The problem with the security narrative around climate change migration


Climate change has many faces, some might think of the infamous starving polar bear on a melting piece of ice, while others imagine drowning cities. Another commonly quoted aspect is that of millions of people migrating to escape droughts, floods and rising sea levels. In fact, a projected impact of climate change is climate induced migration or “climate refugees”. Estimates of climate induced migration predict 200 million climate refugees by 2050.

Former US secretary of state John Kerry called climate change the “world’s most fearsome weapon of mass destruction” while giving a speech on the impacts of climate change and its implications for national security. He is not alone; a coalition of 25 US military and national security experts warns of climate change as a threat multiplier that could require more military interventions. A study published in Science estimates 1 million refugees coming to the EU per year. Commentators warn of the conflicts, wars, the potential costs and other devastating consequences of this mass migration.

The framing of climate change as a security issue is effective in emphasising the diverse risks associated with climate change and to push governments to recognize these risks. It can even motivate governments to take action. However, the question remains whether this action is appropriate to the issue at hand, especially in connection to climate migration. Invoking the image of mass migration of desperate, underfed refugees will more likely result in a more militarised border defence, diverting attention and funds from climate change mitigation and adaptation. Therefore, individual states or communities of states pursuing border security may cause more harm than it does good. Characterising environmental problems as security threats often does not allow for distinguishing legitimate issues from seemingly inevitable catastrophes. Similarly, experts warn of framing specific conflicts as induced or exacerbated by climate change, since this shifts the focus away from other factors, such as government responsibility.

For instance, water scarcity issues are regularly linked to climate change and the impact it could have on rainfall variability is a valid concern. However, there could be detrimental consequences if other factors like population growth or improper governance are neglected. The success of management approaches critically depends on how well they are tailored to fit the problem they are aimed at. So, let’s have a more detailed look at the climate migration issue. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), extreme weather events are the most direct link of climate change and migration, but other climate conditions may force people to migrate, for example due to crop failures resulting from droughts and floods. However, environmental conditions are just one among many factors that cause people to leave their homes. Migration can be induced by diverse natural, socio-economic and cultural factors. Climate change may exacerbate pre-existing socio-economic vulnerability and thus lead to an increase in migration, but due to the complexity of these dynamics it is difficult to categorize individuals, or for that matter groups of people, as climate migrants.

A complex issue

When it comes to the nature and magnitude of climate migration, the academic landscape is more divided than the often-quoted estimates of refugee numbers suggest. The IPCC emphasises the difficulty of formulating sound estimates of the magnitude of climate migration. Other research indicates that climate related migration will resemble traditional migration patterns. Climate change will first lead to internal migration within affected countries or regions, intensifying the move from rural to urban areas. Whether the migration will be temporary, seasonal or permanent depends on what it is induced by (e.g. a distinct extreme weather event vs an ongoing drought) as well as on the economic, social and cultural background.

We have to question which interests this security narrative serves. In the best case, people fall back on the security argument to emphasise the need to combat climate change. In the worst case, the argument can be instrumentalized to advocate for strict immigration laws and militarized borders that are politically successful with electorates. However, neither of these approaches goes very far to support those who will suffer the hardest from climate change. In fact, those most vulnerable to environmental change, such as climate change actually have the least capability to migrate, since they lack sufficient resources (see Fig. 1).

Screen Shot 2018-04-21 at 16.02.06Fig 1: Relationship between vulnerability to environmental change and mobility (source: IPCC Fith Assessment Report, WG II)

Climate Change Adaptation

A focus on the challenges of climate migration fails to address the needs of those for whom migration is not an option. However, if our concern for these people is genuine, we need to create better opportunities for them to adapt to climate change. Migration has been a mechanism for coping with environmental change throughout human history. It is important to distinguish between those who will forcefully be displaced by extreme weather events or sea level rise from those who migrate due to more constant pressures that are entangled with socio-economic factors. Planning is a vital factor here: it helps to prepare for displacement of the former and may prevent migration of the latter. Options range from adaptive techniques to make subsistence farming more resilient or alternative job training to preparing cities for an influx of migrants. No doubt, it will be extremely difficult to implement these measures, but in my opinion they are absolutely essential.

