ECC Platform Library


Nuancing 'Climate Refugee' Language and Images

16 December, 2015
John Wihbey

Migrants and Syrian refugees have become the new 'stranded polar bear' of climate change imagery. But most such impacts will seldom be so dramatic or camera-ready.

Human-induced climate change is an underlying factor in the Syrian Civil War. It is driving the sea-level rise imperiling small island nations. And it is having a disproportionately negative impact on vulnerable, poorer nations in Asia and Africa, such as Bangladesh and Sudan.

Pictures of war, flight, famine, and human ruin may be replacing the iconic and controversial “polar bear on the iceberg” as the central public images representing the consequences of climate change. For the first time, they put a human “face” on the global scientific phenomenon.

The security implications of climate change – long discussed among insiders, and highlighted by big thinkers such as Jeffrey Sachs – are suddenly coming into better focus for the public. Indeed, there has been a virtual superstorm of media coverage this year highlighting the degree to which climate change can drive human migration in dramatic fashion. The language is often stark.

To take just two recent examples:

  • The New York Times in late November: “Scientists fear climate effects so severe that they might destabilize governments, produce waves of refugees . . . .”
  • The New Yorker in December: “One of the most robust predictions that can be made about climate change is that it will send millions – perhaps tens or hundreds of millions – of people in search of new homes. . . . By mid-century . . . the Syrian-refugee crisis is likely to seem routine.”

The aperture for seeing the phenomenon of climate change has widened. It comes at a time when the world is seeing a record numbers of displaced persons estimated at 60 million worldwide, a grim trend that U.N. officials have long warned could be driven by climate change.

“Climate and migration links are a dimension of the climate discussion that are bringing in a wider set of actors,” says Ohio University’s Geoffrey Dabelko, an expert on the human security aspects of environmental change. “It’s bringing attention from the foreign policy, diplomatic, humanitarian, and security community, which is not always the case.”

This awareness and attention are positive in many respects, but there is also a danger, observers say, that oversimplification may end up pointing the public in the wrong direction. Most affected persons will experience a slow but powerful erosion of livelihood – from environmental changes that include drought, extreme weather, and flooding, among many other climate change-driven phenomena – and not a sudden, dramatic need to flee.

“Like so many things involving climate change, the headlines don’t capture the true complexity,” says Dabelko, a lead author of the “Human Security” chapter in the most recent United Nations IPCC report, “and the responses are far more interesting and variable than are often portrayed.”

Erroneous in law … and politically misleading?

Among those who study climate change communications, there has long been a debate about the uses (and abuses) of apocalypse narratives and images of impending climatic catastrophe, and whether or not such dramatization and “doom and gloom” ends up motivating action or simply paralyzing the public. The conventional argument against such language has been that it is speculative media hype; it is imprecise in the context of the quantitative research, which suggests mostly incremental change and only probability-based correlations.

But those who would urge caution in framing and language now face a stiff challenge given events such as the conflict in Syria, where the issue is no longer academic and speculative: Disruptive conflict is happening before the world’s eyes, and research has linked it strongly to climate change. The historic drought that fueled mass migration to Syria’s cities beginning in the mid-2000s undoubtedly helped grease the skids for the civil war.

Still, some experts in this area of climate change, security, and migration emphasize that most of the effect is likely to be far more subtle – and even that the image of the “climate refugee” could mislead. Climate change may have a substantial negative impact on the lives of many, they say, but it will not always necessarily come in the form of a family fleeing war in the dead of night, or of a group piling into a boat at the last minute as water subsumes their island home.

Of course, resource pressures are acknowledged to have played a role in a wide variety of conflicts and tragic events: From the French Revolution to World War II and the Holocaust, from Rwanda to South Sudan.

“Though there may be increasing hydro-climatic disasters that create pulses of movement (and this assumes no adaptations), most of these people do not cross borders and almost all move back soon after the event – so they are not refugees in a legal sense, nor are they permanently displaced,” Jon Barnett, a University of Melbourne researcher and another lead author of the “Human Security” chapter in the recent IPCC report, noted in an e-mail exchange. “The focus on environmental refugees confuses the category of refugee and detracts from the real concerns of people who are forced to move for fear of persecution; it is erroneous in law as well as politically misleading.”

Under international law established by the landmark 1951 Geneva Convention and 1967 Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees, “refugee” has a very precise definition and set of criteria, and it centers on border-crossing driven by a “well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion,” according to the United Nations.

However, in October delegates from more than 100 nations came together to begin laying the policy groundwork, known as the Nansen Initiative, to ensure the legal “protection of cross-border displaced persons in the context of disasters and climate change.” For years now, scholars and policymakers have debated whether to extend the 1951 Convention to cover refugees of this nature or to establish an altogether different global legal architecture to help them.

