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1 February 2024, Gateway House

Breaking the conflict vs. climate dichotomy

Two climate and environment conferences in December 2023, one with global attention in Dubai and the other with a hyper-local focus in the Eastern Himalayas, highlighted the need for a more nuanced conversation on climate and forced population displacement. They both point to a need for a multi-factored model in the analytical approach to forced migration.

Council on Foreign Relations, International Affairs Fellow in India

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An outcome of the last COP28 in Dubai, was further earmarking of humanitarian response funds for climate emergencies. The Central Emergency Response Fund (CERF) – the UN’s principal humanitarian crisis funding mechanism[1] – launched a Climate Action Account to receive direct climate finance deposits from donors.[2] Last October, the UK government redefined its “international climate finance” expenditures to include some existing funds pledged for humanitarian relief and for international development banks.[3] And one crowning achievement of the COP28 itself was the establishment of the Loss & Damage Fund, which envisions designated financing for less resilient economies to recover and reconstruct from climate shocks, although it lacks clarity over how the fund should work.[4]

The 11th Eastern Himalayan Naturenomics Forum, held in Guwahati, Assam on December 18-19, 2023 brought home the discussion around how such large-scale global discussions play out at the local level in climate-vulnerable contexts. A panel discussing, ‘Why Nature Capital Investment Matters’, highlighted how economic development of Northeast India and the Eastern Himalayan region is important to both India’s economic goals in Asia and the geopolitical interests of India’s partners.

Large-scale climate shocks can contribute towards destabilizing a region and triggering mass population displacement, but climate-conscious development can provide solutions as infrastructure and economic diversification improve resiliency. Local climate adaptation solutions in the eastern Himalayas, if scaled for the local context, can mitigate climate shocks as a risk-multiplier for population displacement.

Some prominent advocates[5] positioned scaling-up of climate finance within overall humanitarian budgets as a need to shift discussions on forced migration away from the sole focus of conflict-related population displacement and towards action on climate insecurity. However, in many ways this is a false dichotomy. Regions labeled as most climate vulnerable often overlap with most conflict-vulnerable[6] [7] [8], and although research has shown that direct causality cannot be drawn between conflict and climate factors[9], the two drivers often intersect in dynamics of forced displacement. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) recently acknowledged this link by detailing how climate considerations might factor into a more traditional refugee status determination analysis, or alternatively, the need for other legal forms of international legal protection.[10]

The ways conflict and climate interact is usually context-specific and highly dependent on local dynamics.[11] In some contexts, it results in as secondary or tertiary displacement, where a community initially displaced by conflict are placed at further risk due to a climate shock, among other scenarios.[12] Climate change can exacerbate existing protection risks or create new ones by impacting drivers of conflict.[13] In reality, climate is one of the multiple compounding factors that influence the onset of large scale forced displacement, albeit one that has now taken on more weight in the overall analysis of driving factors behind mass migration. Other factors contributing to the risk of climate-related displacement include inequality, social tensions, poor infrastructure, limited livelihoods, local access to and ownership of resources, legal/political marginalization, historical disinvestment, weak governance, socioeconomic pressures, and a lack of political will to address them.[14]

This brings up the need for climate/natural disaster vs. conflict dichotomy in the analysis of forced displacement to move to a more multi-factor model where the weight of each factor is context-specific to how it affects local resiliency.[15] This approach intuitively makes sense when looking at real-world contexts. A climate event’s severity alone (ex: a category 3 vs 4 hurricane[16]), may not assumably result in population displacement. Larger scale climate events can result in less population displacement if they affect communities with better infrastructure and economic resilience. Smaller scale shocks can cause greater population displacement if they hit impoverished communities with poor infrastructure and limited access to livelihoods and resources.[17]

Within India, the 2018 flooding in Kerela was associated with over 2,346 mm of rainfall, resulting in economic damage of 31,000 crore and affecting 5.4 million people (of whom 1.4 were displaced).  This level of damage was lower than the 2007 flooding in Bihar, corresponding to only 83 mm of rainfall, but affecting 20 million people. The less economic damage in Bihar (2,242 crore) likely corresponds to lower levels of economic development prior to the flooding, which could have contributed to the fact that the floods affected far more people.[18]

