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Grant Whittington headshot

With Climate Change Linked Even More to Conflict, 4 Ways Companies Can Step Up

Humanitarian advisers from the U.K's Department for International Development talk to Syrian refugees in the Bekaa Valley, Lebanon, February 2017.

Humanitarian advisers from the U.K's Department for International Development talk to Syrian refugees in the Bekaa Valley, Lebanon, February 2017.

Many media reports have connected climate change to conflict in nations such as Syria along with crises including the surge (and resulting backlash) in migration across the Mediterranean Sea to Europe.

A recent study, however, adds some caveats to this conventional wisdom. A group of researchers found that on one hand, climate volatility played a key role in the spike of asylum seekers between 2011 and 2015 in countries affected by the Arab Spring.

Yet the same study warned that while there are anecdotal connections between climate change and asylum-seekers time and time again, what the researchers also say is this evidence suggests these patterns are limited to very specific time periods and contexts.

Previous studies have clumped climate, political factors and economic conditions together when studying drivers of migration, but Climate, Conflict and Forced Migration,” at least to these researchers’ best knowledge, is the first to isolate climate’s direct role as a driver of migration and conflict.

The study also discusses the common links popularly associated with climate change’s effects on conflict and migration in the form of a feedback loop. Though a warming climate cannot often be solely blamed for crises, it can be a catalyst that can cause regional conflicts and waves of migrations to escalate.

Source: "Climate, conflict and forced migration” in January 2019 issue of Global Environmental Change
Source: "Climate, conflict and forced migration” in January 2019 issue of Global Environmental Change

The researchers point to Syria as the cornerstone example of climate’s causal linkage to conflict and migration. Syria experienced one of the world’s worst anthropogenic (human-induced) droughts from 2007-2010, which drained the country’s groundwater supplies and devastated crop yields for several years. Food prices soared as rural families migrated to urban areas in droves. The urban population ballooned from 8.9 million to 13.8 million from 2002 to 2010, which added more stress on infrastructure, economic resources and social services. The Assad government, which mismanaged and exacerbated the effects of the drought through poor governance and unsustainable environmental policies, responded to the Syria’s political unrest with violence.

Therefore, the case can be made that a warming climate was among the first dominoes to spark the humanitarian crisis in Syria, which has led to an estimated 400,000 deaths, 5.6 million refugees and 6 million internally displaced persons.

And the dominoes continue to fall. As the refugee crisis swells, asylum seekers face more and more barriers to entering neighboring countries. When responding to this week’s tragedy of two capsized boats killing at least 38 migrants leaving Djibouti for the Arabian Peninsula, the United Nations reported that six people die each day on maritime smuggling routes.

Nevertheless, despite this spate of horrific reports about the plight of refugees this decade, this study’s researchers concluded that climate change alone will not significantly impact migration. Companies that conduct business across the globe or have supply chains that could be affected by such trends, should take note.

“Climate change will not generate asylum seeking everywhere but likely in a country undergoing political transformation where conflict represents a form of population discontent towards inefficient response of the government to climate impacts,” the report reads.

In other words, “it takes a perfect storm,” as one of the study co-authors Raya Muttarak from the United Kingdom’s University of East Anglia told Bloomberg. The authors emphasize that, above all, political factors and country-specific contexts determine the linkage and causality between the climate-conflict-migration trinity.

So, what can companies who are interested in doing what they can to either prevent these migration trends, or assist these climate refugees once they settle in their new homes? We offer a few suggestions.

Start involvement early on in the process

During the height of the refugee crisis, Lucy Marcus urged European firms to be pragmatic and assist with the refugee crisis, as they offer those economies an “antidote” to the region’s low birthrate and aging workforce. But Marcus’ advice is applicable worldwide: “Becoming involved early in the process of assessment, education, and integration planning would allow the private sector to help shape policy from the outset, rather than complaining about the government’s failures after the fact,” she wrote in 2015.

Work with NGOs on the ground

It’s no secret that conditions in many of the refugee camps across the globe are dire, and will be the source of many long-term problems even if every refugee is safely repatriated or resettled. Organizations working with these refugee camps have the obvious needs, from food to medical supplies to clothing. But technology companies have and can continue to do their part; opportunities in education are plentiful as well.

Thoroughly examine your company’s supply chain

Whether your company is sourcing rare earth metals, agricultural products or is manufacturing goods in water-stressed areas, your company's supply chain could contribute to, or be threatened by, future climate volatility. In addition, there is always the chance that your supply chain could include factories at which former refugees are working under exploitative or abusive conditions; rigorous audits should be part of your company's process when vetting its supplier base. 

Consider partnerships with cities, which are bearing the brunt of these migration shifts.

“Cities as host communities to refugees have the ability to address discrimination, integrate individuals into society, and provide refugees with the necessary tools to settle, writes Rebecca Root for Devex. “Without sufficient resources and assistance from the international community, progress may be stunted as hunger, poverty, and sanitation levels are put under strain.”

Examples of how the public and private sectors can work together include AirBnB’s past efforts to house refugees and those who were vulnerable to sudden changes in U.S. immigration policies; Chobani’s ongoing commitment to hire former refugees; and partnerships that offer opportunities for displaced citizens to learn new technologies or even have access to cell phones.

Image credit: DFID - UK Department for International Development/Flickr

Grant Whittington headshot

Based in Atlanta, GA, Grant is a nonprofit professional and freelance writer passionate about affordable housing and finding sustainable approaches to international development. A proud graduate of the University of Maryland, Grant spent four months post-grad living in Armenia where he worked for Habitat for Humanity and the World Food Programme. He enjoys playing trivia with friends but is still seeking his first victory - he ceaselessly blames his friends lack of preparation.

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