No evidence in claims climate change is fuelling East African migration, warns Oxford study

No evidence in claims climate change is fuelling East African migration, warns Oxford study

No link currently exists proving climate change is driving migration out of East Africa, despite a widespread acceptance that human mobility is a key impact of climate change, according to research today from a multi-disciplinary Oxford University team, which maintains the factors driving migration are complex.

The study, published in Frontiers in Climate, argues future research, using evidence of extreme event attribution and changing weather and human mobility could provide better understanding.

Lisa Thalheimer, the lead author, says, ‘We were very interested in finding if there is a link between mobility and climate change...especially after international organisations started coming up with projections.

‘We wanted to see what the evidence tells us and we very soon saw that climate change is often referred to in existing literature...but climate data is not really used. The evidence is a bit scant.’

Both weather and climate impacts and movements of people were studied by the team, as well as earlier research, and it maintains there is no direct causal link between a changing climate and human mobility. According to the paper, ‘We find that, although climate change is referred a tipping point for human mobility, studies imply a causal link between human mobility and climate change.

‘Our findings show that climatic influences on human mobility are not independent. Rather, climate factors influencing human mobility are closely connected with contextual factors such as social norms, economic opportunities, and conflict.’

The lead author continues, ‘East Africa is a well-known climate change hotspot...but the picture is much more complex than is often represented.’

The Oxford team, which includes a migration expert and climate scientists, maintains, ‘The links between weather and climate-related events, contextual factors and human mobility are complex, defying simplistic reasoning according to which climate change would “lead” to human mobility.’

The situation in the region is highly complex, according to the study, and reasons for migration show an interwoven picture – sometimes involving pastoralism, social norms, traditions and economic opportunities. Blaming climate change is ‘simplistic’, say the researchers, especially if migration has traditionally been used to sustain livelihoods, and often does not take account of climate data.

Today’s study says, ‘Crucially, we find that the use of climate data in all studies is inconsistent if data is used at all.’ 

The paper maintains, ‘There is not yet a basis to causally link anthropogenic climate change to human mobility in this region.’

Co-author Dr Friederike Otto, Associate Director of the Environmental Change Institute, says, ‘This research shows that, despite the overwhelming evidence of human-influence on weather and climate in many parts of the world, crucial gaps remain in particular in lower income countries. I hope we can inspire more rigorous research on this crucially important topic.’

The team argues inter-disciplinary studies, such as this one, using climate and mobility data, could provide future understanding and insights. At Oxford, Lisa Thalheimer says, because many disciplines are involved, there is research into weather attribution, and the potential to use data for studies on the impact on human migration and displacement.  

The study says, ‘A new framework of interdisciplinary research is needed, which integrates diverse data into models that simulate how human mobility is impacted by contextual and climate change-related factors.’ Such research is already underway involving the Oxford-based research group Climate Econometrics.  

Professor Sir David Hendry, Co-director Climate Econometrics, maintains, ‘The powerful tools developed at Climate Econometrics for modelling complex data and evolving relationships can help clarify key issues such as the impact of climate change on (forced) migration in environments where it is a serious problem.’

Deciphering Impacts and Human Responses to a Changing Climate in East Africa, has been published in Frontiers in Climate, a leading climate science journal. See