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A New Report Links Climate Change, the Arab Spring, and Mass Migration

A new report from the University of East Anglia in England is the first to offer an empirically established causal path from climate change to conflict to cross-border migration.

The report analyzes data from 157 countries between 2006 and 2015. While it didn't find an overall causal relationship between climate change, conflict, and migration across the world during that time period, it pinpoints a particular area and time period where it had a profound impact: countries affected by the Arab Spring between 2010 and 2012. In these areas, the authors found climatic conditions, by influencing drought severity and likelihood of armed conflict, to be a statistically significant explanatory factor of asylum-seeking.

"We can say the effect of climate change on migration is causal, and it operates through conflict," Raya Muttarak, one of the report's co-authors, told E&E News.

Pacific Standard has examined the impact of climate change on migration patterns extensively. In a 2016 feature story, writer Jeremy Miller explored the possibility of droughts in the southwestern United States spurring mass migration across the Oregon border and into the Pacific Northwest. The story also touched on places where drought combined with violence and economic and political instability has led to mass migration, noting Mexico, Central America, and Syria as examples:

Like other Mediterranean regions, Syria typically receives nearly all of its precipitation during a six-month span over the winter. But between 2006 and 2010, rain and snow failed to materialize in the high country, and the Tigris and Euphrates rivers—lifelines in an unforgivingly dry land—dwindled to a fraction of their normal flow.

The author interviewed Colin Kelley, a senior research fellow with the Center for Climate & Security and lead author of a report that first acknowledged this environmental crisis as a root cause of Syria's civil war and mass outmigration. Due to the drought, now-unemployed farmers fled their lands for cities in the west, creating a "politically volatile situation" that contributed to the uprising in 2011.

Despite significant evidence that thousands of people around the world are being displaced by climate change every day, the University of East Anglia report finds that climate change won't lead to outmigration everywhere. Rather, it is likely to occur in countries where political conflict arises out of the population's discontent with the government's response to climate change.