Communicating the Complexity of Displacement in a Changing Climate

Photo from NASA.

By Lauren Parater, Annie Neimand, Ph.D., and Ann Christiano

There is often not one event that causes someone to leave their home. People are on the move for all sorts of reasons. There are social, political, economic, environmental and individual factors that work in concert to create these dynamics. In such complex contexts, the need to flee (forced displacement) versus the choice to leave (migration) can be challenging to determine. Human mobility was previously believed to be a result of people choosing to move for specific reasons. But the effects of climate change have turned this analysis on its head.

We now understand human mobility as the umbrella term for three distinct types of population movements in the context of climate change and disaster; displacement (the primarily forced movement of people), migration (the primarily voluntary movement of people) and planned relocation (the process of settling persons of communities to a new location).¹

Increasingly, the adverse effects of climate change and environmental degradation interact with the drivers of refugee movements,² including conflict or violence, adding to the complexity of movements.³ Furthermore, attribution science is still evolving and there is a lot more research needed to understand the impacts of slow onset events, such as desertification and sea-level rise, on people’s lives and human mobility dynamics.

Since 1994, when the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change first entered into force to the 2016 Paris Agreement seeking to unite all nations under a common cause, we have witnessed the international community coming together to address the challenges posed by climate change, and undertaking efforts to mitigate its adverse effects. One of those challenges is communicating the complexity of factors driving displacement in the context of climate change. Doing so effectively is critical to ensure comprehensive responses to diverse protection needs.

How do we communicate the complexity of human mobility and the drivers of displacement in the context of climate change in a way that moves civil society, governments and institutions to take ambitious action?

In parallel, how can we accurately represent distinct groups of people on the move who have different protections under international law? While the vast majority of them are internally displaced, we know that some of those fleeing across borders may be in need of international protection, falling within the UN Refugee Agency’s (UNHCR) mandate.

We have the opportunity to recognize the complexity of human mobility through a new lens. Those leading on this work in the humanitarian sector recognize that this lens should not focus on a single driver for understanding these dynamics in the context of climate change, but must account for the multi-causality of population movement.

Just as we wouldn’t look at discrimination through a single lens like gender (we also consider race, class, citizenship, sexual orientation, disability within a particular context), we must also think about the reasons people move as a result of interconnected factors. The effects of climate change can act as a ‘threat multiplier’ aggravating conflict and compounding pre-existing vulnerabilities.

Illustration by Ailadi.

For example, in Somalia climatic shock is a recurrent issue. Storms, drought and flash flooding leave people more vulnerable to protection violations against a backdrop of protracted conflict. These sudden- and slow-onset events result in reduced access to vital humanitarian assistance and increased competition for scarce resources. As such, in Somalia, we can observe a ‘nexus’ relationship between three components: conflict, climate change and displacement — both internal and cross-border.

In 2018, UNHCR undertook the study: In Harm’s Way: International protection in the context of nexus dynamics between conflict or violence and disaster or climate change to enhance its understanding of destination country responses to ‘nexus’ situations, and to identify policy and practical solutions to strengthen the implementation of refugee law in such contexts. The study looks at the types of protection provided to Somalis fleeing across borders to escape drought, famine and multifaceted conflict 2011–2012, and to Haitians forcibly displaced by the effects of the 2010 earthquake that exacerbated pre-existing State fragility. Key findings indicate that refugee law frameworks can be applicable in ‘nexus’ situations where there is cross-border displacement, and should form part of a ‘toolbox’ of international protection measures available to States.

There are still data and knowledge gaps in this area and efforts are ongoing to understand how climate change and conflict can be interlinked. In a recent study, researchers found that severe drought in Tunisia, Libya, Yemen and Syria worsened by climate change, fueled conflict during the Arab Spring. As a result, there was an increase in asylum requests from the Middle East and North Africa.