A major report authored in 2011 as part of the Foresight project – chaired by Richard Black of the University of Sussex and sponsored by the United Kingdom – found that, although the impact of environmental change on migration will “increase” in the future, the “range and complexity of the interactions between these drivers means that it will rarely be possible to distinguish individuals for whom environmental factors are the sole driver (‘environmental migrants’).”

Moreover, that report notes, “Environmental change is equally likely to make migration less possible as more probable,” as travel is expensive and negative changes may deplete the capital of those affected. On that point, other research has suggested that increases in temperature and precipitation may produce opposite and conflicting effects.

Barnett notes the many dangers of oversimplification:

Most people who are forcibly displaced are displaced by armed conflict, and most of them do not cross borders. The relationship between climate change and war is highly uncertain. We cannot conclude that this key driver of forced migration will change under climate change (indeed the post-1989 trend is towards less armed conflict) …. The humanitarian problem is not because of people who may move, it is because of the people who cannot. People who can move have some capital – it may be a forced move in some sense, but the fact of movement signals capacity. The people who cannot move are the ones who are unable to exercise any other option: the ones left behind in deteriorating environmental conditions and poverty traps. We lose sight of this when we focus on refugees.

This uncertainty over the climate-conflict connection remains an area of active research.

A 2013 meta-analysis published in the journal Science synthesized findings from 60 prior studies to look more deeply at this issue. The researchers, Solomon M. Hsiang of Princeton and Marshall Burke and Edward Miguel of UC-Berkeley, concluded that in the post-1950 era the “magnitude of climate’s influence on modern conflict is both substantial and highly statistically significant.” A 2014 study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that focused on that same issue in the context of recent decades in sub-Saharan Africa also found significant correlations; but it concluded there are inconsistencies in the data, and the relationships are more “nuanced” than researchers have previously identified.

In any case, among researchers who study human migration patterns, it is well established that the most vulnerable in situations of emergency movement are frequently those who cannot move. (Hurricane Katrina, where those who died or were injured were likely to be poor and without means to leave, illustrated this dynamic for many Americans.) Further, migration experts point out that there is often a complex mix of both “pushes” – events that force migration – and “pulls” – such as economic opportunity or family abroad – that explain movements. Single adjectives (e.g., “climate”) attached to “refugee” or “migrant” would  therefore be reductionist and mostly unhelpful.

‘No photograph to be taken’

None of this diminishes the very real effects of climate change in terms of making extreme weather, drought, flooding, and other disruptive patterns much more frequent and likely. And those inevitably will lead to disruptive human impacts.

Given this nuance, what precisely can we say, then, about migration and climate change? What should the public know?

Adil Najam, dean of the Pardee School for Global Studies at Boston University, says that climate change-influenced migration will not typically look like “disaster migration.” Instead, changes at the micro level will mean vulnerable persons will lose their livelihood very slowly but steadily, producing something that looks more like classic economic migration. For example, in the Sundarbans delta in Bangladesh, Najam says, this situation is already happening, with fisheries resources being depleted.

Refugee trends

Rural villages begin hollowing out. And those Bangladeshi fishermen will eventually, Najam notes, end up as “your cab driver” in some city. They will be part of the vast but incremental movement of persons from rural places to slum-ringed megacities that is already defining the twenty-first century (the United Nations projects that the global urban population will increase by an eye-popping 2.5 billion persons between 2014 and 2050.) These fast-growing urban areas themselves are highly susceptible to conflict, but climate change will not be the obvious cause.

“There is no one taking a photograph,” says Najam, a native of Pakistan. “There is no photograph to be taken.” It’s a “harrowing” and “insidious” phenomenon, because it happens to the “weakest and most vulnerable” but unfolds so slowly that no signal moment ever makes news or creates a media “visual” for the outside world.

What seems reasonably certain in the coming decades is that an already explosive trend in migration from the global South to northern countries will accelerate. This migration will happen with or without many more “Syrias,” where a proximate cause of refugee crises is plainly climate change.

The key policy challenge may involve smoothing the path for those confronting deprivation and livelihood loss, and therefore having to move to a new place. If nothing else, the Syrian refugee crisis shows that the world is ill-prepared for this kind of mass adaptation.

“Migration is a very rational strategy, and it has been deployed for millennia to deal with changes in the environment,” Dabelko of Ohio University says.

“If we are going to have a diversified and robust toolbox for addressing climate change, then migration needs to be part of that equation.”