Flooding Impacts in India

Year State Lives Affected (millions) Average Rainfall (mm) Total Economic Damage to Public Properties (Rs. crore)
2007 Bihar 20 M[19] 82.70[20] 2242.42[21]
2022 Assam 8.851 M[22] 251.20[23] 3073.86[24]
2018 Kerala 5.4 M people (displaced 1.4M people)[25] 2346.6[26] 31000[27]

When multiple shocks overlap, with great enough combined force, the resulting displacement trends intensify preexisting patterns of migration to a mass scale.[28] Thus, the real driving force behind forced migration is a lack of resiliency to the combined weight of multiple factors that together affect a community’s ability to continue surviving at home. The question is finding the point at which factors compound enough to undermine resiliency and force people to move.

However, the false dichotomy persists in a large part because the individual interests of key actors. An alarmist framing of climate-induced mass migration, especially related to movement across international borders[29], has been amplified by anti-immigration policy makers in wealthy countries who use climate change to push narratives about impending chaos and border insecurity.[30]  In this context, intensifying global climate shocks stoke fears about mass population displacement overwhelming immigration systems and border points for wealthier and more economically resilient countries.

In truth, most population displacement takes place over relatively shorter distances, with ~60% constituting internal displacement within the same country, or within the same geographic region if international borders are crossed.[31] Relatively few people cross international border over great distances, regardless of whether the principal driver is conflict, climate shocks, or multiple factors.[32]

On the other side, humanitarian actors – including key UN agencies – play up the importance of climate change as a driving factor of large-scale refugee and migrant flows. International humanitarian actors have been pushing the call to scale up emergency aid funding to account for climate risks,[33] perhaps to replace funding shortfalls due to increased needs and diminished political will of key donors,[34] as well as due to criticism of their own internal management structures and accountability mechanisms.[35] [36]

Several agencies[37] have begun mainstreaming climate analysis into existing frameworks, or creating “climate-compatible” action plans with more useful framing of the issue.[38] In general, both climate- and conflict-related factors are most often risk multipliers: they compound with existing context-specific pressures and vulnerabilities.[39] Addressing climate resilience within active conflict zones requires focusing on the diverse socioeconomic and governance factors as a root cause, rather than building out larger emergency response budgets.[40]

As such, normalizing analysis of forced displacement through a multi-factor, “risk-multiplier”[41] model will help the aid sector to more accurately evaluate the myriad of local factors that are most likely to result in mass population displacement, including the potential impact of climate shocks within a given local context.

Purvi Patel is International Affairs Fellow, Council on Foreign Relations and Visiting Fellow, Gateway House.

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[1] The CERF is managed by the UN Office of Coordination for Humanitarian Affairs (UN OCHA). The fund was created in 2005 to specifically allow for rapid and flexible humanitarian funding in the early stages of new emergencies. “Who We Are”, UN Office of Coordination for Humanitarian Affairs (UN OCHA), Accessed 22 January 2024,

[2] “Deputy relief chief launches new Climate Action Account”, UN OCHA, December 3 2023,

[3] Gabbatiss, Josh “UK ‘adds’ £450m to its climate-finance spending by changing definition”, Carbon Brief, October 23 2023,

[4] Worley, Will “New loss and damage fund means many things to many people”, The New Humanitarian, 12 December 2023,

[5] Slim, Hugo “It’s time to pivot from war aid to climate aid”, The New Humanitarian, 25 October 2021,

[6] “[M]ost of the low-income countries in tropical areas are exposed and vulnerable to climate change, and these countries are also prone to fragility due to insecurity and conflict. Globally, 355 million households (about 1·3 billion people) are exposed to climate hazards and are, thus, in need of climate change adaptation; 40% of those (142 million households, or 527 million people) are in conflict-prone and fragile-prone areas.” Läderach, Peter, Julian Ramirez-Villegas, Giulia Caroli, Claudia Sadoff and Grazia Pacillo, “Climate finance and peace—tackling the climate and humanitarian crisis”, The Lancet Planetary Health 5, no. 12 (December 2021): e856,

