The Role Of Climate Change In Conflict & Displacement

buildings in Aleppo, Syria

Why It Matters 

There is a rising consensus that climate change can exacerbate existing social and political unrest within a nation, leading to conflict. Climate change places strain on food, water, energy and health security, contributing to conditions that lead to conflict.

Climate change is increasingly seen as a threat multiplier, exacerbating underlying issues. A key example of this is the ongoing conflict in Syria. A 2017 Environmental Justice Foundation report discusses the impact of climate change, drought, had a negative impact on food security and contributed to the war – alongside other facts. It looks at how this led to 5 million people leaving Syria and the additional internal displacement of 6.6 million people.


The original source is a report, which took the findings of multiple reports: ‘Beyond Borders: Our changing climate – its role in conflict and displacement’, from the Environmental Justice Foundation (EJF) 

Key Takeaways: 

Here, we have summarised the key takeaways to give you an overview of the EJF’s findings in order to help you understand the multifaceted and complex issue where climate change plays a role in mass displacement of people, using Syria as an example. 

Key points from the EJF’s report: 

  • There are a number of ways in which climate change impacts an area and community. A 2017 G7 commissioned report named these the ‘7 compound climate-fragility risks’. They found that climate change has the following effects: 
  1. It increases local resource competition. 
  2. It creates/increases livelihood insecurity and migration. 
  3. It leads to extreme weather. 
  4. It creates volatility in food prices. 
  5. It creates conflict at transboundary waters – river basins, lakes and other water sources shared by two or more countries.
  6. It causes sea level rise and coastal degradation, limiting/removing liveable areas. 
  7. It causes new climate policies which can have unintended effects on struggling populations.
  • Climate change is a threat multiplier, further highlighting underlying issues in countries.
    • A study by Hsiang et al. (2013) suggested a rise in global temperature could lead to a 56% increase in the frequency of internal conflicts on a global scale. This includes conflicts over food and water shortages as well as conflicts arising as a result of religion and culture. 
  • Forced migration, known as displacement, is a significant effect of climate change. We are already seeing displacement due to climate change around the world:
    • Weather related hazards (floods, drought, hurricanes), as a result of increasing global temperatures, displaced 21.7 million people, per year, globally, between 2008 and 2017. 
    • It is estimated that 1.4 billion more people could be forced to leave their homes as a result of poor climate conditions. This estimation is based on: population growth, submerging coastal zones, decline in natural resources and urban sprawl. 
  • The example of Syria shows the impact of climate change on displacement over many years.
    • 1.3 to 1.5 million people were already forced to migrate from drought-stricken regions of Syria, before the war began.
  • Syria entered its 7th year of civil war in 2017, and shows the impact of half a century of governing by a corrupt regime, the effects of drought and water scarcity. It had the following consequences:
    • Drought put pressure on the already overexploited aquifers (underground layers of permeable rock from which water can be extracted via wells) leading to soil loss – as water was pumped out, it meant that wasn’t enough to replenish the soil and keep it fertile enough for crop growth.
    • People moved to the outskirts of cities to find work, cities that were already overcrowded and struggling to cope with refugees from the Iraq war.
    • The Syrian uprising took place amongst the most impoverished and marginalised neighbourhoods, with high concentrations of migrants who lacked resources or access to work to earn a living. 
    • Since 2011, half the country’s pre-war population (more than 11 million) have been killed or forced to flee their homes, with a further 6 million internally displaced. 
  • Climate change is fast becoming one of the most pressing issues on the international agenda. Its nature as a threat multiplier, not only jeopardises the fundamental human rights of populations but also pushes some of the world’s poorest deeper into poverty. 
  • Existing international human rights frameworks do not have the sufficient scope to protect the areas affected by climate change and so regulatory measures must be established and enforced. 

The Solutions: 

Big Picture solutions

Currently, there is not a clear global dataset on the displacement of people by the onset of climate extremes, such as sea level rise and desertification. This will be needed for us to fully understand the impact. The Environmental Justice foundation has argued for the development of a new legally binding agreement to provide a necessary response to climate migration. One that takes into account all of the variables that could trigger the onset of migrants moving in response to poor environmental conditions. 

Currently, migration due to climate change is often classed as economic migration, which fails to acknowledge that economic conditions may be the result of climate change. Recently, there has been a movement towards the recognition of climate refugees with a growing global awareness. Sweden has taken the lead with this recognition. Since 2005 it has provided the possibility for people to be considered in need of protection if they are unable to return to their home country because of an environmental disaster. 

Individual actions

Individual actions are hard to take in direct response to the issue of climate change related conflict and displacement. You can take actions that address the underlying factor: climate change (in the various ways, such as using public transport and reducing household waste). 

References and Sources: 

The main report for the article is: 

By Niamh Moody

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