The rapid spread of COVID-19 has dramatically changed the lives of billions in almost all parts of the world. Despite the relative slowness of the initial response, the virus has led countries to take drastic policy and legal measures to address what has been described as a war-like situation. This comes in stark contrast to the faltering approach of countries to tackle climate change, where both mitigative action and adaptive response have fallen short of what is needed to avert an existential crisis of human civilization. It is thus no surprise that political and societal action to contain the COVID-19 pandemic has received significant attention by different epistemic communities and significant amount of research has published thereon. This applies in particular to published work on the comparison between COVID-19 and the climate crisis and on the lack of political action concerning the latter. However, the way in which climate change, migrationi and COVID-19 relate has only received limited attention and their interconnections are less clear.  

This paper intends to provide some preliminary reflections on how COVID-19 has affected those displaced by climate change and what is needed in order to improve risk management frameworks to manage situations of multiple stressors. Accordingly, we address the following question: what preliminary lessons can be drawn in terms of risk management to address the “triple linkage” between climate change, migration and COVID-19? We argue that this triple linkage exposes the emergence of related risks that call for a substantive rethink of crisis prevention to acknowledge and take on this interconnectedness.   

Before turning to the analysis a word of caution is in order. Since the topic under examination is still unfolding, there are various unknowns in the course of COVID-19. Many elements remain open to question and their significance and multiple ramifications will be understood only with time. Mindful of these limitations, the initial and unfinished ideas herein presented are intended to contribute to the nascent discussion on the triple linkage and will certainly require further analysis.  

Compounding Risks

COVID-19 magnifies different simultaneous risks and thus reinforces the rationale for coordinated preparedness and response strategies at local, national, regional and international levels. While exacerbating socio-economic inequalities worldwide, the lockdowns enforced to contain COVID-19 have led to the reduction of migration within and across countries and have constrained the options available to persons affected by the effects of climate change.  

Those who wish to migrate might either be forced to delay their movement or indeed remain trapped in hazard-prone areas. The opposite, however, is also true. In the case of India, for example, the lockdown has forced tens of thousands migrant workers to leave cities and to trek to their villages. Men, women and children embarked in a staggering exodus returning to rural areas, where their exposure to climate impacts like droughts and food insecurity can be high. Similar dynamics have been witnessed in Peru. In these situations of synchronous risks humanitarian efforts might be hindered.  

Implementing stay-at-home orders in shelters during a heatwave, for example, could represent an additional health hazard. Evacuation plans can also exacerbate the spread of disease if transportation options are crowded and proper prevention measures are not taken. Yet, at the same time, evacuation plans may be thwarted by the limitations in transportation services dictated by lockdown. In other words, measures taken to contain the pandemic may preclude disaster risk reduction efforts. Furthermore, logistical challenges including grounded planes and blocked supply chains, constrain the capacity to deliver assistance. Floods in Ninewa in Iraq, torrential rains in Yemen, superstorm Harold in the Pacific and tornadoes in the United States are questioning the efficacy of measures taken or to be taken, as evacuation centres and shelters are likely to become spreading grounds of the virus. The response to Super Cyclone Amphan, considered to be the Bay of Bengal’s fiercest storm so far in this century, is another case in point. Efforts to plan mass evacuation have been hampered by the need to follow strict precautions to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Thus, an important problem at the heart of this three-fold relationship becomes evident: the triple linkage uncovers a friction of the different measures to be taken.  

As Randall notes, the measures needed to cope with a sudden episode of displacement, such as those linked to climate change, are often the opposite of those adopted to contain the spread of COVID-19. Simply put, the efforts to mitigate climate change impacts and COVID-19 may be often rendered ineffectual because they are seemingly in tension. Therefore, as authorities enforce lockdown while managing displacement, the potential for confusion and violence is high. This situation may further deteriorate as COVID-19 spreads to fragile countries that are particularly susceptible to climate impacts. In fact, while prevention measures vary considerably within and across countries, it appears that governments and humanitarian agencies, among others, lack the resources and systems to respond effectively to multiple risks as in the case of the triple linkage. A solid response should therefore be based on an appreciation on the ways in which these risks intertwine.  

