A REPORT BY THE WHITE HOUSE
The climate crisis is reshaping our world, as the Earth’s climate is now changing faster than at any point in the history of modern civilization. Defined by changes in average weather conditions that persist over multiple decades or longer, climate change includes changes in temperature, precipitation patterns, the frequency and severity of certain weather events, and other features of the climate system.2 When combined with physical, social, economic, and/or environmental vulnerabilities, climate change can undermine food, water, and economic security. Secondary effects of climate change can include displacement, loss of livelihoods, weakened governments, and in some cases political instability and conflict.
In recognition of this, on February 9, 2021, President Biden signed Executive Order (E.O.) 14013, “Rebuilding and Enhancing Programs to Resettle Refugees and Planning for the Impact of Climate Change on Migration,” in which he directed the National Security Advisor to prepare a report on climate change and its impact on migration. This report marks the first time the U.S. Government is officially reporting on the link between climate change and migration.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) reports that an average of 21.5 million people were forcibly displaced each year by sudden onset weather-related hazards between 2008 and 2016, and thousands more from slow-onset hazards linked to climate change impacts.3 Policy and programming efforts made today and in coming years will impact estimates of people moving due to climate related factors. Tens of millions of people, however, are likely to be displaced over the next two to three decades due in large measure to climate change impacts.
Migration in response to climate impacts may range from mobility as a proactive adaptation strategy to forced displacement in the face of life-threatening risks. This mobility may occur within or across international borders. Specifically, one model forecasts that climate change may lead to nearly three percent of the population (totaling more than 143 million people) in three regions - Sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia, and Latin America - to move within their country of origin by 2050.4 To date, this mobility has been mostly internal and increasingly an urban phenomenon, with many of those displaced and migrating moving to urban areas. Although most people displaced or migrating as a result of climate impacts are staying within their countries of origin, the accelerating trend of global displacement related to climate impacts is increasing cross-border movements, too, particularly where climate change interacts with conflict and violence.5 As the effects of climate change intensify, it is important to understand the underlying factors that may mitigate or exacerbate migration, and develop strategies to both proactively and humanely manage these impacts and be considered in the context of any geographic or environmental factors that would contribute disproportionately to the destabilization of economically or politically important regions.
Climate migration or climate displacement are terms that describe a multitude of climate change related migration scenarios.6 Each, however, has a more specific meaning, and both are distinct from planned relocation. Migration may be temporary, seasonal, circular, or permanent and may be forced by increasingly severe conditions or occur as a proactive strategy in the face of climate impacts to livelihoods and wellbeing. Planned relocation is, generally, a relocation of an entire community made by relevant governments and, ideally, in partnership with affected communities.
Climate change related-migration, as used in this report, is an umbrella term describing the spectrum of climate change’s relationship with human mobility—including the circumstances of “trapped populations” for whom migration is not an option despite exposure to climate-related threats. Even in the United States, one extreme event can result in a relatively high degree of permanent relocation of low-income populations exposed to chronic and worsening conditions over time.From those forced to move to those left behind, U.S. policy can aid in supporting human security by, among other things, building on existing foreign assistance to a reconsideration and development of legal mechanisms to support those who migrate. While this report focuses on international climate change-related migration, domestic climate-change related displacement is also a current and future security risk as sea-level rise, permafrost thaw, drought, and wildfires threaten U.S. populations.8 The use of U.S. foreign assistance is one lever to respond to climate change related migration. The foreign assistance infrastructure brings together a powerful combination of tools, including development and humanitarian assistance funding, convening power, technical expertise, capacity building, and partnerships to address many elements of the complex issues of climate change and migration. However, current funding levels, structure, and coordination of U.S. foreign assistance is inadequate to meet the challenge of comprehensively addressing climate-related migration and displacement. Looking forward, it is vital for the United States Government (USG) to focus on the complex interplay between climate change and migration, rather than approaching these as separate issue sets.
