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Climate Change, Migration, and the Demand for Greater Resources:
Challenges and Responses

Climate change will increasingly threaten humanity’s shared interests and collective security across the globe, but particularly in the least developed countries. Faced with deteriorating conditions, humans have long turned to migration—an ancient adaptive mechanism to which humans could increasingly turn in the face of a changing climate. Cumulative effects of climate change and associated migration have serious implications for stability in nations lacking sufficient financial and human resources or good governance to adequately respond to them. Although there is a need for greater understanding of the causes of migration as well as its resulting economic and political instability, a growing body of evidence already links climate change, migration, and conflict in ways that could undermine governments and stability in key regions. Mitigating and adapting to the overlapping effects of climate change, migration, and conflict demands mobilization of resources by the international community on a scale normally reserved for issues of war and peace.

A Challenge to Global Governance

Overlapping impacts of climate change, human migration driven in part by environmental crises, rising social tensions stoked by migration, and competition for increasingly scarce resources are reshaping today’s international environment. These trends will add to pressures already facing local and national governments for decades to come. Supporting basic governance in light of these challenges requires advanced and developing nations to thoroughly revise traditional concepts of security. Fundamentally, international leaders must deal with climate-driven crises and demographic pressures by mobilizing resources at levels generally reserved for traditional competition between nation-states. However, the international community is not prepared to do so. The full range of public and private international organizations—ranging from the US Agency for International Development (USAID), the World Bank, the Red Cross, Amnesty International, and the World Health Organization—do not have the financial capacity, manpower, or global presence to deal with the myriad effects of climate change. [End Page 99]

Academic research on the topic is growing, but has yet to fully explore direct causal connections between climate change, migration, and human conflict. Even still, overlaying expected outcomes of changing rain patterns, warming temperatures, and projected sea-level rise with current areas of insecurity and conflict as well as existing migratory routes makes clear that climate change, migration, and human conflict are connected. Cumulative effects of these trends are important to consider, particularly as they reach levels that could influence global governance. Facing this nexus, governments’ primary focus should be the well being of people affected by outcomes of climate change and its consequent migration and insecurity.

Recent intelligence reports and simulations—including some conducted by the United States Department of Defense—conclude that vulnerable regions such as sub-Saharan Africa, the Middle East, South Asia, and Southeast Asia will face climate change-driven food shortages, water crises, and catastrophic flooding in the coming decades.1 These changes have potentially destabilizing effects that will impact the United States and the international system as a whole. Such instability could require international humanitarian relief efforts or even military responses—often the default method for delivering aid in crisis situations.

Increasing likelihoods of complex crisis scenarios arising from overlapping effects of environmental degradation, human migration, and social instability lend urgency to attempts at rebalancing traditional tools of defense, diplomacy, and development to more effectively build basic human security. Yet thus far, the international community’s responses have been stymied by a lack of resources, a narrow bilateral focus, and an absence of strategic coordination at the international level.

Successful mobilization will require renewed emphasis on global governance and commitment to modernizing and strengthening the multilateral system. A collective approach is essential to addressing these global challenges, as stressors created by climate change demand investment in economic development, infrastructure, and adaptation and preventive efforts to bolster basic human and livelihood security. One solution is a “sustainable security” approach—a concept this paper will revisit—to address this complex nexus, but the institutional tools and funding structures for such an approach have not yet been developed. Adopting this type of approach will require the United States to refocus its overseas engagement to address slow-moving trends undermining basic human security; transfer greater authorities and funding to agencies in charge of delivering foreign assistance and building resilience to climate change; and revamp institutions to build interdisciplinary country teams able [End Page 100] to address a wide array of overlapping stressors stemming from climate change, migration, and instability.