Global heating will change the status quo upon which all other crises, like pandemics occur. In fact, the baseline risk has become higher and growing numbers of people might suffer as a result. A recent study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences has demonstrated that depending on scenarios of population growth and global warming, over the coming 50 years, between one to three billion people are projected to be in areas outside the climate conditions that have served humanity over the past 6,000 years. In other words, in the absence of either climate risk mitigation or mobility options, a substantial part of humanity could be exposed to mean annual temperatures warmer than nearly anywhere today, making it even harder to effectively respond to other stressors like a health emergency.  

COVID-19 might endanger many achievements ascribable to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG). It thus points to the shaky grounds which current disaster risk frameworks are built on. Climate change might heighten other stressors, such as health emergencies, making the current challenges less uncommon in the future. Simply put, with increasing global warming the likelihood of simultaneous risks is high. A sound risk framework ought to redress such critical gaps to reduce stressors and ensure the well-being of people. In the face of combined stressors and many unknowns, we are confronted with the opportunity to address multiple risks in a complementary way. 

Initial reflections on risk frameworks  

According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) disaster risk management is “the process of designing, implementing and evaluating strategies, policies and measures to improve the understanding of disaster risk with the explicit purpose of increasing human security, well-being, quality of life, resilience and sustainable development.” The identification and prioritization of risks is necessary for it allows to organise resources to both minimise and control the impact of significant events such as COVID-19.  

As eloquently stated  by the UN Secretary General, both COVID-19 and climate change necessitate “brave, visionary and collaborative leadership.” The objective of such leadership is, among others, to reduce risks while building resilient institutions that are capable of responding to known and unknown shocks. In the current situation, facing crises whose responses are seemingly at odds with each other, i.e. physical distancing versus crowded emergency shelters, an important question relates to how a sustainable risk framework could look like. Two preliminary lessons from the above discussion can be drawn: (1) the solutions to address compounding risks are, to an extent, already available and (2) these solutions are at odds with the status quo. Let us review both lessons in turn.  

First, by understanding and managing risk it is possible to achieve major reductions in disaster losses. This includes but is not limited to thorough data collection and analysis. The previously observed frictions can be partially overcome if long-term approaches are taken to mitigate, and prepare for, risks arising from emergencies occurring at the same time. In fact to address the challenges linked to the triple linkage the solutions are, to an extent, already known. Crucially, these overarching solutions are interconnected and self-reinforcing.  

  1. Health emergency: Countries that have managed to contain the spread of COVID-19 have done so by adopting a number of measures such as risk communication, community engagement, wide-spread testing, careful contact-tracing and developing sound medical infrastructure.ii A transformative health risk framework entails foresight, prevention, mitigation and recovery activities. These serve not only first responders, but also ensure the build-up of capabilities at all levels of society for future outbreaks too. Such approaches are understood as scalable and include “core building-block capabilities and functions” that can be flexibly adapted depending on the context. A country that withstands a health emergency might be better positioned to develop capacities to grapple with climate impacts because of fewer lost resources and time. As a result, preventive and mitigative efforts are not only conducive to the avoidance or containment of a public health emergency but also offer potential benefits for climate change mitigation. 
  2. Climate change: On climate change, there is a consensus that the rapid reduction of carbon dioxide emissions is the preeminent mitigation measure. Ending fossil fuel subsidies and taxing polluters are two relatively clear solutions. To mitigate, and adapt to, the adverse impacts of climate change and provide humanitarian assistance during an health emergency some pragmatic approaches are also emerging. These include the promotion of remote and technological mechanisms while enhancing the localization of responses. The latter recognises the central role of local authorities, including civil society, in humanitarian action. Among others, to ensure operational continuity localization entails the expansion of local procurement processes and of local first-responders’ networks. This field-level aid management system might also lower the environmental footprint associated to humanitarian activities. Briefly put, emissions reductions coupled with localization are instrumental in responding to the risks related to the triple linkage.   

  3. Migration: Scholars like Robin CohenAlex BettsLeah Zamore and Alexander Aleinikoff concur that the refugee and migration regimes are fraught with challenges and that they are ill equipped to deal with evolving complexity. Deterred and criminalized migration has frequently led to complex humanitarian situations, such as the one in the Mediterranean sea, which contribute to the view that the migration system is in “crisis”. Yet, research shows that increasing migration pathways could represent a win-win situation. This applies to persons affected by climate impacts and other stressors. As stated by the United Nations Secretary General, “exclusion is costly and inclusion pays.” As Crisp and Long have long argued, refugees’ mobility is a “positive asset” that can contribute to their “lasting protection.” It has also been demonstrated that increased international migration can bring significant economic returns. In other words, reforming the international migration regime is not just a question of ethics and justice. It also reflects long-term pragmatism stemming from a cost-benefit analysis in the context of the triple linkage. In fact, the development of migration pathways can also serve to reduce pressure from climate change impacts.

