How Climate Refugees Are Shaping Movements and Walls

Activist crowd holds "welcome refugee" banner

So much in recent memory seems related to climate change, from the Syrian Civil War to rural-urban migration in Bangladesh to migrant caravans from Central America. Everywhere, we see portrayals of hollow-eyed disaster victims forced by changing weather patterns to flee their homes. “Climate refugees” loom large in the popular consciousness. But the way we think about climate refugees is driven more by fear than by facts.

The term “climate refugee” tends to summon up an apocalyptic image of desperate people pouring across international boundaries. Yet data on global migration doesn’t paint a similar picture. Transnational migration to escape climate change is the exception rather than the rule. Pinning humanitarian crises on climate change is not just ahistorical and risks obscuring important political context—it also makes the results of unjust political and economic systems seem like inevitable natural phenomena.

In reality, a number of factors complicate the effects of environmental stressors on migration, from historic migration patterns to local political and economic conditions. Globally, migration tends to be seasonal, reflecting movement from rural to urban areas. In some cases, circular migration from the countryside to cities even sustains the rural livelihoods of migrants’ families. Economic incentives to migrate are numerous, including rapid urbanization, changing labor markets, and demographic trends. All these factors contribute to within-country and international migration flows, but tend to be overlooked when climate change is invoked.

Pinning humanitarian crises on climate change can make the results of unjust political and economic systems seem like inevitable natural phenomena.

Instead, predictions of climate migration have become increasingly fashionable, despite a lack of definitive research. For instance, in 2005, Oxford ecologist Norman Myers predicted 200 million international climate refugees by 2012. Migration didn’t play out the way Myers predicted, perhaps because his model was wildly unscientific, but that hasn’t stopped journalists, or even the United Nations, from citing him.

Assertions that the world will soon face wave upon wave of climate refugees are not simply misguided; they often follow in the footsteps of a shameful period of U.S. environmentalism. The siren song of demographic catastrophe has been sung before, with dire consequences. In the 1970s, Paul Ehrlich and other neo-Malthusians were household names. An ecologist by training, Ehrlich was motivated by a simple premise: that overpopulation would lead inevitably to environmental catastrophe and that mass starvation would follow. In his bestselling book The Population Bomb, Ehrlich pushed draconian policies, including forced sterilization and the end of U.S. international food aid programs, whose implementation would have fostered the kind of famine and misery he predicted.

Make-shift refugee tents in arid landscape

Many makeshift camps of “Internally Displaced Persons” have emerged in Darfur during the Darfur conflict. While some claim the conflict is mainly caused by climate change-driven drought, rainfall records complicate this narrative. Photo from USAID, circa 2005.

Although these ideas have faded from the collective consciousness, modern preoccupation with climate refugees may be reviving them. However, there is one important difference. Back in the 1970s, concern about environmental crises was mostly the domain of the political left. This time, doomsday scenarios featuring climate refugees are being adopted by the left and right alike, with far-reaching results for U.S. national security policy. Fear of climate refugees has become a driving force for border militarization across the world.

History of an Idea

The way we think about climate refugees today has less to do with reality and more to do with political exigency. The end of the Cold War at the beginning of the 1990s spawned an explosion of political theorizing, and one of its most prominent voices was that of Thomas Homer-Dixon. According to Homer-Dixon, resource scarcity is directly linked to increased conflict and migration.

Homer-Dixon’s ideas were challenged by political ecologists such as Michael Watts and Nancy Lee Puloso, who argue Homer-Dixon’s model ignores how social relations shape resource distribution. Critics took issue with both the environmental determinism of Homer-Dixon’s analysis and his penchant for universal claims based on local, context-specific events. They pointed out that resource abundance and unequal distribution or control of those resources, rather than scarcity, is what tends to produce conflicts. Still, Homer-Dixon’s version of the story is the one that has prevailed in popular culture and U.S. policy.

There are two reasons for this success. The first is timeliness. Homer-Dixon published his research just as the end of the Cold War sent the U.S. national security community scrambling to identify new sources of funding. The “peace dividend” was a threat to the U.S. military budget. Documents available through the Freedom of Information Act show that as early as 1990, the U.S. navy was analyzing climate change as a threat, the type of threat that demanded increased defense spending.

Doomsday scenarios featuring climate refugees are being adopted by the left and right alike, with far-reaching results for U.S. national security policy.