Worrying Trends and Future Hot Spots: Northwest Africa

These trends are coalescing in particularly troubling ways in northwest Africa, where ongoing climate change exacerbates long-standing environmental and development challenges. According to the United Nations, up to 250 million people in Africa are projected to suffer from water and food insecurity this century and three-quarters of rain-fed arable land in the Sahel will be greatly affected by climate change.2 Rising temperatures, drought, desertification, erosion, flooding, and sea-level rise all threaten different areas along the axis from Nigeria to Morocco.3 Niger and northern Nigeria have faced more frequent droughts and flooding over the last thirty years, along with temperature increases between 0.5 and 1 degree Celsius.4 Furthermore, the Niger River faces roughly 10 percent diminishing flows, a trend that creates an existential concern for those depending on its waters. If current water consumption trends continue, withdrawals from the Niger basin will increase six-fold by 2025, with profound implications for the region. Lake Chad—a source of life for twenty-five million people—is drying up, now down to one-twentieth its 1960 size.5 Northern Algeria and Morocco, home to the population centers and most of the agriculture in both countries, may see reductions in rainfall of 10 to 20 percent by 2025.6 Finally, Lagos in the south and many parts of Algeria and Morocco’s northern coasts are under threat from rising sea levels and saltwater intrusion.7

These environmental trends strike at the heart of the region’s fragile socioeconomic and political stability, traditional rural economies, and family life. Nigeria is losing over 1,350 square miles of land to desertification each year, a pace of loss that may increase with climate change.8 With 70 percent of Nigeria’s population reliant on agriculture for their livelihood and 90 percent of Niger’s workforce reliant on rain-fed agriculture, this represents a fundamental threat to rural life.9 Frequent droughts impoverish many and contribute to migration. It is hard to understand Africa’s instability without grappling with these underlying trends.

The impacts of climate change are not always direct, nor are they easily parsed from trends such as globalization or urbanization. Furthermore, the effects of climate change—including their influence on migratory patterns—are not divisible by clearly defined boundaries. For example, long-standing and well-established migratory routes tie together North Africa and sub-Saharan Africa. Reports indicate that some sixty-five thousand migrants pass through Agadez, Niger annually on their way north to North Africa and Europe.10 While the causality of migration is incredibly complex, it is clear that deteriorating environmental conditions contribute [End Page 101] to decisions to migrate—an ancient human adaptive mechanism. Given that fact, the trends outlined above could increase migrant flows and strains on governments and societies.

Of course, these flows combine with demographic trends—in particular, projected rapid population growth throughout the Sahel and West Africa—that exacerbate strains on countries along this axis. Niger has the world’s second-highest fertility rate and a median age of just fifteen years; its population is expected to quadruple in the next century.11 Nigeria’s population is expected to double by 2040.12 Population growth represents a near-constant source of added tension, increasing pressures on already-scarce natural resources like water, land, and food, and contributing to migratory flows, which can have destabilizing effects when governments and social safety nets are unable to respond effectively.

These environmental and demographic developments—particularly the dislocation and disruption of rural society—are difficult to ignore when assessing political instability across the Sahel. Nigeria, Niger, and Mali face widespread security problems and clashes over water and rangeland commonly accompany disputes more frequently expressed in the rhetoric of ethnic or religious hatred. Niger’s mineral resources have provoked conflict and prompted periodic Tuareg rebellions (as in Mali), with a common complaint that the central government does not provide sufficient relief in the wake of droughts or floods. Further north, clashes have occurred between migrants and police at the borders of the Spanish enclaves on the northern coast. Al-Qaeda has played on this discontent, calling for “liberation” of the areas from Spanish control.13

Worldwide, the academic community continues to explore causal connections between climate change, environmental changes, and migratory patterns. There is ample anecdotal evidence of correlation between climate impacts and migration, but the exact causation of decisions to migrate is difficult to definitively establish. There is not yet a “smoking gun” that can mobilize an appropriate policy response. Irrespective of causality, the picture on the ground in Northwest Africa and other vulnerable regions demands attention. A prudent strategic assessment calls for meaningful engagement with these trends now rather than later. Such efforts would allow the academic community, international organizations, and governments to develop ways to address underlying contributors to instability and pioneer a fire prevention approach rather than calling the default firefighters, the United States Department of Defense.

