Climate change and migration: the big picture

10:10 sent some of our old solar panels to Greece to be made into a solar-powered phone charger for refugees. But what is the big picture when it comes to climate change and the current situation?

Does climate change cause natural disasters?

Climate change holds the power to alter patterns of disasters. It’s hard to say any one disaster happened because of climate change alone, but it is certainly true that climate change will increase the frequency, length and severity of some kinds of disasters. This will then have impacts on patterns of migration and displacement.

Exactly how this happens will depend on particular situations. Disasters such as flooding or hurricanes leave people with no choice but to flee to the nearest safe location to survive. Slower-burning disasters such as water shortages or droughts give people slightly more choice about who they leave with and where they might go. In both cases, climate change plays a role in making the situations worse.

Is there a link between the current refugee situation and climate change?

Climate change is one of many complex causes that led to people fleeing Syria.

In 2015 some newspapers claimed there was a link between climate change, drought and the people fleeing Syria. It was based on a research paper that claimed the severe drought have caused thousands of rural agricultural workers to move to the cities, putting pressure on the cities’ resources and sparking violence.

The drought did cause lots of people to move to the cities, but it’s not fair to say this was the only chain of events that caused the war and resulting migration. Rural and urban Syrians worked together to overthrow the regime back in 2011 (as opposed to the rural migrants causing friction with the urbanites), and violence spread as the regime tried to quash the rebellion, leading thousands to flee.

The drought at the start of the war played its part, along with many other tragic factors in causing the violence in Syria. Those fleeing Syria are fleeing the war, not the impacts of climate change, but climate change is part of the story.

Will this kind of thing happen more in the future?

Yes. Climate change will only make natural disasters like flooding and droughts more severe, more regular and more unpredictable. The situation in Syria should be a warning. In many countries that are on the edge of violence, the impacts of climate change could tip them over the edge.


Thanks so much to Alex Randall from Climate Migration for all the help writing this! 

Photo: Dfid, creative commons