As the earth heats up, where will we all go?

MMU global security student Liam Cartwright examines the impact of climate change on international relations

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Climate change will continue to happen without major intervention on a global, state and individual levels. Without that intervention, scientists predict longer and harsher periods of dry weather in some areas and more precipitation and extreme weather events in others. This could be seen as early as 2017 with climate change causing hurricanes and wildfires across the globe (1).
The US accounts for a quarter of the globe’s greenhouse gas emissions (2) but has been disregarded the urgency of the need to fight climate change, with President Trump pulling out of the crucial Paris climate change agreement. It remains to be seen how the Biden administration’s pledge to step up the fight plays out, and how it will affect global agreements (3). Climate change has created environmental refugees: those looking to escape its devastating effects on the place they call home. The human cost here is great. How will this affect global security?
The International Organisation for Migration (IOM) defines environmental migrants as “persons or groups of persons who, for compelling reasons of sudden or progressive change in the environment that adversely affects their lives or living conditions, are obliged to leave their habitual homes, or choose to do so, either temporarily or permanently, and who move either within their country or abroad” (4).
This is not a new phenomenon, but it has previously been limited in size and scope, often limited to intranational migration. But international migration is now increasing (5) and is a key aspect that will affect security on a global level. It is estimated that between 25 million and 1 billion are expected to migrate from their place of living due to the effects of climate change by 2050 (6).
As a result of climate change, many will find themselves having to choose to stay in their homeland under impossible living conditions or to flee to a nation in which they can survive. This could be brought about by factors including the loss of agricultural land and rising sea levels. At this point, we could begin to see tensions growing between nations. The United Nations Population Fund says that already “massive flows are straining industrialised and developing countries alike” (7).
The effects of climate change in Bangladesh are in part caused by India’s water policy, which diverts water via the Farakka Barrage. Combined with large-scale flooding as an effect of climate change, and rising sea levels, this has caused a huge amount of loss of agricultural land in many parts of Bangladesh, forcing migration into neighbouring India.
In response, India has begun to build fences at the border to deter immigration from Bangladesh. India claims that it is currently host to around 20 million immigrants. This has produced social and economic changes, altered land distribution and become a source of conflict between religious and ethnic groups (8). Reactionary groups opposing the migrants have adopted the slogan: “Save the nation, save identity. Let’s take an oath: no food, no job, and no shelter to Bangladesh” (9). The fear is that already tense relations between the two nations could deteriorate further, with a devastating impact on human and economic conditions for those living in both India and Bangladesh. It could also lead to Bangladeshi people migrating even further than neighbouring countries. The threat to Indian national security of this tension could all too easily boil over into conflict between two nations.

Countries such as Mali cannot afford to invest heavily to mitigate these pressures and so can be pushed into competition for resources

Migration can also cause instability within nations themselves. In Mali, less predictable rainfall has harmed agriculture, forcing farmers to move to the cities in search of work. The urban population grew from 600,000 to around 2 million in 20 years. This led to pressure on infrastructure and insecurity in the cities and the spread of deadly diseases such as HIV (10). As well as posing a threat to individual security, trends such as these can have a wider effect.
Countries such as Mali cannot afford to invest heavily to mitigate these pressures and so can be pushed into competition for resources with other states in their region. This resource scarcity can lead to a an increased risk of conflict on an international level (11) and has been recognised for some time. In 1987 the United Nations’ Brundtland Report identified climate change as a cause of conflict. UN secretary-general Kofi Annan said: “We can see real risks that resource deletion, especially fresh water scarcities, as well as severe forms of environmental degradation, may increase social and political tensions in unpredictable but potentially dangerous ways.” (12)
Norman Myers estimates that the number of environmental migrants could increase to 150 million by 2050. While the majority of migration will occur in developing nations it is also estimated that developed nations such as those in Europe, China and Russia will both be the senders and the receivers of migrants. Citizens of China may feel compelled to migrate to nearby Russia due to flooding in coastal areas. Russia, a country with a declining population but energy and mineral-rich, could flourish agriculturally in a warming climate. Migration between China and Russia has the potential to cause conflict between the two nuclear superpowers (13), especially when added to the ethnic instability of the region and the cultural differences between the two powers. Russian rhetoric about China is often negative. In 2000, Russian president Vladimir Putin visited Blagoveshchensk, a city close to the Chinese border, where he warned that without economic improvement, their children would be speaking Chinese (14). Armed conflict, were it to happen between two highly militarised powers, would be devastating.


1. Armstrong, Krasny and Schuldt, 2018
2. Zusman, Yoshino and Ichihara, 2011
3. Zhang et al., 2017
4. Martin, 2010
5. Hugo, 1996
6. Perry, 2011
7. Swain, 1996
8. Homer-Dixon, 1994
9. Islam and Islam, 2011
10. Environmental Migration and Conflict: Empirical Evidence and the State of Research, 2010
11. Reuveny, 2007
12. Sunga, 2014
13. Scheffran, 2008
14. Balzer and Repnikova, 2010

Photo: Migrant workers at a brick field in Dhaka, Bangladesh, where emissions from the kilns damage the environment. Photo: Piyas Biswas/SOPA Images/Shutterstock

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