Climate Security and the “Pivot to Asia”

These trends manifest themselves less directly in developed economies but still demand attention, particularly in areas of strategic focus like the Asia Pacific. India and China are prime examples of how large societies are likely to experience serious development setbacks if action is not taken to adapt to and mitigate the effects of climate change. But both countries also hold the promise of a potential low-carbon alternative path to economic growth, which is an absolute necessity if the world is to avoid unmanageable climate change. [End Page 102] With the Obama administration’s growing focus on the Pacific, specifically on India and China, the prospect of climate-driven crises will occupy more space in both economic and security policy debates.

In India, problems are already visible. Countrywide floods in September 2012 displaced thousands. The same year, widespread drought affected the 60 percent of India’s population reliant on agriculture for their livelihoods, increasing the use of electric pumps to tap groundwater supplies and contributing to higher energy demands across the country.14 The spike in demand was a factor in the massive power outage of July 2012, which left over 600 million without electricity for days on end.15

India’s location, large population, dependence on agriculture, and rapidly growing megacities—many in coastal areas or flood plains—make it one of the world’s most vulnerable countries to climate change. With a population of 1.2 billion and population density of 611 people per square mile (four times the United States average), climate-driven events like storm surges, droughts, and floods have the ability to deeply disrupt the lives of huge numbers of people. Metropolitan centers such as Kolkata, Mumbai, and Chennai are particularly threatened by sea-level rise, prolonged cyclonic activity, and saltwater intrusion.16

In rural areas, slow-onset changes in precipitation and temperature will have an enormous impact on the agriculture sector. A 2009 study by the International Food Policy Research Institute found that climate change may lead to a decline in rice production of approximately twenty million tons (25 percent) and wheat production of over thirty million tons (30 percent) in India through 2050, impacting economic growth and food security.17 Many other countries in Asia face similar vulnerabilities.

In China, fluctuations in precipitation and flooding continue to affect agricultural production. These variations—projected to increase with the effects of climate change—result in inconsistent yields, which subsequently impact international commodity markets. Meanwhile, growing domestic consumption in China limits agricultural exports and increases international prices as China turns to food imports.18 The continued expansion of China’s middle class has contributed to demand and thus to rising costs, to the detriment of those who cannot afford higher prices.

Climate change not only affects China’s food and water security, but also has implications for the nation’s internal migration flows and urbanization. While the country experienced tremendous internal migration in the early 1980s due to labor-market demands stemming from rapid industrialization along the eastern coast, current research shows that internal migration is no longer solely driven by labor demand, but also by environmental changes such as food insecurity, sea-level rise in coastal areas, and extreme weather events.19 Among the consequences of climate change in China are water stress, increased droughts, flooding, increased coastal erosion and saltwater inundation, glacial melt, and shifting agricultural zones that influence drinking water and food supplies.20

These changes have direct human costs. Decreased precipitation and declining runoff in the upper reaches of the Pearl River, Yangtze River, and Yellow [End Page 103] River regions will lead to faster desertification, a process that puts the roughly 200 million people living in already arid and semi-arid areas of China at risk. This is already a massive problem in the Beijing region, where water shortages are more acute than in the Middle East.21 China’s western glaciers are melting quickly due to climate change and are projected to diminish by nearly 30 percent within the next three decades. This will result in the near-term in increased water flows of 20 percent to 30 percent per year and associated flooding while reducing long-term water supplies. The Yellow River and Yangtze River regions are likely to experience mass flooding followed by droughts, as first erosion and then sharply reduced river flows take their toll on the soil.22 Over the long term, the melting of these glaciers poses profound challenges to China’s ability to meet its people’s drinking, agricultural, and general usage needs.

These problems compound others facing the ruling Chinese Communist Party domestically, regionally, and internationally. Climate change exacerbates internal challenges of rapid urbanization, internal migration, and massive pollution, and will complicate China’s path towards continued economic development and a role as a responsible global stakeholder.

How to Respond

In the face of these developments, governments need to design policies and projects that are cost-effective, resilient to climate change, and able to meet rising demands for resources. The traditional Cold War strategic geometry, wherein nation-states or blocs of states vied for influence, is fading from significance. While state-level interaction remains central to the world order and will remain so, many of the big challenges the world faces—from climate change and migration to terrorism, from trafficking to disease, and from resource conflicts to food security—transcend international borders. In this context, security and prosperity is less about force and more about the ability to compel or organize collective action to solve transnational problems. Military force, in particular, is a blunt tool for this task. The United States should broaden its conception of national security to encompass underlying trends that threaten the stability of the rules-based international order, which is the foundation of America’s own security and prosperity.

