An Afghan boy pumps water in Sakhi village on the outskirts of Mazar-i-Sharif on July 19. Thousands of farmers are migrating to cities as Afghanistan experiences its worst drought in at least a decade. (Farshad Usyan/AFP/Getty Images)

This week’s United Nations climate report, drawing on almost 100 leading scientists around the world, keeps climate change in the headlines — as do Hurricanes Florence and Michael, Typhoon Mangkhut, and the heat waves and wildfires in the United States and Europe in 2018.

With the intensified debates on the consequences of climate change comes a renewed concern about climate-change-induced migration. Will the effects of climate change prompt large flows of environmental migrants and, in turn, increase the risk of violence and conflict?

While few, if any, migrants are directly or deliberately associated with conflict, it could occur because newcomers increase competition for jobs, public services and other scarce resources such as housing. The inflow of migrants can also undermine social cohesion, especially when the arrival of migrants upsets an “unstable” ethno-political balance.

We interviewed people in five countries about environmental change and migration

But the likelihood of more migration and subsequent conflict depends in part on the people affected by climate change and the way the environment will change. In our research, we interviewed more than 3,500 individuals, both migrants and non-migrants, in five developing countries about their perceptions of environmental change and their experiences.

We talked to individuals to focus in on whether it is environmental change that triggers internal migration and then conflict. The existing literature tends to use more aggregated data to study how environmental changes affect migration and conflict. This implies investigating whether regions that received more environmental in-migration also saw more conflict. The challenge here is to show that environmental change indeed triggers migration in the first place and that these kinds of migrants then contribute to actual violence in their new host regions.

Here are takeaways from our research:

1. People affected by climate change often try to adapt — to avoid migrating.

We observe that climate-induced environmental change does not necessarily lead to more migration. On the contrary, individuals/families usually try their best to adapt to environmental changes, if this is possible.

But adaptation often is possible only with slow-onset and prolonged environmental changes — like droughts or changes to water/soil salinity. In such cases, environmental degradation builds up gradually over months and years and thus gives individuals time to react and, possibly, adapt. Sudden-onset and rapid environmental events, such as hurricanes or floods, on the other hand, rarely leave people any other option than to migrate — chances to adapt tend to be small, at least in the short run.

So why do people choose adaptation over migration when their environment deteriorates? The main reason is that individuals are typically strongly attached to their location because of physical assets — their houses or farmland — and social ties to family and friends. And migration is usually a costly alternative, as people need the resources necessary to undertake the move. Thus, if mitigation and/or adaptation to a given environmental problem is possible, people tend to take that path.

2. For those who migrate, the type of environmental event they experienced matters.

We then focused on migrants and learned that the type of the environmental event they experienced also matters for whether they perceive conflict at their new location. We study conflict perceptions, because at the individual level it is hardly possible to gather data on actual conflict behavior, e.g., fighting.

In particular, we asked migrants whether they faced any challenges at their new locations. These perceived challenges varied from unemployment to labor exploitation to actual violent conflict in their new location. While some of these perceptions might not necessarily be directly related to real conflict (e.g., economic hardship), other types of conflict perceptions, like reported actual conflict, in their new location do.

We find that migrants who experienced gradual, long-term environmental events in their former locations are more likely to perceive conflict in their new location, compared with those having experienced sudden, short-term environmental events.

Here’s why this happens. We believe that long-term environmental events hit some people harder than others. Think of how farmers vs. civil servants might be differently affected by gradually deteriorating environmental conditions because of climate change. Such environmental events exacerbate actual or perceived inequalities in a society.

The key concept linking inequality to conflict is relative deprivation. This means the extent to which people become discontent by the widening gap between their actual level of economic achievement and the level they feel they deserve — and could have achieved under better environmental conditions.

These feelings of suffering typically develop over a long period and arise because individuals differ in their adaptive capacities and their exposure to these environmental changes. Consequently, some individuals can become frustrated because some segments of the affected population can better adapt and thus are able to maintain their standards of living despite declining environmental conditions.

In contrast, sudden, short-term environmental events are less likely to foster feelings of relative deprivation — many individuals are affected equally, and exposure to these events is typically limited to a short time. Therefore, despite their potential to cause immense, absolute amounts of destruction and harm, short-term environmental events do not seem to lead to heightened conflict perceptions among migrants at their new location.

What does this mean for policies to deal with climate change and migration?

Responses to climate change vary from general pleas to the international community to cut greenhouse gases now and concrete plans to reduce emissions, to suggestions to enhance resilience to weather-related events for rural inhabitants. All of these are important responses, though our research emphasizes the relevance of promoting adaptation opportunities for those affected by climatic changes.

Many governments agree and increasingly incorporate climate-adaptation plans into broader regional development policies. A recent World Bank report on climate change and migration reveals that, given adequate development opportunities, including adaptation measures, internal migration in sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia and Latin America triggered by climate change could be reduced by up to 80 percent.

This prediction is in line with our findings on the impact of environmental change on internal migration. Furthermore, the World Bank report warns that the consequences of increasing internal migration for the development of these regions, if no countermeasures are taken, could be dire — infrastructure and social support systems could come under immense stress with potential adverse effects on the political stability of these regions. Again, this echoes our analysis of how environmental changes affect conflict perceptions.

Gabriele Spilker (@gabi_spilker) is associate professor of international politics at the Department of Political Science and Sociology of the University of Salzburg, Austria.

Vally Koubi is a professor at the Center of Comparative and International Studies (CIS), ETH Zurich and Department of Economics, University of Bern, Switzerland. 

Lena Schaffer is assistant professor of inter- and transnational relations at the University of Luzern, Switzerland. 

Tobias Böhmelt is professor of political science in the Department of Government at the University of Essex, U.K.