John Wihbey is an assistant professor of journalism at Northeastern University.

The original version of this article appeared on Yale Climate Connections.

ArticleClimate Diplomacy
Climate Change
Conflict Transformation
Environment & Migration

Global Issues
Middle East & North Africa


Adaptation & Resilience

All countries will need to adapt to some of the environmental, social and economic impacts of climate change that are already unavoidable. Food security, livelihoods, water resource availability and public health are some affected areas. People living in poverty are more vulnerable, having a lower capacity to adapt. Thus, it is essential to promote resilience building. The adaptation and resilience aspects need to be mainstreamed into planning by policy makers and the private sector as well as integrated into development strategies.

Biodiversity & Livelihoods

Nature protection is most sustainable if it essentially contributes to the long-term stability of human needs. Today many regions around the world are confronted with increasing destruction of the natural foundations of life. The consequences of wide-ranging resource destruction are no longer regionally limited, but rather represent a global threat. Those affected are mainly rural populations, who find the sources of their income and the foundations of their way of life swept away. The depletion and destruction of natural resources goes hand in hand with decreasing agricultural yields and increasing poverty, which in turn forces the affected populations to deplete the remaining resources.

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Capacity Building

On the one hand, conflicts are caused by structural factors, such as economic and social inequality or environmental destruction. On the other hand, conflicts are fuelled by a lack of democratic structures, deficient mechanisms of non-violent conflict settlement, inadequate rule of law, the destruction of social and cultural identity and the disregard of human rights. Against this backdrop, development policies have been dedicated to a broad concept of security, which comprises political, economic, ecological and social stability. As a consequence, development cooperation agencies and actors have developed a broad spectrum of approaches for conflict prevention and transformation as well as for sustainable use of natural resources.

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Civil Society

Civil society is the first victim of environmental pollution, under-development and conflicts. Economically disadvantaged and politically marginalized population groups are particularly affected by violent conflicts as well as increasing resource degradation. Simultaneously, civil society is a fundamental pillar for implementing sustainable development. It contributes in many ways to strengthening conflict prevention and plays a significant role in the peaceful and democratic development of states. It must be supported to strengthen civil rights, adherence to human rights in general and democratic participation.

Climate Change

Climate change resulting from the emission of greenhouse gases represents one of the vital challenges for international environmental policy. Flooding, droughts, shifting of climate zones and increasingly frequent and intense extreme weather events will have serious economic and social consequences for entire regions. The climate problem is also directly linked to the question of future energy generation.

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Climate Diplomacy

To address the challenges posed by climate change, a new profile of climate diplomacy is evolving. This utilises a full range of policies, including development cooperation, conflict prevention efforts, and humanitarian assistance, in addition to more traditional measures of climate change adaptation and mitigation. Moving from a risk analysis of climate-related threats to well-timed preventive action requires a greater commitment to integrating climate change concerns into development, foreign, and security policies. Examples include strengthening diplomatic networks, building new alliances with partners, and raising awareness – not only of potentially negative climate change impacts, but also of opportunities to embark on a sustainable transformation of our societies.

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Climate action entails an array of economic, social, political and environmental co-benefits. It provides an opportunity for economic growth and new jobs. Many investments can take into account climate considerations without becoming more costly. Further important co-benefits include: improved energy security, less local air and water pollution, health benefits as well as ecosystem and biodiversity protection.

Conflict Transformation

In order to overcome the structural causes of violent conflicts and thus bring about an improvement in the framework conditions for peaceful and fair development, it is essential to have long term and broadly planned peace development and peace advancement. Various governmental and non-governmental, national and international actors and groups are involved in these processes.

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Climate change and development are inextricably linked. Climate change endangers the development agenda and has the potential to reverse development goals. Furthermore, successful mitigation of climate change heavily depends on development choices around the world. Therefore, development strategies need to be climate-compatible to provide long-term success, and there are viable policy options that support this compatibility. Many mitigation and adaptation activities can present development opportunities to developing countries and avoid the lock-in to environmentally damaging technologies.

Early Warning & Risk Analysis

The reasons for the development and escalation of conflicts and the incidence of risks are multifaceted and complex. Simultaneously, the assessment of the specific causes in the form of risk and conflict analyses can contribute to a better understanding of these processes and make it possible to provide warning of negative developments, or ideally help prevent them. In the context of natural resource use, risks and conflicts have gained increasing attention in the past years. The debate on possible future water wars is merely one example.