Debate within the United States government on how to properly engage in addressing the risks created by climate change, migration, and resulting insecurity has finally begun in earnest. The 2010 Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review initiated by then-secretary of state Hillary Clinton was an important first step. For the first time, the Department of State thoroughly engaged in a strategic review to elevate civilian power and focus on human security and livelihood protection. But when it comes to real legal authority and, most importantly, to the allocation of funds [End Page 104] and manpower, the United States remains very much organized along Cold War lines: massively overinvested in traditional hard security capabilities and underinvested in tools designed to build basic human security and prevent conflict. Indeed, this particular nexus demands policy solutions that cut across levels of governance and unite traditionally distinct fields such as defense, diplomacy, and development. In this sense, it poses a uniquely twenty-first century problem that will challenge the United States and the international community to finally break from the Cold War-era understanding of security.

Of course, there are instances, such as in Mali or Somalia, where the situation has deteriorated too far to take preventive action. There are places where it is simply too dangerous to try to address the root causes of insecurity. In these locations, use of military force by the international community in conjunction with local partners to protect local populations and provide the conditions to build basic human security begins to make sense. But the international community, led by the United States, should undertake a much greater effort to avoid reaching this point in other instances. Doing so means making larger investments of people, time, and money in efforts to address underlying drivers of instability.

On-the-ground programs to build resilience include infrastructure investments like irrigation systems, floodwalls and mangrove protection, and housing for migrants. Such programs can contribute to long-term stability in rural areas threatened by effects of climate change. Simple technological and conservation fixes can also have disproportionate effects in bolstering human security and addressing the stressors that underpin conflict and instability. In developing countries wood fuel provides about one-third of total energy. This proportion is higher in poor rural areas, such as parts of Africa, where as much as 80 percent of energy derives from biofuels.23 In this context, providing inexpensive cook stoves and solar lamps to fill the need can reduce deforestation, helping prevent erosion and mitigate climate change while offering tangible evidence of the state’s response to fundamental challenges to human security. Disaster preparedness steps such as prepositioning stocks and investments in emergency airlift and transport capabilities can help allay the political fallout of environmental disasters. By getting ahead of these trends with preventive action, funders like the United States and other developed countries can reduce the frequency and severity of more costly disaster-response or conflict-stabilization efforts.

The United States must lead this effort, as it is the only nation with the capacity to do so globally. However, the United States cannot—and should not—act alone. Addressing these challenges requires emerging powers to become involved in the process. Thankfully, these trends have already begun; BRIC countries (Brazil, Russia, India, and China) collectively doubled humanitarian assistance from 2005 to 2008. The United States should encourage this trend and seek to cooperate. Creating a successful coalition to address climate impacts also requires private sector participation. Official United States assistance accounted for just 11 percent of the country’s total net economic engagement with developing countries in 2010-2011 while private philanthropy accounted for 14 percent.24 Furthermore, private companies are often better at tasks such [End Page 105] as creating and securing supply chains or developing drought-resistant crops than governments are. With this in mind, nations committed to addressing these problems, such as the United States, should incentivize and cultivate cooperation with private actors. Finally, the international community and the United States must introduce greater coherence to aid delivery and funding. As United States assistance programs are structured today, there are too many programs meant to address interrelated issues of climate and security, including USAID, multiple State Department bureaus, the International Military Training to Trans-Saharan Counterterrorism Partnership, Food for Peace, and the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). Creating interagency country teams with flexibility and authority to collectively manage programs and funds would present a more cohesive and constructive path forward in addressing root contributors to instability.