Second, Homer-Dixon’s research garnered important media attention. In 1994, journalist Robert Kaplan popularized Homer-Dixon’s model of environmental conflict with a now famous article in The Atlantic entitled “The Coming Anarchy.” In it, Kaplan writes, “it is Thomas Malthus, the philosopher of demographic doomsday, who is now the prophet of West Africa’s future. And West Africa’s future, eventually, will also be that of most of the rest of the world.” He continues, “We are entering a bifurcated world. Part of the globe is inhabited by Hegel’s and Fukuyama’s Last Man, healthy, well fed, and pampered by technology. The other, larger, part is inhabited by Hobbes’s First Man, condemned to a life that is ‘poor, nasty, brutish, and short.’” Kaplan’s article was widely read and politically influential. It led the Clinton administration to enthusiastically embrace Homer-Dixon’s ideas. President Clinton’s Undersecretary of State reportedly faxed a copy of “The Coming Anarchy to every U.S. embassy in the world.

The Doctrine of Climate Security

Since 2003, when the concept of climate refugees emerged as a concern in official documents, almost 70 unclassified defense, intelligence, and homeland security documents have addressed “climate security.” From the outset, the Department of Homeland Security’s threat assessments of climate change have focused on one particular issue—environmentally-motivated mass migrations and climate refugees—which can be traced directly to Homer-Dixon’s work and the larger school of thought he inspired.

The assumption that climate change leads inexorably to violence, crisis, and mass migration, and that the U.S. must respond by fortifying its borders and denying refugees, has become the doctrine of climate security. For the Department of Homeland Security, climate change and the refugees it is expected to produce constitutes a “threat multiplier,” a factor which exacerbates other threats. Usually, military threats have defined parameters and end points, but framing climate change a threat multiplier implies that higher incidences of conflict and migration is the new normal, with no end in sight.

Climate security does not belong to one political agenda. As the Center for Climate and Security writes “attention to climate risks by the U.S. national security community spans administrations and transcends political party lines.” This is a testament to the power of the fear of “climate refugees” to drive policy despite partisan bickering over actual climate change and its effects.

Even as the Bush administration actively suppressed climate change research, national security planners were analyzing and predicting massive fallouts from flooding, droughts, and other climate change disruption. In 2003, the Pentagon commissioned the first major analysis of climate change as a national security threat. The authors wrote, “For some countries, climate change could become such a challenge that mass emigration results as the desperate peoples seek better lives in regions such as the United States that have the resources to adapt.” They continued:

The United States and Australia are likely to build defensive fortresses around their countries because they have the resources and reserves to achieve self-sufficiency. With diverse growing climates, wealth, technology, and abundant resources, the United States could likely survive shortened growing cycles and harsh weather conditions without catastrophic losses. Borders will be strengthened around the country to hold back unwanted starving immigrants from the Caribbean islands (an especially severe problem), Mexico, and South America.

There is little evidence that this report was taken seriously inside the Pentagon at the time, but it did launch a media frenzy and set the tone for what would follow: national security analysis has linked climate change to an influx of refugees, and prescribes border militarization in response.

U.S. military officer points toward Dominican border control officers

A U.S. Army National Guard officer instructs Dominican border patrol agents as part of a seminar on minimizing illegal migration. The Dominican Republic didn’t have a border security force until one was trained by the U.S. Border Patrol in 2006. Photo by Joseph Rivera Rebolledo, 2014.

From Doctrine to Policy

In the last days of the Bush administration, Dr. Thomas Fingar, Chairman of the National Intelligence Council, provided a briefing to multiple congressional committees, testifying that “economic refugees will perceive additional reasons to flee their homes because of harsher climates” and that many countries “will have neither the resources nor interest to host these climate migrants, … who may be exposed to or are carrying infectious diseases that may put host nation populations at higher risk.”

It is with this bleak vision in mind that the national security community has been preparing for climate change. The fundamental assumptions of climate security doctrine which took shape during the Bush administration continued under the Obama administration. A plethora of new directives identified climate change as an urgent national security threat and accepted the looming specter of climate refugees.

This practice continues with the current administration. While vehement climate change denial has been a core tenet of the Trump administration and mentions of climate change have been struck from every aspect of the national government’s official websites, national security policy makers are still operating under the assumptions of climate security.

After 9/11, the U.S. intensified its interest in controlling borders around the world. The 9/11 Commission Report reads: “9/11 taught us that terrorism against American interests ‘over there’ should be regarded just as we regard terrorism against Americans ‘over here’. In this sense, the American homeland is the entire planet.” Over half of the 54 most militarized borders in the world developed enhanced security after 9/11, often with the help of U.S. military aid.

As the War on Terror wound down and neoconservative ideas lost their shine, the doctrine of climate security has kept the U.S. from dismantling the policies set in motion by the War on Terror. The perpetuation of these familiar security strategies now rests more and more on the anticipated crisis of climate change.

High fence runs along Mexico-U.S. border

The U.S.–Mexico border near Nogales, Arizona. This border was not always so heavily policed, but in the last few decades it has become the site of low intensity warfare. Photo by Robert Bushell, 2019.

