Climate Change, Migration, and Civil Strife

Curr Environ Health Rep. 2020 Dec;7(4):404-414. doi: 10.1007/s40572-020-00291-4.


Purpose of review: In this article, we examine the intersection of human migration and climate change. Growing evidence that changing environmental and climate conditions are triggers for displacement, whether voluntary or forced, adds a powerful argument for profound anticipatory engagement.

Recent findings: Climate change is expected to displace vast populations from rural to urban areas, and when life in the urban centers becomes untenable, many will continue their onward migration elsewhere (Wennersten and Robbins 2017; Rigaud et al. 2018). It is now accepted that the changing climate will be a threat multiplier, will exacerbate the need or decision to migrate, and will disproportionately affect large already vulnerable sections of humanity. Worst-case scenario models that assume business-as-usual approaches to climate change predict that nearly one-third of the global population will live in extremely hot (uninhabitable) climates, currently found in less than 1% of the earth's surface mainly in the Sahara. We find that the post-World War II regime designed to receive European migrants has failed to address population movement in the latter half of the twentieth century fueled by economic want, globalization, opening (and then closing) borders, civil strife, and war. Key stakeholders are in favor of using existing instruments to support a series of local, regional, and international arrangements to protect environmental migrants, most of whom will not cross international borders. The proposal for a dedicated UN agency and a new Convention has largely come from academia and NGOs. Migration is now recognized not only as a consequence of instability but as an adaptation strategy to the changing climate. Migration must be anticipated as a certainty, and thereby planned for and supported.

Keywords: Adaptation; Civil strife; Climate change; Climate refugees; Migration.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Acclimatization
  • Climate Change*
  • Human Migration / statistics & numerical data
  • Human Migration / trends*
  • Humans
  • Population Dynamics
  • Social Problems / prevention & control
  • Vulnerable Populations