[7] “Twelve of the 20 countries estimated to be the most vulnerable to climate-related events in 2020 were also suffering major humanitarian crises. Communities in conflict-affected contexts such as Yemen, Haiti, Democratic Republic of Congo and Central African Republic are vulnerable.” Peters, Katie, Gemma Davies, Kerrie Holloway, Addressing Protection risks in a Climate-changed world: Challenges and Opportunities (London: HPG, October 2021), p.5, publications/addressing-protection-risks-in-a-climate-changed-world-challenges-and-opportunities

[8] “Almost two-thirds of all newly displaced asylum-seekers and refugees in 2022 originate from 15 countries that are highly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change….[These countries were] Afghanistan; Burundi; Central African Republic; Democratic Republic of Congo; Eritrea; Ethiopia; Honduras; Myanmar; Nicaragua; Nigeria; Somalia; South Sudan; Sudan; Syria and Venezuela.”  UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), Amicus Brief of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights regarding the Request for an Advisory Opinion on the Climate Emergency and Human Rights from the Republic of Colombia and the Republic of Chile, (UN High Commissioner for Refugees, 18 December 2023), p. 6,

[9] Burrows, Kate, and Patrick L. Kinney. 2016. “Exploring the Climate Cange, Migration and Conflict Nexus” International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health 13, no. 4 (2016), p. 443.; IPCC, 2022: Summary for Policymakers [P.R. Shukla, J. Skea, A. Reisinger, R. Slade, R. Fradera, M. Pathak, A. Al Khourdajie, M. Belkacemi, R. van Diemen, A. Hasija, G. Lisboa, S. Luz, J. Malley, D. McCollum, S. Some, P. Vyas, (eds.)]. In: Climate Change 2022: Mitigation of Climate Change. Contribution of Working Group III to the Sixth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [P.R. Shukla, J. Skea, R. Slade, A. Al Khourdajie, R. van Diemen, D. McCollum, M. Pathak, S. Some, P. Vyas, R. Fradera, M. Belkacemi, A. Hasija, G. Lisboa, S. Luz, J. Malley, (eds.)]. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK and New York, NY, USA. DOI: 10.1017/9781009157926.001

[10] “No special rules exist for determining refugee claims made in the context of the adverse effects of climate change and disasters. However, the assessment of claims for international protection, as conducted by national asylum authorities, should not be limited to, nor focus narrowly on the climate change event or disaster as solely or primarily natural hazards. Such a narrow focus might fail to recognize the social and political elements contributing to or being exacerbated by the effects of climate change or the impacts of disasters or their interaction with other drivers of displacement, including conflict or discrimination.” UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), 2023, p.11

[11] Abel, Guy J., Michael Brottrager, Jesus Crespo Cuaresma, Raya Muttarak, “Climate, conflict and forced migration”, Global Environmental Change 54, (2019), p. 239–249,

[12]  Such as in the case of “Sudan and South Sudan in 2019, where control of natural resources, including fertile land, was a strategic objective of both warring sides in the context of desertification and other climate change effects in the region.” “UNHCR note on climate change, international refugee law and UNHCR’s mandate”, UNHCR, The UN Refugee Agency, 12 December 2023, p.2,

[13] Peters, 2021

[14] Schaar, Josh, The relationship between climate change and violent conflict, (working paper, Stockholm: Sida, 2019),; Peters, Katie, Mairi Dupar, Sarah Opitz-Stapleton, Emma Lovell and Yue Cao, Climate change, conflict and fragility: An evidence review and recommendations for research and action, (London: Overseas Development Institute, June 2020)

[15] Peters, 2021

[16] 2005’s Hurricane Katrina in the US was a Category 3 Hurricane when it made landfall in New Orleans, and displaced over 250,000 New Orleans residents. By comparison, the stronger Category 4 Hurricane Harvey hit Houston in 2017, and displacing only 40,000 residents. Both storms had a mid-point estimate of 125 billion USD in damage. Plyer, Allison, “Facts for Features: Katrina Impact”, The Data Centre, August 26 2016,

[17] Peters, Katie, Leigh Mayhew, Hugo Slim, Maarten van Aalst and Julie Arrighi, Double Vulnerability: The Humanitarian Implications of Intersecting climate and conflict risk (London: Overseas Development Institute, March 2019),

[18] Rainfall itself is an imperfect measure, as many other factors such as topography, prior ground saturation, failure of dams and levees, etc. could also affect the onset of severe floods. However, as of now there is no standardized measure of flood severity comparable to other natural disasters such as hurricanes, typhoons, and earthquakes.

