InsightsOctober 23, 2020

A New Framework for U.S. Leadership on Climate Migration

Climate migration is poised to be one of the biggest human development and security challenges of the next several decades, yet policymakers and the research community are just now understanding the myriad impacts of climate change on human mobility. A new framework for addressing these challenges is needed—one defined by the United States taking action to slow the effects of climate change, reforming its own immigration policies, and leading multilateral efforts.

Our understanding of the impact of climate change on human mobility is in its early stages. We know sea level rise threatens coastal communities around the world and that heat waves, storms, drought, and wildfires made more frequent and severe by climate change will shape global migration patterns. Research on the scale and geographic distribution of climate migration is still nascent, as is the development of potential policy responses. Properly understanding the interplay between climate change and migration is of critical importance for policymakers. Getting our understanding and responses right—or wrong—has enormous implications not only for hundreds of millions of migrants and forcibly displaced people, but also for security and human development.

Despite evidence indicating climate change is already impacting human mobility—and will do so with even greater regularity and severity the longer global temperatures continue to climb—scientists, legal scholars, and policymakers have yet to come to a consensus on what defines a climate migrant. Neither is there an adequate strategy, either internationally or within the United States, for dealing with climate migration.

This policy brief presents a new framework for U.S. leadership on climate migration, first addressing two fundamental questions that are important to understanding why such a new framework is needed:

  1. What is the relationship between climate change and human mobility?
  2. What recourse and protections are currently available to climate migrants?

This brief was originally published by the Center for Strategic & International Studies. Erol Yayboke is deputy director and a senior fellow with the Project on Prosperity and Development at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Trevor Houser is a partner with Rhodium Group and leads the firm’s Energy & Climate Practice, and is a co-director of the Climate Impact Lab. Janina Staguhn is the program coordinator for the Project on Prosperity and Development and Project on U.S. Leadership in Development at CSIS. Tani Salma is a temporary junior research with the Energy Security and Climate Change Program at CSIS.