The infrastructure and commitment to address root causes of conflict and instability, such as climate change, rural disruption, and migration needs to match the scale of threats these issues underpin and perpetuate. In this regard, the most important hurdle to shifting funding and authorities within the government to address underlying stressors is a political one. It is difficult to address the imbalance of funding and authorities between military and non-military activities. Spending on foreign assistance lacks a domestic political constituency, particularly in comparison to well-established constituencies advocating for defense spending. Considering this, the United States needs to develop a unified national security budget to ensure non-military forms of engagement get equal consideration.

Finally, there must be more information on direct impacts of climate change and their secondary and tertiary effects, such as migration, staple prices, and rural conflict or disruption. Efforts such as USAID’s Alert Lists, which analyze fragility and future climate trends, are a good start, but research on the topic requires more data to aid forecasting and improve understanding. In the era of big data, it is amazing that policymakers were caught off-guard by the spike in staple prices—caused in part by a remarkable series of abnormal weather patterns—that prompted the 2011 global food crisis.25

In conclusion, the United States should lead the sustainable security drive for both selfish and idealistic reasons. As the global emergency responder, these steps are cost-effective ways to reduce the burden of maintaining global stability. Additionally, as a primary beneficiary of the post-war liberal international order, the United States should respond to trends that threaten to undermine that order’s stability. Doing so will require the country—in coordination with international partners—to overcome a long list of challenges, but it is past time for national governments and global institutions to grapple with a new century of complex crisis scenarios.

Michael Werz

Michael Werz is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress.

Max Hoffman

Max Hoffman is a policy analyst at the Center for American progress.


1. This article draws from the authors’ series of reports on Climate Change, Migration, and Security. See, for example: Michael Werz and Laura Conley, Climate Change, Migration, and Conflict in Northwest Africa: Rising Dangers and Policy Options across the Arc of Tension (Washington, DC: Center for American Progress, 2012), https://www.americanprogress.org/issues/security/report/2012/04/18/11439/climate-change-migration-and-conflict-in-northwest-africa/. [End Page 106]

2. Serigne Tacko Kandji, Louis Verchot, and Jens Louis Verchot, Climate Change and Variability in the Sahel Region: Impacts and Adaptation Strategies in the Agricultural Sector (Nairobi, Kenya: United Nations Environment Program, 2006); United Nations, “International Decade for Action ‘Water for Life’ 2005-2015,” United Nations, last modified November 24, 2014, http://www.un.org/waterforlifedecade/scarcity.shtml.

3. Werz and Conley, “Climate Change, Migration, and Conflict in Northwest Africa.”

4. Kandji, Verchot, and Mackensen, “Climate Change and Variability in the Sahel Region,” 4.

5. Madiodio Niasse, “Climate-Induced Water Conflict Risks in West Africa: Recognizing and Coping with Increasing Climate Impacts on Shared Watercourses” (paper delivered to Human Security and Climate Change workshop, Norway: IUCN-West Africa, 2005).

6. Yonah Alexander, Maghreb & Sahel Terrorism: Addressing the Rising Threat from al-Qaeda & other Terrorisms in North & West/Central Africa (Arlington, VA: Potomac Institute, 2010), 16, http://www.potomacinstitute.org/attachments/524_Maghreb%20Terrorism%20report.pdf.

7. Olakunle Michael Folami, “Climate Change and Inter-Ethnic Conflict Between Fulani Herdsmen and Host Communities in Nigeria” (paper presented at Conference on Climate Change and Security organized by the Norwegian Academic of Sciences and Letters, 2010); Mary O’Neill, “Adaptation is…Protecting Coastal Communities in Northern Morocco,” (Ottawa: International Development Research Centre), http://www.idrc.ca/EN/Resources/Publications/Pages/Article-Details.aspx?PublicationID=726; Sally Brown, Abiy S. Kebede and Robert J. Nicholls, Sea-Level Rise and Impacts in Africa, 2000 to 2100 (Southampton, UK: University of Southampton, 2011), http://www.unep.org/climatechange/adaptation/Portals/133/documents/AdaptCost/9%20Sea%20Level%20Rise%20Report%20Jan%202010.pdf.