[19] Kumar, Santosh, Arun Sahdeo and Sushma Guleria, Bihar Floods 2007 (India: National Institute of Disaster Management, 2013), p. 11,

[20] ”History of Flood in Bihar”, Flood Management Information System Bihar, Accessed 22 January 2024,

[21] Flood Hazard Atlas – Bihar – A Geospatial Approach (India: National Remote Sensing Centre, July 2020), p. 51,

[22] Assam Floods 2022: Flood Memorandum to The Government of India (India: Government of Assam, 2022),

[23] ”Assam Flood Relief Report 2022”, The APPL Foundation, Accessed 22 January 2024,

[24] Government of Assam, 2022

[25] Walia, Ajindar and Naima Nusrat, Kerala Floods 2018 (India: National Institute of Disaster Management, 2020)

[26] “Study report: Kerala floods of August 2018 (September, 2018)”, Relief Web, September 2018,

[27] National Institute of Disaster Management, 2020

[28] Sturridge, Caitlin and Kerrie Holloway, Climate change, conflict and displacement: five key misconceptions (London: Overseas Development Institute, 2022)

[29] The refugee and migrant crises of the last decade – the Syrian war, increased boat crossings over Mediterranean to Europe, migrant caravans in Central America, and camps and shelters on the US-Mexico border, among others – have allowed politicians to stoke fears that the now-accepted realities of climate change will produce a greater number of conflicts, and thus escalate mass population displacement and undocumented arrivals at their borders.

[30] Peters, Katie and Leigh Mayhew, “The Securitization of Climate Change: A Developmental Perspective” in The Securitization of Foreign Aid, ed. Stephen Brown, Jörn Grävingholt (London: Palgrave Macmillan London, 2016), accessed 22 January 2024,; Warner, Jeroen and Ingrid Boas, “Securitisation of climate change: The risk of exaggeration”, Ambiente e Sociedade 20, no. 3 (1 July 2021), p. 203 – 224,; Sturridge, 2022

[31] Global Trends Forced Displacement In 2022 (Denmark: United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, 14 June 2023),

[32] Wilkinson, Emily, Amy Kirbyshire, Leigh Mayhew, Pandora Batra and Andrea Milan, Climate-induced migration and displacement: Closing the Policy Gap (London: Overseas Development Institute, October 2016)

[33] Durand-Delacre, David, Carlo Farbotko, Christiane Fröhlich, and Ingrid Boas. “Climate migration: what the research shows is very different from the alarmist headlines”, The Conversation, 7 October 2020,

[34] Lederer, Edith M. “UN cuts global aid appeal to $46 billion to help 180 million in 2024 as it faces funding crisis”, Associated Press, 12 December 2023,

[35] Vazquez, Mauricio “Building climate resilience in conflict zones requires less emergency aid, not more”, The New Humanitarian, 18 December 2023,

[36] “Climate: Humanitarians push into resilience: …Some in the climate space worry that under all the rhetoric, a move to resilience is simply a cash grab for new funding without meaningful reforms…Donors and humanitarian planners alike hail it as the solution for rising needs and shrinking budgets, but in practice it has had trouble scaling up.”  Loy, Irwin, Will Worley, “What’s shaping aid policy in 2024”, The New Humanitarian, 4 January 2024,

[37] Including, but not limited to: Care, Danish Refugee Council (DRC), International Organization on Migration (IOM), Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC), Oxfam, UNHCR, and World Vision.

[38] Peters, 2021

[39]  Sturridge, 2022

[40] Vasquez, 2023

[41] Some researchers and policy makers (see below) will refer to climate as a “threat-multiplier.” However, given alarmist and securitized rhetoric related to climate-related population displacement within the context of many countries in the global north, there has been conscious choice to use the term “risk-multiplier” in this article. Ex: Peters, Katie, Kerrie Holloway, “Disaster risk reduction in conflict contexts: the state of the evidence”(London: ODI, 7 May 2019) ; UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), Amicus Brief of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights regarding the Request for an Advisory Opinion on the Climate Emergency and Human Rights from the Republic of Colombia and the Republic of Chile, (UN High Commissioner for Refugees, 18 December 2023), p. 6,

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