“Recent studies of the Syrian uprising have shown that growing water scarcity and frequent droughts, coupled with poor water management, led to multi-year crop failures, economic deterioration and consequently mass migration of rural families to urban areas. Rapid growing population, overcrowding, unemployment and increased inequality put pressure on urban centers and finally contributed to the breakout of political unrest. Should these mechanisms be in place, the effect of anthropogenic climate change on the frequency and intensity of extreme events is expected to affect the risk of violent conflicts by aggravating such drivers of conflicts as poverty, food insecurity and inequalities,” report the researchers.

At the 24th United Nations Climate Change Conference in December 2018, one of UNHCR’s key messages focused on recognizing this complexity. They explain, “Complexity and multi-causality are key features of climate change and disaster displacement. This means that the need remains for further research to build knowledge on the dynamics of climate change, disasters and displacement, and their impact on people’s lives, to analyze the complexity and multi-causality of the phenomena, and to progressively improve national and international responses in this challenging context.”⁶

This wide-angle protection lens incorporates the full picture and differs from current approaches that do not consider the role of climate change and sudden disasters as risk multipliers in human mobility, creating very real protection risks for people on the move. To ensure that there are no protection gaps, we must be intentional in the way that we communicate about the complexity of human mobility.

To do so, we can apply the best of what we know from behavioral, cognitive and social science to build understanding and support for this approach in the international community. This report helps us answer the question “How might we better communicate complexity?” We share five imperatives to help the broader international community communicate more effectively. Each of these imperatives is separated into chapters.

The science and storytelling tools laid out in forthcoming chapters can be applied to numerous other cases and we encourage you to experiment with them. Importantly, these imperatives were drawn from a number of studies that did not necessarily focus on this topic, but collectively provided insight as to how to communicate complexity.

This special publication is part of a partnership between the UN Refugee Agency and the University of Florida Center for Public Interest Communications. In an effort to move past communication strategies that simply “raise awareness” of an issue, this partnership aims to connect those working in the humanitarian sector with applicable insights from behavioral, cognitive and social science to make a lasting difference on the issues that matter most.

Thank you to Alex Randall, Erica Bower and Hannah Entwisle Chapuisat for their time and insight for this project.

This special report shares how we can apply behavioral, cognitive and social science to build understanding and support for complex issues. We focused on climate change displacement as it is one of the critical and most complex areas of work facing the humanitarian sector — and the entire global community. The special report is divided into five chapters:

Introduction: Communicating the Complexity of Displacement in a Changing Climate

Chapter One: Make Room for the Most Affected

Chapter Two: Use Visual Language

Chapter Three: Tell Stories

Chapter Four: Use Emotion with Intention

Chapter Five: Step Into the World of Your Community


  1. UNHCR, Key concepts on climate change and displacement,
  2. Global Compact on Refugees 2018,
  3. UNHCR, 2018, ‘In Harm’s Way: International protection in the context of nexus dynamics between conflict or violence and disaster or climate change’,
  4. Humanitarian Country Teams, Humanitarian Response Plan Revised — Somalia, 2018
  5. UNHCR, 2018, ‘In Harm’s Way: International protection in the context of nexus dynamics between conflict or violence and disaster or climate change’,
  6. This slow onset — as opposed to the attributable rapid onset of a disaster — and the resulting ‘causality’ challenge creates particular challenges to address climate change displacement from a holistic and intersectional approach.

The Arc

How science can improve communication about refugees and humanitarian innovation.

UNHCR Innovation Service

Written by

UNHCR’s Innovation Service embeds new approaches and methodologies to address the growing humanitarian needs of today and more critically — the future.

The Arc

The Arc

How science can improve communication about refugees and humanitarian innovation.

Welcome to a place where words matter. On Medium, smart voices and original ideas take center stage - with no ads in sight. Watch
Follow all the topics you care about, and we’ll deliver the best stories for you to your homepage and inbox. Explore
Get unlimited access to the best stories on Medium — and support writers while you’re at it. Just $5/month. Upgrade