8. Oli Brown and Alex Crawford, Climate Change and Security in Africa: A Study for the Nordic-African Foreign Ministers Meeting (Winnipeg: International Institute for Sustainable Development, 2009), http://www.iisd.org/pdf/2009/climate_change_security_africa.pdf.

9. Central Intelligence Agency, “Niger,” The World Factbook, https://www.cia.gov/library/pub-lications/the-world-factbook/geos/ng.html; Central Intelligence Agency, “Nigeria,” The World Factbook, https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/geos/ni.html.

10. Anna Di Bartolomeo, Thiba ut Jaulin, and Delphine Perrin, Migration Profile: Niger (Florence: Consortium for Applied Research on International Migration, 2011).

11. United Nations Population Division, World Population Prospects: The 2010 Revision, Volume II: Demographic Profiles (New York: United Nations, 2011), http://esa.un.org/wpp/Documentation/pdf/WPP2010_Volume-II_Demographic-Profiles.pdf.

12. United Nations Population Division, World Population Prospects.

13. The Northwest Africa case study is drawn from the authors’ report, Climate Change, Migration, and Conflict in Northwest Africa.

14. “India Floods: Thousands flee homes in Assam,” BBC News, September 25 2012, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-india-19709589; Robert Eshelman, “India’s Drought Punishes Farmers, Highlights Challenges to Climate Change Adaptation,” E&E News, August 3, 2012, http://eenews.net/public/climatewire/2012/08/03/1.

15. Jim Yardley and Gardiner Harris, “2nd Day of Power Failures Cripples Wide Swath of India,” New York Times, July 31 2012, http://www.nytimes.com/2012/08/01/world/asia/power-outages-hit-600-million-in-india.html.

16. Aromar Revi, “Climate Change Risk: An Adaptation and Mitigation Agenda for Indian Cities,” Environment & Urbanization, International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED), 20, no. 1 (2008): 207-229, http://www.academia.edu/1979359/Climate_change_risk_an_adaptation_and_mitigation_agenda_for_Indian_cities.

17. Asian Development Bank, Addressing Climate Change and Migration in Asia and the Pacific (Washington: International Food Policy Research Institute, 2009), http://beta.adb.org/publications/addressing-climate-change-and-migration-asia-and-pacific.

18. Joanna I. Lewis, “Climate Change and Security: Examining China’s Challenges in a Warming World,” International Affairs, 85, no. 6 (2009): 1200.

19. See Michael Werz and Lauren Reed, Climate Change, Migration, and Nontraditional Security Threats in China: Complex Crisis Scenarios and Policy Options for China and the World (Washington, DC: Center for American Progress, 2014), https://www.americanprogress.org/issues/security/report/2014/05/16/89073/climate-change-migration-and-nontraditional-securitythreats-in-china/. [End Page 107]

20. See Werz and Reed, Climate Change, Migration, and Nontraditional Security Threats in China.

21. Donald Knight and Asaad Shamseldin, eds., River Basin Modelling for Flood Risk Mitigation (London: Taylor & Francis, 2006), 9-10; Luna Lin, “Beijing Water Shortage Worse than the Middle East,” China Dialogue (blog), August 29, 2013, www.chinadialogue.net/article/show/single/en/6319-Beijing-water-shortage-worse-thanthe-Middle-East.

22. Werz and Reed, Climate Change, Migration, and Nontraditional Security Threats in China.

23. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, Criteria and Indicators for Sustainable Woodfuels (Rome: UN FAO, 2010), http://www.fao.org/docrep/012/i1673e/i1673e00.pdf.

24. The Center for Global Prosperity, The Index of Global Philanthropy and Remittances 2013, (Washington, DC: The Hudson Institute, 2013), http://www.hudson.org/content/researchat-tachments/attachment/1229/2013_indexof_global_philanthropyand_remittances.pdf.

25. For a good overview of the trends contributing to the crisis and its impacts, see: Francesco Femia and Caitlin Werrell, eds., The Arab Spring and Climate Change: A Climate and Security Correlations Series (Washington, DC: Center for American Progress, Stimson Center, Center for Climate and Security, 2013), https://cdn.americanprogress.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/02/ClimateChangeArabSpring.pdf. [End Page 108]