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The well-being of individuals, communities and nations depends on the availability of energy resources. The gap between energy supply and demand appears to be growing, making the world vulnerable to serious economic shocks. At the same time, the burning of fossil fuels causing climate change is one of the vital challenges of international environmental policy. So far, only rudimentary approaches exist for shaping climate and energy security in a sustainable way. The components of a strategy that can contribute to reducing vulnerabilities related to climate change and energy policy include a greater role for renewable energies, the improvement of energy efficiency and a stronger decentralisation of energy supply.

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Environment & Migration

The economic, social and environmental consequences of climate change aggravate the breakdown of eco-system-dependent livelihoods and are likely to become dominant drivers of long-term migration. Natural disasters already cause massive shorter-term displacement and the number of temporarily displaced people is likely to further increase with climate change. For vulnerable populations in vulnerable regions, such as the Sahel zone or the Ganges delta, migration often becomes the sole survival strategy. In order to address climate-related displacement and migration successfully, knowledge of effective adaptation and an improved understanding of how environmental change affects human mobility is essential. 

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Climate finance, from all sources, plays a key role in supporting and enabling adaptation and mitigation action as well as climate and energy innovation. The Paris Agreement ensured that the Green Climate Fund and the Global Environment Facility are at the core of climate finance architecture as entities entrusted with the operation of the Financial Mechanism of the UNFCCC. Increasing climate finance from all relevant public and private sources is crucial. Furthermore, much needs to be done to redirect finance flows to sustainable paths, e.g. reducing fossil fuel subsidies, introducing maritime and air transportation taxes. The conditions for green investment in developing countries should also be improved.


Forests are disappearing at an alarming rate. Competition for forest resources triggers, exacerbates, or finances numerous crises and conflicts in tropical developing countries. Illegal logging and timber trade foster instability and sometimes violent conflict by strengthening illegal and armed groups, increasing corruption and exacerbating use and claim conflicts among local communities, the state and the business sector. Forests are a vital resource to poor people but they can also become areas of conflict. Sustainable management of forest resources is therefore key to preventing violent conflict over and within forests.

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Gender plays an important role as a category of conflict for many reasons. The interlinkages between gender, environment and conflicts are complex and much research is still needed. Existing insights suggest that conflicts may worsen gender inequalities that existed before the outbreak of violence. The unequal distribution of land property rights in many parts of the world serves as an example. Moreover, women (and children) are among those most affected by both violent conflict and natural disasters. At the same time, women carry much of the burden of trying to implement rehabilitation measures after crisis events.

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Land & Food

Increasing water scarcity, desertification and crop failures due to extreme weather events are becoming more and more of a threat to global food production. While the world’s population continues to grow rapidly, food production is unable to keep pace. Due to the global food crisis in 2008, the number of hungry people reached the symbolic one billion threshold for the first time – corresponding to about 16 percent of world population. Food insecurity may be a consequence or cause of conflicts. Violent conflicts often lead to the destruction of agricultural infrastructure and means of production, as well as to the displacement of local communities.

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Minerals & Mining

In the past, the discovery and tapping of valuable or strategic resources like valuable minerals, oil and natural gas, particularly in developing and emerging countries, has often led to large scale environmental contamination and negative development. The "resource curse" of some countries shows that the wealth from resource yields is frequently unfairly distributed; instead of serving development it advanced the formation of corrupt elites and in some cases even led to conflicts and civil wars. Measures in various sectors and at all levels are important in order to use the potential of these natural resources in a manner that is sustainable and prevents conflicts.

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Private Sector

The spread of violent conflict not only affects people but also companies located in such regions. Destruction of investments and infrastructure, collapse of markets and trade partnerships, flight and expulsion of employees are phenomena of conflicts and environment-induced crises that directly affect companies in unstable regions. Almost all branches of the economy thus have a clear interest in a stable and peaceful environment for their activities. Conversely, the business sector plays an important role in the interaction of economic growth, social development and a healthy environment, all of which can advance peace and sustainable development. 

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Environmental issues have a significant security dimension. Access to, and overuse of, natural resources often play a key role in civil wars or other forms of internal domestic conflict. This is compounded by climate change and environmental degradation. Climate change is now widely recognised as a non-traditional, risk-multiplying threat that will have increasing security impacts. Key risks with possible implications for human and national security include water scarcity, food crises, natural disasters, and displacement. More preventive diplomacy and advocacy is needed to address the strategic implications of climate and environmental change.

Sustainable Transformation

Sustainable Transformation allows societies to profit from a growing, environmentally sustainable and socially inclusive economy – especially in emerging and developing countries. This requires a higher up-front investment, but the benefits of a sustainable transformation in the medium and long term are significant. For instance, energy cost savings and reducing the impact of price volatility offer major incentives for deploying renewable energies and promoting energy efficiency. Such benefits exist in all key sectors of the economy.

