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From climate change to violent conflict

By Rafael Reuveny
Professor, Indiana University School of Public and Environmental Affairs

In 2005, Hurricane Katrina hit Louisiana and Mississippi in the U.S., causing huge damages. As a result, more than a million people left the region. Many have not returned, and will probably never return.

Is this case unique? What is the role of environmental degradation in out-migration? Can the arrival of in-migrants that left their homes due to environmental degradation promote violent conflict between them and the residents in the area that receives them?

Rafael Reuveny

Rafael Reuveny

Print-Quality Photo

I study these questions in about 40 cases, including, for example, the U.S. Great Plains in the 1930s, Bangladesh to India since the 1950s, and Louisiana and Mississippi in 2005. In all of these many cases, environmental decline led to out-migration and conflict, but the issue is broader.

If adverse environmental change has played a role in out-migration and conflict, it might do so again. Climate change is the largest environmental change expected in this century. Logically, as environmental degradation led to out-migration and conflict in these cases, climate change may also do so, assuming no mitigating measures are taken.

The extent of climate change damages is not fully known, but we know that mitigating climate change is costly. In terms of policy, one may "wait and see," or act now assuming things might get worse. Which public policy approach should we take?

Today, many migrants move from one less developed country -- or LDC -- to another, and almost all internally displaced people are in LDCs. But existing estimates suggest that, if given a choice, migrants from LDCs will probably choose to relocate to developed countries, or DCs. Facing growing pressures, the DCs have intensified restrictions on immigration from the LDCs since the 1990s. Is this the appropriate approach to deal with environmental migration?

Consider Garrett Hardin's metaphor. Rich people live on a few fully-equipped and relatively empty lifeboats (the DCs). Poor people live on many partially-equipped lifeboats filled to capacity (the LDCs). The rich boats face three choices: admit all the poor people, admit some poor people, or reject everyone.

If they were to admit everyone, they would sink; that is, the DCs could not absorb hundreds of millions of migrants from the LDCs that may eventually attain the standard of living in the DCs. If they were to admit some people, who should be excluded? If they were to reject everyone, they might face unwieldy pressures.

The poor people also face three choices: move from one poor boat to another (move between LDCs), change places inside their boat (move within LDCs), or sneak onto a rich boat (enter DCs illegally).

The DCs ignore this metaphor. This is awkward, since the movement across and within boats can promote inter-boat conflict. The LDCs will likely experience more climate change-induced migration and conflict than DCs, but the fallout may expand beyond LDCs.

For example, as climate change progresses, many people may be driven from China's inundated coastal zones. China might then demand compensation from the U.S., arguing that while China is the second (or even the first) driver of climate change, the U.S. has historically been by far the leading driver of climate change and its per capita contribution to the problem is much larger than that of China. Migration-induced conflict could also upset the political stability of the allies of DCs in the developing world, drawing DCs into the fight.

Of course, conflict may not happen, but history suggests that these possibilities cannot be overruled. Public policy might help, as it did in the U.S. in 2005, but LDCs can hardly adapt to environmental calamities on their own. DCs tend to ignore this fact.

While this approach is ethically dubious, as the DCs are the chief cause of climate change, the issue goes beyond ethics. Historically, extreme income inequalities, such as between DCs and LDCs, led to violence (e.g., the Russian Revolutions). The current situation is more dangerous, since some LDCs have, or try to obtain, weapons of mass destruction. Add to that grievances over climate change-induced migration and you get a volatile situation.

Economic growth in LDCs may help, but it will also raise their demand for fossil fuels and accelerate climate change. In response to this dilemma, I advocate a five-part approach: 1) Stimulate growth in LDCs in order to reduce their dependence on the environment and enable investment in environmental policy; 2) Promote lower population growth in LDCs in order to reduce the pressure on the environment; 3) Offset economic growth in LDCs with contraction in DCs, keeping the rise in greenhouse gasses in check; 4) Begin adapting for climate change now in places prone to conflict and environmental migration; and 5) Fund these activities by using DC funds, since the DCs over-reliance on fossil fuels created most of the current problem.

The implementation of this plan may face obstacles. Humanity will probably continue to muddle around, and stress on the biosphere will rise. My plan might be ultimately initiated in response to some crisis, but a crisis also might cause irreversible damages.

It seems that our best reason for optimism is the fact that in the past, humans found solutions to some large problems. One cannot know if this pattern will continue. I believe the expected cost of climate change-induced migration and conflict will likely rise quickly, assuming no mitigation. This supports adoption of my plan sooner, rather than later.