How climate change and mass migration pose risks to peace

Migration driven by climate change is expected to rise substantially by 2050, raising concerns for the state of peacefulness worldwide.

The impacts of climate change pose a major challenge to peacefulness in the coming decade, according to the Global Peace Index 2019. One of the most pressing concerns relates to the growth in climate-induced migration. New population displacements due to natural disasters exceeded those caused by violence every year from 2008 to 2017. Almost 20 million people were estimated to be displaced due to natural disasters as of 2017. The majority of these displacements were caused by floods and storms, although 2017 marked the first year of recorded drought displacement, with 1.2 million people displaced in Burundi, Ethiopia, Madagascar and Somalia.

The number of people migrating due to climate change is expected to rise substantially in the coming years. The World Bank estimates that climate change will create up to 86 million additional migrants in sub-Saharan Africa, 40 million in South Asia and 17 million in Latin America as agricultural conditions and water availability deteriorate across these regions, reaching a total figure of 143 million climate migrants by 2050.

Population displacement of this large scale leads to resource pressure on the towns, countries and communities receiving migrants and can exacerbate existing instability. In countries lacking the institutional capacity to manage an influx of migrants or already engaged in internal conflict, migration of this scale greatly increases the potential for violence.

Research from the Global Peace Index report shows the 10 countries with the lowest levels of peacefulness and a corresponding risk to an extreme climate hazard. In Afghanistan, Somalia and Syria, drought is of primary concern, while Libya and Yemen face high risk of tsunamis. Iraq, Russia, Democratic Republic of the Congo, South Sudan and Central African Republic are at the highest risk of severe flooding. Countries with low levels of peacefulness tend to have a lower coping capacity, which puts them at higher risk to a further deterioration in peace.

Syria serves as a prominent example of how climate-related issues can intensify existing social and political grievances and lead to unrest, particularly in fragile countries with poor governance. From 1999 to 2011, Syria underwent two long-term droughts. About 75 per cent of farmers experienced total crop failure and in the northeast, farmers lost 80 per cent of their livestock. Extreme rural to urban migration ensued, with an estimated 1.3 to 1.5 million rural citizens migrating to urban centres by 2011. In 2011, a World Bank survey of Syrian migrants showed that 85.25 per cent of respondents used migration as an “adaptation strategy.” Frustration with the government response to these environmental and development challenges sparked unrest in Syria, with the uprising notably beginning in poor, marginalised neighbourhoods with high numbers of rural migrants.

In Ethiopia, droughts in the mid-1970s and 1980s and subsequent famines led to waves of migration from drought-stressed areas, both voluntary and government-forced. In this case, both climatic and political factors influenced population displacement and international migration. As a result of this instability, violence and insecurity increased in neighbouring countries, destabilising the entire region.

In Central America, the livelihoods of more than five million small-scale farmers in Mexico were negatively impacted by climate-related variables, namely drought from 2002 to 2012. As a result, internal migration flowed to the slums of Mexico City, Guadalajara, and Monterrey and internationally to the United States. With the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change projecting that Mexican land available for corn production will decrease by between 13 and 27 per cent by 2050, it is expected that 3.25 to 6.75 million farmers will lose their livelihoods, driving further environmentally-forced national and international migration.

Isabella Ragazzi

Research Assistant

Isabella Ragazzi is a student at Northeastern University, completing a Bachelor in International Affairs and Economics, with a minor in Russian.  Her main research interests lie in environmental policy and social justice issues. She hopes to pursue a career in sustainable environmental development, specifically with regards to agriculture and food policy.  At the Institute for Economics and Peace, Isabella contributed to the 2019 Global Peace Index.

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