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Forced to Move: Climate Change Already Displacing U.S. Communities

Extreme drought pushes rural inhabitants of a Middle Eastern nation into the cities, leading to social stressors and a devastating civil war. Decades of drought conditions and war send African migrants into neighboring countries by the tens of thousands. Residents of a small Alaskan village decide to vote in favor of relocating their entire population, as their living area crumbles around them due to storm surges.

These scenarios aren’t cribbed from a dystopian novel, or the plot of an apocalyptic big-budget movie; it’s real life. And it’s happening – now.

The role of climate change in human displacement and migration is being cited by experts as the number one global security threat of the 21st century. According to the United Nations Refugee Agency, annually 21.5 million people are, in their words, “forcibly displaced by weather-related sudden onset hazards – such as floods, storms, wildfires, [and] extreme temperatures.” These threats are not just concerning climate scientists and environmental  activists; the U.S. State Department and the Global Military Advisory Council have both stated that global instability and uprisings, such as the Arab Spring, the war in Syria, and Boko Haram’s terrorism, all have links to climate change.

While the global displacement and migration of lower and middle-income countries make headlines, the U.S. is not immune to these situations.

And while the global displacement and migration of lower and middle-income countries make headlines, the U.S. is not immune to these situations. In 2016, two U.S. communities — both very different in terms of geography and demographics — made history for relocating their respective towns because climate change greatly altered their land.

The Alaskan village of Shishmaref is an Inupiat community of about 600 people and is located on an island called Sarichef (north of the Bering Strait). The island has been shrinking for over 40 years, as storm surges have become more and more powerful. In a relocation study published in February of 2016, experts calculated that warmer sea water is eroding the permafrost, undercutting protective embankments, which then topples into the ocean. In short, the island is shrinking.

The report states that “the Community has continued to shrink over the past 40 years with erosion eating away over 200 feet since 1969. A few storms have caused 25-30 foot erosion losses from a single storm.” After much debate, in August of 2016 the town voted to relocate completely, and decided to move the village about five miles away from its current location.

Aerial image of Shishmaref, Alaska. | Bering Land Bridge National Preserve
Aerial image of Shishmaref, Alaska. | Bering Land Bridge National Preserve/Some Rights Reserved

More than 6,000 miles away, the community of Isle de Jean Charles, a narrow piece of land located in Terrebonne Parish, Louisiana in the process of completely relocating. Funded by a $48.3 million dollar grant, the U.S. Housing and Urban Development has begun planning the logistics of resettling the residents as a whole community. The official website for the project states:

In the face of rising sea levels, subsiding land and frequent flood events, the south Louisiana residents of Isle de Jean Charles need to move to higher, safer ground. With the loss of more than 98 percent of the community’s land during the past 60 years, only 320 of the island’s original 22,400 acres remain. Although the island has been both a home and a historically significant landmark for nearly 200 years, community resettlement is inevitable. The only question is how.

As the historical homeland and burial ground of the tribe of the Isle de Jean Charles Band of Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw Indians, HUD officials explicitly recognize the sensitive nature of the move, asserting that the resettlement must, in their words, “protect the island’s American Indian culture and support future generations.”  In late 2017, a 515-acre farm 40 miles north of the island was chosen as the site for relocation of the residents. The new location is considered to be more convenient, as it is closer to schools, work and shopping. The island currently has no services and its one bridge is frequently impassable due to flooding, a major problem since most residents commute off the island for work.

The only road connecting Isle de Jean Charles to the rest of Louisiana.  | Nicky Milne/Thomson Reuters Foundation
The only road connecting Isle de Jean Charles to the rest of Louisiana. | Nicky Milne/Thomson Reuters Foundation

The Federal Emergency Management Agency’s National Flood Insurance Program is now – no pun intended – drowning in debt of $25 billion, as payouts to homeowners have skyrocketed in the face of more powerful hurricanes.

Many other states are grappling with how to respond to stronger storms, decaying infrastructure and population shifts. In the wake of 2012’s Hurricane Sandy, a powerful storm whose strength is still debated as a possible result of climate-related changes in the atmosphere, insurance companies rewrote home insurance plans for homeowners living in coastal areas. The Federal Emergency Management Agency’s National Flood Insurance Program, created by Congress in 1968, is now – no pun intended – drowning in debt of $25 billion, as payouts to homeowners have skyrocketed in the face of more powerful hurricanes.

As sea levels rise, will residents eventually walk away from their million-dollar homes for higher land? The state of Florida is especially vulnerable to these possibilities. In a 2017 study by the independent organization Climate Central, nine out of the top 10 cities most vulnerable to coastal flooding by 2050 were located in Florida (New York was number one). There are reports that some Floridians aren’t waiting for the floods to arrive and are actively selling their homes.

Even as the 2016 Presidential race gained steam and the term “fake news” became the slur du jour against climate change by candidate Donald Trump, the U.S. military was already sounding the alarm. In July of 2015, the Department of Defense published a report titled “National Security Implications of Climate-Related Risks and a Changing Climate.” The report, compiled at the request of Congress, did not hold back in its findings, unambiguously listing a cascading series of events, such as drought, flooding, melting sea ice and global displacement as major national and global security threats. The agency states that these threats and their unpredictably will precipitate a greater response from the DoD in future crises around the globe. The report cites the conflict in Syria as just one example of this looming scenario:

[Climate change] could result in increased intra-and inter-state migration, and generate other negative effects on human security. For example, from 2006-2011, a severe multi-year drought affected Syria and contributed to massive agriculture failures and population displacements. Large movements of rural dwellers to city centers coincided with the presence of large numbers of Iraqi refugees in Syrian cities, effectively overwhelming institutional capacity to respond constructively to the changing service demands. These kinds of impacts in regions around the world could necessitate greater DoD involvement in the provision of humanitarian assistance and other aid.

The DoD sees climate change as a “threat multiplier,” exacerbating already existing issues, such as economic inequalities, social vulnerability, drought, disease and more, leading countries to suffer “systemic breakdowns.” These breakdowns, according to the DoD, will trigger population displacement, creating a dangerous cycle of instability around the globe.

In 2007, the United Nations published a report that cited climate change as a major contributor to conflict in Darfur. According to the report, rainfall in the area dropped 30 percent over the last 40 years, and extreme drought conditions inflamed tensions between farmers and herders as pasture land disappeared.

Beginning in 2003, the war in Darfur resulted in the deaths of over 200,000 and created a migration crisis, as Sudanese migrants spilled over into neighboring Chad, attempting to escape widespread ethnic cleansing. Although a peace accord was signed in 2005, Darfur is still cited as one of the first modern examples of climate change triggering global conflict across regions. In fact, rural tensions continue to threaten a new war between North and South Sudan as the drought continues.

Barrier islands such as this one off the Louisiana coast are one of the first lines of defense against dangerous storms.  | Nicky Milne/Thomson Reuters Foundation
Barrier islands such as this one off the Louisiana coast are one of the first lines of defense against dangerous storms. | Nicky Milne/Thomson Reuters Foundation

Looking forward, as many as 200 million people could be displaced by 2050 because of climate change, according to a 2007 report. What will the displaced be called? “Climate refugees”? “Climate migrants”? This phenomenon is still so new and disorienting, there isn’t an official designation for people who are displaced by climate change in their communities. According to the United Nations Refugee Agency, “many of those who are displaced across borders as a result of climate change may not meet the refugee definition.”

But climate displacement is happening and help is needed, regardless of the lack of an official designation. As the planet warms and displacements accelerate, an official term is likely to emerge.   

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