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Published on enero 27th, 2022

The Climate Change, Conflict, and Migration Nexus: Considerations for Implementing USAID’s Draft Climate Change Strategy

While hard data demonstrating causation between climate change and migration or conflict does not yet exist, the impact of climate change on communities vulnerable to conflict and to migration is obvious. Anecdotal evidence of climate change as a crisis multiplier of these phenomena is mounting. In short, the causal link between climate change and conflict or migration is one step removed: climate change causes or exacerbates conditions that lead to conflict or migration such as access to critical resources, livelihood opportunities, and lack of state presence and services. So, what does that mean for implementation of climate adaptation programming in communities effected by conflict or migration?

DT Institute, DT Global’s sister non-profit organization, sought to answer that question through a recent panel on the intersection of climate change, migration, and conflict as part of a joint event with DT Global on the implementation of USAID’s draft Climate Change Strategy. Climate change, peacebuilding, and migration experts, implementers, and stakeholders discussed the realities of climate adaption programming and lessons learned to inform the implementation of USAID’s draft Climate Change Strategy. DT Institute’s Executive Vice President and head of its Stabilization, Transition, and Peacebuilding division, Cameron Chisholm, moderated the discussion with Allison Brown (USAID), Silja Halle (UN Environment Programme), Dr. Rebecca Galemba (University of Denver’s Korbel School), and Megan Corrado (Alliance for Peacebuilding).

While USAID’s draft strategy does not explicitly address the intersection of climate change, migration, and conflict, it does seek to increase community resilience to climate change. It also aims to improve the engagement of marginalized communities, such as indigenous groups, women, and youth in climate action. By preparing communities to adapt as climate change worsens and by encouraging those most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change to take a lead role in adaptation (i.e., women, youth, and indigenous groups), programs will inadvertently address several underlying root causes of conflict and migration and give communities the tools they need to address myriad types of fragility. The draft strategy’s foci on systems-level interventions and holistic and integrated approaches to climate change as a cross-cutting issue lays the foundation for integrating climate adaptation activities into programs aimed at addressing the drivers of conflict and migration. The question then becomes how to do so effectively.

The panel discussed lessons learned from the UN Environment Programme’s (UNEP) pilot programs on using climate action to support peacebuilding efforts in Sudan and Nepal (2017-2022), early findings from research on drivers of migration in Central America as they relate to climate change, and how USAID’s draft strategy dovetails with other US climate change strategies. It also looked at bilateral and multilateral efforts already underway. From this conversation emerged a set of recommendations and key considerations for implementation of the USAID draft Climate Change Strategy:

Climate change and conflict are compounding crises that demand data-driven integrated solutions. This necessitates considering climate assessments and climate adaptation performance indicators when designing and implementing peacebuilding and conflict resolution programs and considering conflict analysis and peacebuilding performance indicators when designing climate adaptation programming in fragile communities.

To date, key stakeholders in the peacebuilding community of practice, like the Alliance for Peacebuilding, have taken significant steps to incorporate climate change action into high-level policies such as the UN Women, Peace, and Security Agenda and the Global Fragility Act to ensure impact is measured and understood holistically. However, the climate change adaptation community of practice has been less proactive in integrating peace and conflict data and should take these factors into consideration during program design and implementation. This also requires cross-sectoral monitoring and evaluation to enhance learning and adjust the design of climate sensitive approaches to peacebuilding and conflict sensitive climate adaptation programming. Doing so can deepen impact and begin to break the mutually reinforcing cycle of conflict and climate change.

Climate change exacerbates existing inequalities, and those most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change often don’t have the resources to adapt, so adaptation activities need to be community-led, transparent, and inclusive. Like conflict and migration drivers, climate change impacts vary between communities and exacerbate existing inequalities, power dynamics, and political decisions. Early evidence of this is emerging in Dr. Galemba’s research, funded by DT Institute, among historically marginalized and predominantly agrarian indigenous populations in Western Guatemala.

These communities have a higher-than-average propensity for migration primarily perceived to be due to the lack of sustainable livelihood opportunities. However, the economies in these communities are largely homogenous and dependent on the land, and therefore vulnerable to climactic shifts, making climate change a proximate cause of their out-migration. For instance, coffee production in this region has been severely impacted by climate change over the past few decades, leaving whole communities without the ability to meet their own most basic needs. Many of the residents of these communities are impoverished and lack the access to resources to adapt locally, forcing them to leave. Thus, adaptation solutions must be locally-led to be successful in strengthening the resilience of communities to climate change.

It is also critical that adaptation programs incorporate community understandings of historical climate patterns and variations therein, as well as indigenous adaptation strategies to help prepare communities for long-term climate shifts. Furthermore, adaptation strategies must have a focus on human rights and dignity both in communities experiencing climate-induced out-migration, and in the communities receiving migrants. While programming at the grassroots level is paramount for successful adaptation, local adaptation strategies should tie into national and regional strategies and tap into broader lessons learned and best practices to address larger issues that cannot be solved at the community level.

Climate change adaptation programming can have real impacts on peacebuilding. UNEP’s pilot programs in Sudan and Nepal seek to address the intersection of climate stressors and conflict drivers at the local level. The programs leveraged data from UNEP’s climate security assessment to understand climate change impacts and conflict dynamics at the local level and inform subsequent activities. UNEP combined standard adaptation activities with sustainable livelihood diversification, and robust community engagement, capacity building, and empowerment to address the issues simultaneously. The programs brought together diverse groups for a common purpose in ways that reduced conflict risk and resolved longstanding disputes. In tandem, UNEP strengthened leadership and capacity of local governance actors and civil society to mediate disputes and strengthen natural resource governance mechanisms to improve local dialogue and support conflict and dispute resolution.

The results were profound. Both programs successfully strengthened social cohesion, trust, and collaboration while also preparing communities to adapt their way of life to the changing climate. In Nepal, this led to an improved relationship between historically marginalized groups in Western Nepal prone to out-migration and the central government. In Sudan, there was a measurable improvement in interactions between herders and farmers in the target communities in Darfur and North Kordofan.

As USAID moves forward with finalizing the draft strategy and planning for its implementation, DT Institute and DT Global encourage them and their implementing partners to take these factors into consideration.


Thank you to our wonderful partners at USAID, UNEP, the Alliance for Peacebuilding, and the Korbel School at the University of Denver, and to the audience for their contributions to this important conversation.