Climate, Conflict, and Forced Migration

Guy J. Abel, Michael Brottrager, Jesus Crespo Cuaresma, and Raya Muttarak

Global Environmental Change, Volume 54 (2019), Pages 239-249


There is growing public interest in climate as a driver of conflict and forced migration, however there is little empirical evidence that demonstrates a causal path from climate to conflict to forced migration. This paper assesses the determinants of refugee flows to examine the causal link between climate, conflict and forced migration. Exploiting data on asylum applications for the years 2006–2015 for 157 countries, the authors employ a gravity-type model with endogenous selection to: (a) estimate the impact of climate on conflict; and (b) assess how conflict influences forced migration.

Key results:

  • There is no empirical evidence of a robust link between climatic shocks, conflict and asylum seeking for the full period 2006–2015.
  • Climatic conditions, by affecting drought severity and the likelihood of armed conflict, played a significant role as an explanatory factor for asylum seeking only in the period 2011–2015. The severity of drought episodes is mostly able to explain conflicts occurring in the interval 2010–2012 and so appear related to the emergence of armed conflict in the context of the Arab spring and the Syrian war, during which many countries were undergoing political transformation.

The authors conclude that climatic shocks will not generate forced displacement everywhere, and the causal relationship is highly dependent on the specific country context. They argue that climatic variations are more likely to generate asylum seeker flows in countries undergoing political transformation where conflict represents a form of population discontent towards inefficient response of the government to climate impacts. The authors also suggest that policies to improve the adaptive capacity to deal with the effects of climate change in developing countries may have additional returns by reducing the likelihood of conflict and consequent refugee outflows.