The question as to whether these approaches are realistic hinges on the capacity to counter path-dependency. This leads to the second lesson on the status quo and underlying power dynamics.  

In so far as disaster risk is embedded in complex social processes and power dynamics, a sustainable risk approach needs to challenge the status quo. The obstacles to implement the Paris Agreement and to reform international mobility through, for example, the Global Compact on Refugees (GCR) and the Global Compact on Migration (GCM) speak to the dominant arrangements often influenced by "incumbent actors" that are “dedicated to their own self-preservation” and that “appear unwilling to heed the ubiquitous distress signals of today’s Anthropocene”. Similarly, with the COVID-19 pandemic both emigration and immigration restrictions are likely to proliferate. One way to create new spaces of power is through "frontline change agents" that push for shifts in regimes that entail unsustainable pathways. We thus argue that to reduce risks and build resilience to multiple, cascading and interacting hazards linked to climate change and health emergencies a re-focus on transformative solutions already available is a condition sine qua non. In this context, the GCR and GCM, and key powerful actors therein, could act as catalyst for change.  

With COVID-19, governments may retreat to nationalism and mobility could be curtailed even further. But the far-reaching impact of current events can also become a turning point whereby a “new type of pragmatic and protective internationalism” could prevail. As historical research shows, strengthened collaboration after external shocks, such as pandemic, is possible. For example, in nineteenth century Europe, disease ravaged populations and wreaked havoc national economies. However, countries increasingly sought international agreements in an attempt to standardize their responses to pandemics. To conclude, in the face of dramatic events the international community could shift towards improved risk mitigation and preparedness, to better address climate migration and protect human health.  


About the authors

Emanuela Paoletti is working as a Post-Doc as part of the East Africa Peru India Climate Capacities (EPICC) project. Emanuela is also serving as Associate Editor at the journal Migration Studies. Between 2011 and 2018 Emanuela worked with UNHCR in Tunisia, Libya, Jordan and Ethiopia. Between 2009 and 2011 she worked Research Officer at the Refugee Studies Centre at Oxford University and at the International Migration Institute also at Oxford. Previously she was Research Analyst at Development Alternatives, London.  Emanuela obtained her Ph.D. in 2009 from the University of Oxford and her doctoral research focused on the Italian-Libyan agreements on migration. Her research was published with Palgrave Macmillan. Her publications have appeared with Political Studies, the Journal of North African Studies and Cambridge University Press. Her Master was completed at the London School of Economics at the Development Studies Institute (now Department of International Development). Emanuela obtained her Bachelor on International Relations from the University of Wales, Aberystwyth.  

Kira Vinke works at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research as the project lead of EPICC (East Africa Peru India Climate Capacities), an interdisciplinary project on the co-production of knowledge about regional climate and hydrological systems and their interactions with agricultural livelihoods, human migration and security. Ms. Vinke is currently co-chairing the Advisory Council on Civilian Crisis Prevention and Peacebuilding of the German Federal Government.  

Until June 2018 Ms. Vinke was a research analyst to the director. In this capacity, she developed a project to research with other scientists early warning signals for climate change-related conflict risks. From 2014-2016 she worked as an analyst to the director for the German Advisory Council on Global Change to the Federal Government (WBGU). In 2014 she worked as a consultant for the German Development Cooperation (GIZ) on the nexus between climate change and migration into vulnerable cities in Southern Bangladesh. In 2016 and 2017 Ms. Vinke worked as an external consultant for the Asian Development Bank developing the flagship report "A Region at Risk - The Human Dimensions of Climate Change in Asia and the Pacific." Ms. Vinke completed her doctoral dissertation at Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin on the subject of climate change and migration. 


Acknowledgements: The author acknowledge support by the International Climate Initiative (IKI). The German Federal Ministry for the Environment, Nature Conservation and Nuclear Safety (BMU) supports this initiative on the basis of a decision adopted by the German Bundestag.

This article is part of the IOM Series on The COVID-19 Pandemic, Migration and the Environment.

SDG 3 - Good Health and Well Being
SDG 10 - Reduced Inequalities
SDG 13 - Climate Action