events will increase, affecting people's lives all around the globe. The authors suggest that some areas will likely become unlivable or insufficient to support quality livelihoods. This means that many people may choose to or be forced to leave their homes and move elsewhere ( Wiegel 2017 ).

These may not be solely concerns for people of “other countries.” In 2013 the World Bank (WB) released a report listing ten cities in the world that may incur the highest costs for damage from sea-level rise. These cities were listed as Miami, New York City, New Orleans, Tampa, and Boston (all in the United States); Shenzen and Guangzhou, China; Mumbai, India; and Nagoya and Osaka, Japan. The WB also surveyed prospective damage for 136 large coastal Page 25  |  Top of Articlecities and concluded that damage could rise to $1 trillion a year. Directed by WB economist Stephane Hallegatte, with the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), the study warned, “Coastal cities face a high risk from increasingly costly flooding as sea levels rise amid climate change. Their current defenses will not be enough as the water level rises” ( “10 Coastal Cities” 2013 ). Many of these cities are at risk of becoming unlivable, not only because of rising seas but also due to the possibility of subsiding (sinking) land.

Climate Change as a Trigger of Violent Conflict

Climate change is increasingly thought of as a security issue and that the uncertainty of changing climate and weather patterns may increase the risk of violent conflict for some countries. As a trigger to violent conflict, climate change may be linked to a vulnerability of location, social diversity and cultural integration, access to ecosystem services (services provided by the environment for people) and/or availability of natural resources that provide these services of food, shelter and clean water.

The Syrian civil war is one example of a country where climate-related crises have been fundamental to the formation of violent conflict. Also, violent conflicts in East Africa can be traced to drought, changing rainfall patterns, and scarcity of resources in general. A paper in the Proceedings of the National Association of Sciences traced conflict and climate generally to societies with existing social and political conflicts that fracture along ethnic lines. In this paper, Schleussner et al. ( 2016 ) supported climate change as having a direct role as a triggering mechanism for violent conflict. They stated:

This … is likely to be exacerbated by anthropogenic climate change and climate-related natural disasters. Ethnic divides might serve as predetermined conflict lines in the case of rapidly emerging societal tensions arising from disruptive events like natural disasters. Here, we hypothesize that climate-related disaster occurrence enhances armed-conflict outbreak risk in ethnically fractionalized countries. ( Schleussner et al. 2016 )

“This debate comes up time and again—is climate change really something like a trigger for violent conflict?” asked Hans Joachim Schellnhuber, director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (in Harvey 2016 ). Schellnhuber conducted a study that applied climatic criteria to a list of armed conflicts between 1980 and 2010 and, by analyzing each disaster, found a significant link between climate disasters and the outbreak of violent conflict. This was specifically in countries with high degrees of ethnic fractionalization. Schellnhuber concluded that about 23% of armed conflicts in highly ethnically divided nations coincided with climate-related disasters. “We cannot explain the full complexity of the emergence of violent conflict, but here we have found something really robust, a factor that really matters,” Schellnhuber said (quoted in Harvey 2016 ).

Bruce E. Johansen

Further Reading

Harvey, Chelsea. 2016. “How Climate Disasters Can Drive Violent Conflict around the World.” Washington Post. July 25, 2016. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/energy-environment/wp/2016/07/25/how-climate-disasters-can-drive-violent-conflict-around-the-world/ .

Schleussner, Carl-Friedrich, Donges, Jonathan F., Donner, Reik V., and Schellnhuber, Hans Joachim. 2016. “Armed-Conflict Risks Enhanced by Climate-related Disasters in Ethnically Fractionalized Countries.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. 113, 30. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1601611113 .

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Gale Document Number: GALE|CX8251100021