Security actors should be careful how they characterize climate change and migration. Climate migration is poised to continue growing, at an increasingly rapid rate, just as anti-immigrant politics surge, from the United States to the UK to Turkey and beyond. In this context, the security community in the Global North must be clear-eyed that the security problem with climate migration is not migrants; it is their exploitation, politicization, and abuse and the resulting fallout. Moreover, it will be important to resist ostensibly neutral language that can still give cover to xenophobic policies, and focus on the real security challenge – backlash to the more accommodating and flexible global migration system the international community will need to navigate climate change.

Climate-Driven Migration a Growing Concern

Climate-driven migration and displacement are already here and likely to grow, given that even optimistic emissions scenarios involve increased warming in the coming decades. Projections of climate migration and displacement by 2050 range from hundreds of millions to more than a billion people, mostly within and between climate vulnerable countries of the Global South. A recent study found that unusually dry conditions already were a predictor of increased migration from Central America to the United States in recent years. Even the cautious, consensus-based U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change sees climate change increasingly driving migration. Such assessments are alarming to professionals charged with security and stability, with mass migration featured in remarks on climate change by the U.S. Secretary of Defense and Director of National Intelligence.

Pitfalls in Security Analysis of Climate Migration

Immigration hardliners seized with the minority of migrants and refugees that flow to the Global North often invoke security-centric warnings about crime, terrorism, and economic drain. But sound analysis should recognize this as fear mongering largely motivated by – to put it charitably – politics. Crime? Undocumented U.S. immigrants commit fewer felonies than legal residents and citizens. Terrorism? The post-9/11 United States is exceedingly secure from terrorist infiltration, something I know having investigated terrorist threats at the CIA, and which has little to do with the overall number of migrants or refugees admitted. An economic weakness? Immigrants pay billions in taxes, disproportionately start businesses, often do jobs native-born citizens don’t want, and alleviate the United States’ and other Global North countries’ dilemma of a dwindling labor force. China could only dream of such a blessing. Refugees bring conflict? In fact, sophisticated global research finds “no evidence that hosting refugees increases the likelihood of new conflict, prolongs existing conflict, or raises the number of violent events or casualties.”

But good faith security actors should also beware a more insidious pitfall – letting a desire for political neutrality dictate an approach that excludes key factors and can still give ammunition to misguided, xenophobic policies. Consider the 2021 National Intelligence Estimate on climate change. It warns that climate-driven migration “will contribute to instability when it upsets socioeconomic, political, and demographic dynamics.” I have surely written such sentences myself, and they are not inaccurate (almost by definition). They are a sincere effort by nonpartisan analysts tasked with addressing a polarized topic, and such lines surely went through torturous editing.

Nevertheless, this approach reflects implicit choices about what questions to ask and what answers to emphasize, and about what is fair game and what is “too political.” But this framing leaves out the benefits of migration as an adaptation to climate change, one can relieve security pressures from imperiled livelihoods, humanitarian crises, and unmet political grievances. Moreover, by framing migration as the problem to be solved, as the inciting incident that disrupts static, actorless “dynamics,” it ascribes potential instability to those with the least control in the equation. Conversely, it ignores the actual source of security problems – how political forces and non-State actors neglect, resist, or exploit increased migration and displacement.

The Real Security Risks

Focusing on whether climate migration will create security problems misses the key variable, akin to focusing only on whether Ukraine’s engagement with the West will create a Russian invasion. A better framing would focus less on the security risk of climate-driven migration, and more on the threat of State and non-State actors blocking, targeting, exploiting, or failing to accommodate it. And those threats are many, including instability, extremism, and geopolitical vulnerabilities, to say nothing of the harms faced by migrants themselves.

Instability and humanitarian crises are made more likely when States block people’s ability to move to safety amid worsening climate change. Trapping populations in vulnerable locations, legal limbo, and interim detention is an ineffective deterrent, a recipe for criminal and extremist exploitation, humanitarian crisis, and a risk factor for unrest that can undermine stability, disrupt supply chains, or require costly relief. Equally problematic is also inadequately helping low-emitting and climate vulnerable countries themselves, who receive the most migration and displacement. Continued shortfalls in climate resilience investments from the Global North to vulnerable countries which could lessen pressure to migrate and help accommodate those that do, represent a security vulnerability. Conversely, when adequately accommodated, refugee populations are in fact associated with a reduction in conflict.

