Climate Change and Migration in Mexico: A Report Launch | Wilson Center
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Climate Change and Migration in Mexico: A Report Launch

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The conversation around immigration and Mexico has long been tied to the United States and the prevailing economic conditions in both countries. But a new report from the Royal United Services Institute argues that as temperatures rise and precipitation patterns change over the course of the next century, climate too will increasingly become a driver of both internal and international migration in Mexico. 

Author Elizabeth Deheza presented the report, Climate Change, Migration, and Security, at the Wilson Center on February 15. She was joined by Michael Werz of the Center for American Progress, who discussed the policy implications and application of the findings to other climate sensitive countries, and Ohio University's Geoff Dabelko, who moderated the panel.

Decoupling Rainfall and Temperature

“Migration is a defining characteristic of modern Mexico,” Deheza explained, which made it a “perfect laboratory” for the study. Mexico is also expected to experience significant environmental changes over the coming century. Temperature increases of four degrees Celsius by 2100 and changing precipitation patterns are projected to lead to droughts in the north of the country and floods in the south.

Desertification claims 400 square miles of farmland every year and has led an estimated 80,000 farmers to migrate, according to the report. “Food security is threatened by increasing irregularities in the rainy seasons brought about by climate change or climate variability,” said Deheza. The number of food insecure Mexicans reached 20 million in 2010, up from 18 million in 2008.

To determine what effect these changes might be having on the movement of people, Deheza and her co-author Jorge Mora pulled data from Mexico’s 2010 Population and Housing Census and compared it to changes in average temperature and precipitation as well as other  environmental factors, like soil conditions.

Among their findings were that an increase in temperature will increase internal migration but decrease international migration, while an increase in precipitation will decrease internal migration and increase international migration. Almost 50 percent of international migrants were between the ages of 20 and 35 and nearly 80 percent were men.

“This [report] is a good example of how you combine qualitative and quantitative research,” said Werz. Previous discussions of climate induced migration have been much more qualitative, he said, relying on anecdotal evidence or conjecture for people’s motivations. Having a “scientific base” can help people take such findings more seriously, he said.

Climate Migration a Traditional Security Concern?

Although RUSI is traditionally a security think tank, for this report Deheza said they expanded their definition “beyond the military sphere and beyond that traditional definition” to include human security. “In human security, for us, resilience is paramount.”

For Mexico, human security more accurately reflects the threats to the state since it has lacked foreign enemies since the late 1960s, write Deheza and Mora. Since then, threats to national security “have typically been associated with internal social and political turmoil.” By expanding the traditional definition of security, Deheza and Mora are better able to address the challenges Mexico will face over the coming decades.

But migration is also an issue of great importance to the traditional international security community, which fears that “the movement of hundreds of millions of people could…spike regional tensions,” said Deheza. While there have been some studies predicting large numbers of climate-driven Mexican migrants to the United States, Werz said that this kind of thinking “hasn’t really played much” in security circles in the United States. Elsewhere, though, there have been violent results.

In 2012, for example, conflict between the Bodo ethnic group and alleged Muslim immigrants from Bangladesh in the Indian state of Assam sent 300,000 people to refugee camps and caused a country-wide panic. In Kenya last summer, tension between the agricultural Pokomo and nomadic Orma communities led to more than 100 hundred deaths in escalating raids over access to water and land. Werz also described some of the Center for American Progress’s work on the “arc of tension” in West Africa, which stretches from Nigeria to Niger, Algeria, and Morocco. Climate change, population growth, and resource scarcity are driving a corridor of migration to Europe that is also carrying with it organized crime and other security risks, he said.

The Importance of Policymaker Buy-In

With this Mexico report, “we have [made] preliminary advances towards a deeper understanding of this possible nexus – climate, migration, and security,” said Deheza, but there is certainly room for more depth in the model. She said she hoped that future iterations of the report will look at data at the state or municipal level, not just by regions, and could provide some more concrete figures, not just probabilities.

For Werz, the absence of predicted figures was not a shortcoming. “I would say uncertainty is a greater incentive for action than certainty,” he said. “Because if you’re uncertain if the traffic light works, you’ll look twice [to see] whether there’s a car going to run you over.”

Although this report focused mostly on human security, Werz said that it is an important step towards introducing topics like sustainability and migration into security discussions. “Complex crisis scenarios, where climate change, human mobility, and conflict come together,” often do involve measures of traditional security, he said.

Cooperation from the Mexican government was crucial to the success of the report, said Deheza. Unlike some, the Mexican government was receptive to discussions about climate change and its repercussions, she said. And it has followed these discussions with action, including drafting a General Law on Climate Change, developing strategies to address climate challenges through the Special Program on Climate Change, and leading the region in developing the Mesoamerican Strategy for Environmental Sustainability. “For any institute that tries to do policy, it’s very important to have support from the people that actually [make] decisions,” Deheza said.

“Mexico is a country that can be a model for other environments and other places in the world where we have similar problems or where those issues are even more dramatic than they are in the Mexican case,” Werz agreed.


  • Elizabeth Deheza

    Royal United Services Institute
  • Michael Werz

    Public Policy Scholar
    Senior Fellow, National Security Team, Center for American Progress
  • Geoffrey D. Dabelko

    Senior Advisor, ECSP; Former Director, ECSP
    Professor and Associate Dean, George V. Voinovich School of Leadership and Public Affairs, Ohio University