The militarization of the U.S.–Mexico border has steadily increased for the last 20 years. Justification for a harsher border has included economic migrants from NAFTA, terrorists, and transnational criminal operations. Due to the chimerical nature of immigrant “threats,” that list now also includes climate refugees. Characterization of climate change as a “threat multiplier” has been instrumental to the logic of continuing and expanding border militarization initially rooted in the now-outdated post-9/11 border security assumptions.

Across the Globe: Climate Security or Climate Refugees?

Climate security drives border militarization, not just at the U.S.–Mexico border, but around the world. On the border between India and Bangladesh, one of the longest and most violently militarized borders in the world, the U.S. Border Patrol has trained India’s Border Defense Force. U.S. commentators frequently cite concerns that sea level rise will cause an influx of Bangladeshi refugees, despite the fact that current migration research suggests otherwise.

In other places, the influence of U.S. policy is even more pronounced. Despite historically tense border relations with Haiti, the Dominican Republic didn’t even have a border security force until  U.S. security planners decided they needed one. The Dominican Republic’s border guard, CESFRONT, was developed 2006 and trained by the U.S. Border Patrol. Haiti and the Dominican Republic commonly appear in U.S. documents as potential sources of climate refugees and the U.S. involvement in CESFRONT’s formation can be seen as a proactive measure to stop potential migrants long before they reach U.S. borders.

Climate security drives border militarization around the world. This is creating a very real humanitarian nightmare for the world’s migrants.

This strategy of international intervention in border security is fueled by national security concerns which demonize climate refugees, a view supported by some political conservatives. Yet, policies like these are inadvertently supported by the kinds of stories well-meaning humanitarians and environmentalists are telling. When commentators raise the alarm over climate-driven migration, they do so at the risk of ignoring other factors at work.

For instance, the Darfur conflict has been consistently described as a climate-driven conflict, despite the fact that data on rainfall patterns contradict this claim. It is not only humanitarians and the UN who make this argument; the Sudanese government has also promoted this climate conflict narrative, perhaps because it distracts from discussions on the systematic exploitation of peripheral regions and their excluded populations by the country’s ruling elites.

In Syria, commentators have suggested that a historic drought precipitated the ongoing civil war and humanitarian crisis. Drought may have been a factor in the conflict, but it is also necessary to consider decades of oppressive rule by the Assad family, years of government policy which is resulting in spiraling socioeconomic inequality, the wider regional context of the Arab Spring, and the aftermath of U.S. involvement in Iraq. Climate change itself did not cause the Syrian civil war—years of inequality and oppressive political structures were the pivotal forces.

Migrants points to map of Central America

Migrants making their way through Mexico City look at a map of the country. They belonged to one of many Central American migrant caravans who made news traveling to the U.S. border in 2018. Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

Last year, migrant caravans from Honduras, Guatemala and other parts of Central America arriving at the U.S.–Mexico border were hailed by some journalists as climate refugees. These countries are indeed suffering from a drought likely exacerbated by climate change. However, assuming the drought is what drives Central American migrations ignores the role of the state, ongoing dispossession of smallholders, and incursions by transnational corporations. For instance, in Honduras, a decade of rule by a corrupt military government which has been brutalizing its own citizens and gutting the welfare state provides so many reasons for Hondurans to leave that characterizing emigrants as climate refugees oversimplifies their struggles. In a country wracked by political violence—which is in part one result of the 2008 U.S.-supported military coup—migrants who flee, despite the threat of elite forces trained by the U.S. to prevent them, are running away from much more than climate change.

Facing the Wall

There is no substantial evidence that climate change alone will trigger refugee flows on a massive scale, yet apocalyptic visions of desperate people swarming across international boundaries persist. The humanitarian nightmare of climate refugees may be a misguided one, but it is creating a very real humanitarian nightmare for the world’s migrants, regardless of their origins, in the form of harsher, more militarized borders.

Armed with the knowledge of what this rhetoric is really doing, is it possible to avoid falling into this neo-Malthusian trap? Concerned environmentalists need to know that even as they use the plight of climate refugees to advocate for action on climate change, climate hawks are using the same ideas to build stronger walls. The Pentagon’s 2003 report has become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Empathy is being blunted. Walls are being hardened, not out of necessity but out of fear.

Featured image: Protesters seeking a robust global treaty to combat climate change hold up a banner welcoming climate refugees at the Melbourne Walk against Warming in Australia in 2009. Photo by John Englart, 2009.

Julia Mason holds a B.A. in Politics and Environmental Studies from Whitman College. Her interests include migration, agroecology, and nature writing. Contact.