Meanwhile, white supremacists and far right extremists, like the anti-immigrant attacker that killed 23 in El Paso, Texas, in 2019, are likely to pose a growing threat in a world of increased climate migration. In contrast to the politicized overfixation on migration bringing potential terrorist infiltration, far right extremists hostile to migrants are already a lethal, growing challenge in the United States and Europe. Such groups are the most dangerous terrorist threat in the United States, according to fatalities and the U.S. Intelligence Community’s assessment, eclipsing jihadists. In November, far right networks in the United States and United Kingdom incited a riot in Dublin with misinformation about a stabbing attack allegedly perpetrated by a man of Algerian descent (an Irish citizen who has lived in the country 20 years). The unrest resulted in 34 arrests and the injury of several police officers.

Finally, harsh, migration-averse policies create geopolitical vulnerabilities and opportunity costs for the Global North. Turkish President Erdogan has used the threat of Syrian refugee flows to press for political concessions from Europe, while Belarus and Russia have facilitated migration to Europe to retaliate against the EU for sanctions and spread propaganda. China points to harsh U.S. migration policies as evidence of U.S. “Wanton Violation of Other Countries’ Human Rights and Trampling on Justice,” undermining U.S. efforts to compete with China for global leadership in the developing world. And U.S., UK, and European efforts to outsource migration management to Mexico, Rwanda, and North Africa, respectively, waste funding and diplomatic capital that could be spent on other priorities, with dubious benefit and profound human costs.

Migration and a Climate Secure World

Recently, my organization, the Center for Climate and Security, asked a working group of climate and national security experts to envision what a “climate secure” world could plausibly look like in 2040, given unavoidable warming. The primary need identified by this group of mostly defense, intelligence, and diplomacy veterans wasn’t more resilient naval bases or a military buildup in the melting Arctic, and certainly not just stronger border enforcement. It was a more humane, flexible, and accommodating global migration system.

What that looks like is a larger issue, and mostly a question outside the purview of the security field. Globally, it could involve thorny adjustments to international law to recognize climate justifications for refugee status, or more progress toward the principles of the Global Compact for Migration and the Global Compact on Refugees. Development, climate adaptation, and other assistance especially need to be scaled up to climate vulnerable communities experiencing livelihood losses or disorganized rural-to-urban movement and to help attend to the human security of incoming migrants and refugees, mostly hosted by other climate vulnerable states in the Global South.

In the United States, legislative reform of the dysfunctional immigration system is needed, easing legal migration and refugee designations and rebalancing the disproportionate emphasis on militarized border security toward resources for processing and receiving communities. That is far off, given Republicans’ efforts to hold foreign military assistance hostage to secure even harsher border policies, including slashing asylum rights and doubling down on enforcement. That leaves executive action to realize the goals stated in the White House 2021 report on climate change and migration. Baby steps that can be built upon include operationalizing the State Department’s new policy approach that emphasizes refugee and migrant protection, more use of tools like Temporary Protected Status and humanitarian parole to relieve climate vulnerable populations, and engagement via diplomatic and military channels to protect migrants and refugees abroad.

But given these challenges, the security world should at least not make the problem harder, and vocalize that on a warming planet, migration is not the security risk. The security risk is the backlash to it, which jeopardizes human security, amplifies diplomatic tensions, empowers extremists, undermines democratic norms, and worsens State fragility. We should speak and act accordingly.

IMAGE: An olive tree burns during as wildfire rages in Alexandroupoli, northern Greece, on August 22, 2023. The remains of 18 people believed to be migrants were found in a Greek forest fire near the Turkish border as hundreds of firefighters battled to contain the second deadly wave of blazes to hit the country in a month. (Photo by SAKIS MITROLIDIS/AFP via Getty Images)