It is also critical to support people who desire to stay as long and as safely as possible in their home areas through investments in disaster risk reduction (DRR) measures and local adaptation, including capacity building to assist countries with managing environmental risks and land use. When migration presents as the preferable form of adaptation, or in situations when people are forced to flee the impacts of climate change, the United States has a compelling national interest in strengthening global protection for these displaced individuals and groups. Those protections are rooted in humanitarian objectives and inextricably linked to U.S. interests in safe, orderly, and humane migration management, regional stability, and sustainable economic growth and development.
Often, the individuals most at risk are the least able to relocate. Resilience and adaptation plans must consider accessibility, child protection, disability rights, gender equity, Indigenous rights, and protection needs for populations in vulnerable situations. To assure equity and inclusion, consultations with individuals and communities vulnerable to climate change should inform the United States’ responses and plans to address the climate change impacts on migration. Any planned relocations must respect and maintain household, community, social cohesion, and kinship ties and avoid separating families.
Existing legal instruments to protect displaced individuals are limited in scope and do not readily lend themselves to protect those individuals displaced by the impacts of climate change, especially those that address migration across borders. Given the growing trend in displacement related to climate change, expanding access to protection will be vital. The United States will need to strengthen the application of existing protection frameworks, adjust U.S. protection mechanisms to better accommodate people fleeing the impacts of climate change, and evaluate the need for additional legal protections for those who have no alternative but to migrate.
The United States is in a unique position to build on and integrate longstanding local, regional, and international multilateral mechanisms and initiatives to strengthen global commitment and cooperation to more effectively address migration impacted by climate change. While multilateral engagement on this issue is not new, too often these multilateral mechanisms and initiatives lack consistency, coherence, synergies, and complementarity in addressing climate change related migration.
Effectively addressing migration impacted by climate change will require action from all stakeholders, including ensuring people most affected can make informed decisions in response to the effects of climate change. There are valuable upcoming opportunities through which the United States can assert a bold leadership role, innovatively and smartly shaping multilateral outcomes affecting our national security and global stability. U.S. leadership can improve multilateral coordination and bolster contributions not just from governments and international organizations, but all stakeholders including the private sector and civil society actors representing affected communities that traditionally face barriers in shaping multilateral mechanisms. The United States can also contribute to the ability of other nations to predict and adapt to various forms of climate change so that migrations may be planned, or in some cases, avoided altogether.
The amount of investment needed to respond to and minimize climate drivers of migration and displacement goes far beyond the resources of the United States alone. It will require the full convening and leveraging power of the U.S. Government. Partnerships should also include those with local actors and civil society on defining durable solutions, and the private sector for innovation, scaling and sustainability of adaptation approaches. Climate financing is a key component supporting vulnerable communities to respond to, prepare for, and adapt to climate and migration risks. The United States needs to leverage its leadership role with international financial institutions to ensure vulnerable migrants, refugees, and internally displaced persons (IDPs) are adequately included. U.S. foreign assistance, if leveraged, resourced, and targeted appropriately, could have a much larger influence that leads to better climate and migration-related outcomes. Additionally, engaging the U.S. and international science agencies and institutions responsible for covering and understanding climate drivers and climate change impacts will be essential to developing competent and responsible detection, prevention, preparedness, and mitigation programming pertaining to climate-related migration. As an example, space-based technologies, and space-derived information play a key role in climate knowledge, science, monitoring and early warning. Space-based information can contribute to assessments of the vulnerability of communities to climate change and can help monitor the effectiveness of adaptation strategies.
This report provides an overview of climate change and its impact on migration that informs a proposal for how U.S. foreign assistance can better address the effects of climate change impacts on displacement and migration. It goes further to outline options for protection and resettlement of individuals displaced directly or indirectly from climate change and identifies opportunities for the United States to work with other stakeholders, including through multilateral engagement, to address migration resulting directly or indirectly from climate change. The report concludes with a primary recommendation and a list of considerations for further evaluation that may guide the United States’ approach to climate migration, if funding and policy priorities allow. Most notably, this report recommends the establishment of a standing interagency policy process on Climate Change and Migration to coordinate U.S. Government efforts to mitigate and respond to migration resulting from the impacts of climate change that brings together representatives across the scientific, development, humanitarian, and peace and security elements of the U.S. Government.