Legal Challenges

Beyond the direct challenges likely to be caused by large-scale displacement due to climate change, the very definition of “climate refugees” is both a political and social challenge. The term climate refugee is commonly used, however there is no legal basis or official definition for this. This is perhaps best illustrated by the fact that climate migrants are not recognized under current refugee law: the 1951 UN Refugee Convention only grants refugee status to those trying to escape persecution by their government. Here again, there is no straightforward solution. Changing the convention is unlikely to serve the interests of both “conventional” and “climate” refugees. Devising a new, separate treaty for climate refugees may take too long and it is questionable whether countries that will likely be the destination for migration would come to the table. Non-treaty instruments could provide a framework how countries that are the origins or destination should deal with climate migration, but this does not solve the problem of the status and rights of “climate refugees”.

What to do?

Without a doubt, we need to be aware of the diverse impacts of climate change not just on natural systems but also on a socio-economic basis. Climate change is a threat multiplier and should be recognized as such. It is equally important to recognize and discuss the links between climate change and security issues as well as the challenges climate induced migration is posing for our institutions. However, an unbalanced focus on looming mass migration, conflict and war fails to provide a sound basis from which we can attempt to cope with the impacts of climate change. International law needs to bridge the legal gaps that make it difficult for climate migrants to receive help. Climate change adaptation aimed at the most vulnerable groups needs to be facilitated on international, national and local governance levels. But first, for any of that to happen, the global community must aim for a more balanced discourse around climate change migration.




Christianson J. 2012. Security lens for climate change brings risks – academics. Thomson Reuters Foundation News.

Goering L. 2014. Climate migration complex, but planning can help – experts. Thomson Reuters Foundation News.

Glahn B. 2009. ‘Climate refugees’? Addressing the international legal gaps. International Bar Association.

Harvey F. 2017. Devastating climate change could lead to 1m migrants a year entering EU by 2100. The Guardian.

IPCC. 2014. Fifth Assessment Report: Working Group II. Chapter 12: Human Security.

Maman J & Kosonen K. 2014. Greenpeace: Climate change increasingly threatens security. Aljazeera News.

Milman O. 2016. Military experts say climate change poses ‘significant risk’ to security. The Guardian.

Randall A. 2018. Migration is a successful climate adaptation strategy. Aljazeera News.

Rom J. 2014. John Kerry Calls Climate Change ‘World’s Most Fearsome’ Weapon of Mass Destruction. Think Process.

White G. 2011. Climate Change and Migration. Security and Borders in a Warming World. New York (NY): Oxford University Press 180p.


Photo: John Moore/Getty Images, (retrieved from

Figure 1: IPCC Fifth Assessment Report, WG II: chapter 12.

3 thoughts on “The problem with the security narrative around climate change migration

  1. Thank you for your blogpost! I was just wondering, what do you think would be the best way to legally distinguish climate refugees from climate migrants? For example, the IPCC states that global sea level will rise by up to 98cm (business as usual scenario, upper limit), however many new studies state this rise may be up to 1.5m. Say the Netherlands adapts to 98cm of SLR, but it actually happens to be more than a meter. This way a large part of the country will have to be internally displaced due to their land disappearing, but another part may become more vulnerable to floods etc. which may lead to these people wanting to move because of the higher risks of living in the area they do. Would the first group be considered climate refugees, because they are fleeing from non-livable land, while the second group would be considered climate migrants because they want to live in a safer environment? How do you think we can pose these differences in legal terms?


  2. @dalexieva I think filling the legal gaps will be difficult, and the definition of climate refugees is part of that. However, I think the problem is not so much one of distinguishing climate migrants from refugees by definition but rather one of developing a framework that allows for clear cut rights but is at the same time able to address the complexity of climate migration. The example you raise is one of displacement within a country. In cases like this, climate migrants may be better off since their government has clear obligations towards them and a duty of care (at least in theory). It might be more complicated with transborder migration because of the gap in international law that I pointed out in the post. Since there is no legal definition of climate refugees or migrants in international law, there is no basis for potential special rights of these people and other countries in the international community are not obliged to take in climate refugees.


  3. Very interesting read @sarahaucecs! Especially the legal part seems very important to me, a question that needs an answer soon. And I certainly agree with the national security experts that climate change is a threat multiplier. However, did they (and you) think about the fact that climate change might also start West-to-West migration instead of only increasing Developing-to-Developed countries migration? Think about the entire left half of the Netherlands that will be gone as soon as the sea level rises with more than a couple of meters, flood regions in Florida, droughts in Cape Town and Las Vegas – money can do a lot, but it will stop at some point… Maybe something to think about for not only the military experts as a threat from outside, but also for the financial experts and the secretaries of state as a threat at home. Even if the vulnerability is much lower in most Western regions, a ‘low’ vulnerability will at some point become high enough…


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