Technology & Innovation

Innovations and technologies are already readily available and affordable but their global diffusion and uptake remains a challenge. Innovation and technology are crucial to achieving ambitious climate change mitigation and adaptation targets. However, research and development often do not receive appropriate public support. Developing countries can leapfrog high-carbon industrialisation phases by adopting, deploying and improving existing innovations and technologies. For this, it is essential to minimise financial, administrative and political barriers.


The availability of freshwater resources in sufficient quantity and quality is essential for the preservation of human health and sound ecosystems. The use of water resources is also vital, however, for economic development: whether for agriculture, industrial production or for electricity generation. The world's freshwater resources are distributed very unevenly in terms of geography and seasons. In addition, water shortage is becoming more prevalent in several regions due to population growth, economic development, urbanisation and increasing environmental pollution. Thus, water resources can hold potential for conflicts between parties who have different interests and needs.

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The environment in Asia is already under tremendous pressure as a result of the unsustainable use of land, forests, water and even air in many regions. Climate change will only exacerbate these challenges. Rising sea levels will likely endanger densely populated areas, changes in the monsoon patterns can strongly impact agriculture, melting glaciers will increase long-term water scarcity, and extreme weather events such as heavy rainfall and cyclones can pose further hazards.

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Central America & Caribbean

Natural disasters and water scarcity are key challenges for most of Central America and the Caribbean. These challenges will become even more pronounced as the climate changes. Weak resource and disaster risk management and land disputes pose additional security challenges for large parts of the region. Several countries of Central America and the Caribbean have limited adaptive capacities as they face political instability caused by high social inequality, crime, corruption, and intra-state conflicts.

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As one of the most developed and most densely populated regions in the world, Europe makes heavy use of its resources, resulting in difficult trade-offs and negative consequences for the environment and ecosystems. Land is used for settlements, agriculture and dense infrastructure, creating problems of soil degradation. Water resources are stressed due to unsustainable agricultural practices. Despite nature protection policies, Europe continues to lose biodiversity at an alarming pace. Some of these trends are exacerbated by climate change, which is expected, for instance, to lead to shifts in water availability.

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Global Issues

Resource scarcities, environmental pollution and climate change are not limited by national borders, but often have a transboundary or even global impact. These issues interact with political stability, governance structures and economic performance, and can trigger or worsen disputes and violent conflicts. Exacerbating some of these trends, climate change is likely to lead to the degradation of freshwater resources, declines in food production, increases in storm and flood disasters and environmentally induced migration. All these developments pose potential for conflict.

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Middle East & North Africa

The geopolitical position of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), its fossil fuel resources, high population growth and the political changes spurred by the Arab Spring all make the region one of the most dynamic in the world. Nevertheless, it is also one of the most arid and environmentally stressed. Dwindling water resources, limited arable and grazing land, high pollution from household and industrial waste, remnants of conflicts and increasing desertification are key environmental challenges.

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North America

Climate change has various impacts on the three North American countries of Canada, Mexico and the US. Canada and the US have well-developed adaptive capacities and foster the strengthening of capacities in other regions as well. With high per capita emissions, these two countries also bear a greater responsibility for a changing climate. Mexico has a sound national strategy for climate change adaptation, yet fewer capacities than Canada and the US. The poorer and rural populations of Mexico are especially vulnerable to climate change, due to an increased sensitivity and a lower adaptive capacity.

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Oceania & Pacific

In Oceania, population growth and economic development trends put a strain on oceanic and island ecosystems. Freshwater scarcity, overexploitation of fisheries, loss of land biodiversity, forests and trees, invasive species, soil degradation, increasing levels of settlement, poor management of solid and hazardous waste and disproportionate use of coastal areas are some of the problems. Climate change exacerbates most of these trends, while also raising questions about the future sovereignty of some island states.

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South America

South America has diverse and unique ecosystems and is very rich in biodiversity. Weak natural resource management, land disputes and extreme weather events bring about significant challenges for the region. While South America accounts for relatively few CO2 emissions, the changing climate will alter its ecosystems and greater climate variability will lead to more hurricanes, landslides, and droughts.

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Sub-Saharan Africa

In many African states, environmental security issues rank high on the political agenda. Throughout the continent, countries suffer from water scarcity, food insecurity and energy poverty. These chronic and worsening resource scarcities have severe livelihood implications and are exacerbated by political conflicts over access to and control over these resources. Climate change may seriously threaten political and economic stability in Africa. It may also put a severe strain on the capacities of states and societies to co-ordinate activities, to communicate and to organize.

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