The Burn Bag

Climate Migration as a National Security Issue: Michael Chertoff interviews with The Burn Bag Podcast

In this episode, Michael Chertoff interviews with The Burn Bag podcast host A’ndre Gonawela about climate migration as a national security issue in his role with the Climate Migration Council.

Secretary Chertoff talks about his tenure as Department Homeland Security Secretary from 2005 to 2009, and the broad remit of security responsibilities at DHS during that time. Counterterrorism was front and center during those years. There was a broader set of agenda items including: having an orderly and secure border; protecting critical infrastructure including the aviation system, mass transit, energy resources; and dealing with national disasters.

All these things were tied in common by the need to plan, understand the threats, manage the risk, and manage does not mean eliminate risk. And to prioritize where assets and resources will go, and finally then to exercise, train and test that competence is at a high level.

He discusses the primary drivers of migration and how marginalized communities are most impacted, including what he saw during the years at DHS. There is economically driven migration where people in other parts of the world want to come to the U.S to work, and people who are fleeing persecution and gangs. Today it is much more people who want asylum and refuge.

Chertoff explains that the impacts of climate change are very broad and create peril. The obvious ones include floods, fire, heat, drought and a lack of water. Secondarily and stemming from these threats are concerns such as, what is the food situation? Are the weather conditions making it harder to raise crops? What is the situation in respect to public health?  Is internal migration is driving disorder and dislocation?

He and Gonawela discuss the impact to marginalized communities. These are populations who have fewer resources for cooling, less money to buy food, and may be impacted by flooding and rising sea levels in low lying areas. For example, in Bangladesh some 10 million people are living in areas impacted by rising sea levels.

Chertoff describes a desperate dynamic, “People fleeing climate disasters are trying to save their lives. It is a matter of am I going to move or am I going to die. Increasingly there are individuals who really have no choice it is self-defense or perish. They don’t all want to come to the U.S. Many want to move internally.”

In terms of solutions, Chertoff said, “You’ve really got to address law and order issues and economic issues in the countries that have been sending people to the U.S. because many of these people would like to stay home if they actually had a future.”

In terms of bridging the political spectrum and finding common ground on the issue of climate-driven migration, “If you want to get things done you’ve got to be balanced and fair. If you have a balanced approach and you start to see positive results that can be a unifying force in the country as opposed to a divisive force. It is really important to talk about this and it is important not to lose hope. This is not going to be easy, but if we take an all of the above approach and we use our various broad set of skills we can ultimately mitigate, build resilience and adapt,” said Chertoff.

Full Episode

Michael Chertoff is co-founder and executive chairman of The Chertoff Group.

The Climate Migration Council is a group of leaders who share a commitment to putting people at the center of climate action and to accelerating global solutions to climate-related migration.

Launched in the summer of 2020, Burn Bag Media aims to break down some of today’s most pressing national security and foreign policy challenges with the people who have worked and lived them. 

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