The White House Report on Climate Migration, Explained

The Biden-Harris administration released a major report on climate migration on Thursday, October 21, 2021. Strategically timed to coincide with final preparations for the UN Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP26) in early November 2021, the report demonstrates a nuanced and comprehensive understanding of the interlinked challenges of climate change and migration. Though light on specific next steps, the report provides much-needed attention and framing. As global attention turns to the climate talks in Glasgow, policymakers would be well-served to have a copy of the 37-page report in their briefing packets.

Q1: What is the report?

A1: The Biden-Harris administration’s Report on the Impact of Climate Change on Migration outlines the inextricable links between climate change and migration, marking a first for any U.S. administration. It identifies how migration will evolve as a critical, and sometimes necessary form of adaptation in the wake of climate impacts. The report presents the underlying factors that could affect the severity of climate migration impacts, including:

  • The ability of vulnerable communities in conflict settings and areas of weak governance to navigate more acute climate-related impacts and displacement in the absence of effective protection measures;

  • The potential of existing programs to reduce the risk of forced migration and displacement via development of local capacities for climate-informed decisionmaking and adaptation;

  • The prevention of further conflict or instability and the protection and resettlement of displaced individuals with adequate support to host communities;

  • The level of engagement with and learning from regional and civil society groups that can strengthen response capabilities and minimize the impact of climate migration on individuals and communities; and

  • The effectiveness—and adequate support—of multilateral efforts to mitigate negative effects and to support all of the above.

The report calls for the development of strategies that would allow the humane, safe, and proactive management of climate migration flows. Such management, according to the report, should be based on awareness of context-specific environmental characteristics that enhance instability. It specifically accentuates the need to provide necessary resources to mitigate the humanitarian consequence on displaced individuals. Beyond highlighting the need for active foreign assistance and the protection of affected individuals, the report considers the geopolitical implications of climate migration and the principal role of multilateral engagement in response. Ultimately, the report thoroughly contextualizes the risks and opportunities of climate migration in a multilevel review, outlining high-level recommendations to enable future policy action.

Q2: Why was it released now?

A2: The report was published in direct response to President Joe Biden’s February 9, 2021, Executive Order 14013, Rebuilding and Enhancing Programs to Resettle Refugees and Planning for the Impact of Climate Change on Migration. The timing of this report’s release was no coincidence just 10 days before the president himself prepared to attend the COP26 international climate conference. The report endorses multilateral engagement and in particular the important role of the United Nations. It reaffirms the commitment of the United States to engage with key resolutions and efforts and calls for greater diplomatic action to further key agreements on climate. It explicitly names the Paris Agreement and “mainstream efforts to strengthen resilience and reduce risks of displacement” resulting from events related to environmental disasters and climate change. As just one in a series of reports mandated by the administration's executive orders on climate action in January and February 2021, this analysis reinforces the United States' commitment to climate action, humanitarian principles, and evidence-based decisionmaking. With a growing global sense of urgency over the climate crisis, the timely release of this report ahead of the COP26 summit is a signal of the administration's aspirations to restore the United States as a trusted global leader even on some of the hardest challenges ahead.

Q3: Why is this climate migration report important?

A3: Credit where credit is due: the Report on the Impact of Climate Change on Migration is an important document. It thoroughly and accurately assesses the nuanced interrelationship between climate change and migration. When conducted in a regular, safe, and orderly manner, human migration offers solutions to many of the economic and demographic challenges ahead of us. But climate change is forcing people to make difficult decisions about leaving home on quicker timelines and under more precarious circumstances. In this way, climate change is a threat multiplier, exacerbating the underlying drivers of conflict, straining public budgets, offering new opportunities for smugglers and other bad actors, widening resource inequities, and increasing political and social tensions. For too long, climate and migration issues were treated as siloed and separate issues; this report recognizes that the two are inextricably linked.

Recognizing these linkages, the report offers a framework to bring together stakeholders across the U.S. government to form a coordinated response to climate migration risks and outcomes. The report calls for the establishment of a standing interagency policy process on climate change and migration to coordinate U.S. government efforts with a focus on improving analytics, programming, and investments, and a legislative strategy to ingrain these issues as priorities beyond the current administration. Among other priorities, the process is meant to address climate-related migration in the short term and create strategies to tackle climate impacts in the long term. Action seems far off when one of the most exciting parts of the report is the creation of a policy process, but such a coordination mechanism is typically a first step on the road to major interagency action. In this way, the report establishes the foundation on which future policy action—nationally and internationally—can be taken. This will, of course, be difficult given political constraints and additional global challenges like the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic. The creation of new legal pathways, for example, Temporary Protected Status, which a 2020 CSIS policy brief on climate migration called for, will take time and promises to be highly contentious, especially since the most durable solutions will require congressional action. But the first challenge is always to accurately define the problem, which this report does well. The administration engaged a diverse array of stakeholders over the course of writing it and the final version shows that they were listening.

Critics will say that the report does not go far enough given the months it took to write it. It is true and noteworthy that climate change is an immediate threat having immediate impacts disproportionately on the places least responsible for it. However, while light on specific, actionable recommended policy actions, the report was never meant to mandate policy. That comes next and will be closely watched by all, particularly in instances where U.S. policy alone will be insufficient. Climate migration is a global challenge, one that will require not only multilateral engagement, but updates to how relevant international laws and institutions can adapt to climate realities.

As officials from around the world are now gathered in Glasgow for COP26, this and the other climate-related reports released by the Biden-Harris administration show that climate conversations must move beyond efforts to simply reduce emissions. While critical, these efforts will do little to address the challenges facing vulnerable populations today—challenges that are laid out very clearly in the Report on the Impact of Climate Change on Migration.

Erol Yayboke is a senior fellow with the International Security Program and director of the Project on Fragility and Mobility (PFM) at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Catherine Nzuki is a program coordinator with the CSIS PFM. Sierra Ballard is a research intern with the CSIS PFM.

Critical Questions is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

© 2021 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.

Erol Yayboke

Erol Yayboke

Former Director, Project on Fragility and Mobility and Senior Fellow, International Security Program
Sierra Ballard

Sierra Ballard

Former Research Assistant, Humanitarian Agenda