Climate Migration and the National Security Myth

At log lunch on November 14th, Gregory White, visiting professor in International Environmental Studies and professor of Government at Smith College, discussed the growing agreement among security-minded think tanks in the North Atlantic that climate migration will create large national security issues. The talk was a product of White’s most recent research, which culminated in a book published this year, titled Climate Change and Migration: Security Borders in a Warming World.

White argued that that in both national and international discussions of climate change, the question is continually being asked: will climate change cause people to move across borders in large numbers, causing security issues? Though some think tanks estimate mass migration on the scale of millions or even billions, White believes these are vast and corrupt overestimations. White cited evidence that in the past, after the initial displacement following a natural catastrophe, people always return to their homes. People will be affected and need to find ways to adapt but moving great distances is often not feasible.

The two main geological regions of concern are 1. the low-lying countries and submerging islands in Asia, and 2. areas that face the prospect of vast drying and desertification such as Africa. The EU fears that environmental stress in Africa will promote a mast movement northward toward their continent.

White argued that statements connecting climate migration to national security fit into a broader “political performance.” He hypothesized that these fear tactics were invoked in the names of electoral calculations and border issues, rather than legitimate fears about national security.

White concluded that the larger concern of the climate migration debate should be urbanization. Since environmental refugees will likely migrate to cities within their own countries instead of migrating across borders, we should focus on city adaptation and environmental stress mitigation rather than mythical national security issues.


Written by Claire Lafave, CES Research Assistant