Climate Refugees In America

BY ON December 10, 2018

climate refugees on a sinking house graphic

It’s been almost two months since, Hurricane Michael, the third-most intense Atlantic hurricane in the U.S., made landfall. It was painfully ironic that the damage which overwhelmed areas of Florida, Georgia, North Carolina and Virginia, also overshadowed the dire news of the most recent IPCC report.

Areas were hit by 130 to 140 miles per hour winds. Homes lost their roofs, fallen trees made streets a maze, and dazed homeowners struggled to determine what to do next.

When these extreme weather events happen, amid the property damage is the reality that many people are not able to return to their communities and homes.

Climate Refugees

When thinking about the term refugee, an image of Syrians leaving their homes due to drought comes to mind. Or, more recently, the tsunami in Indonesia.

The United Nations Migration Agency has been addressing this concern since 2008.

Scientists have presented projections that range from 25 million to 1 billion “environmental migrants” by 2050. The highest average estimate is 200 million.

The loss of land mass is not just happening in Bangladesh, which will see the demise of 17 percent of land by 2050 because of flooding. Here in America, Louisiana loses 25 square miles annually – to the rising water levels.

In the United States, race and class are key factors in who gets support and who doesn’t. As always, those who have the financial means to either relocate or rebuild have more options. However, rural communities and economically disadvantaged communities have far fewer choices. They can’t afford to buy food and supplies before a storm, often have more fragile housing, and have less assets to fall back on.

Now, in response to repeated hurricanes, wildfires, and escalating temperatures, Americans are also on the move.

Upended families translate into upended children, with greater challenges for housing and basic health, education, and living needs.

Jesse Keenan, a member of the faculty of the Harvard Graduate School of Design and a leader in urban development and climate adaptation, has been writing about this issue. He has stated that as demand for locations that are free from flooding and extreme temperatures increase, a particular “class of people will be trapped.” He has also discussed the importance of actively mobilizing to “adapt our coasts.”

After Hurricane Sandy, Keenan coined the term “climate gentrification” in response to his research on how hazards from climate change would be factored into the “market economy.” He posited that people from high-exposure areas would move to low-exposure areas, pushing out the people who were already there. Those who were affluent enough to be able to remain in high-exposure areas, might continue to do so –as they have the financial ability to buy exorbitantly priced insurance and have the funds to reestablish themselves.

Keenan uses the illustration of the Okies in the 1930s, who left the Dust Bowl in Oklahoma to resettle in California, as the type of mass migration that could potentially take place.

In addition to the most recent superstorms, there are other examples of this phenomenon in the country.

Currently, Phoenix is the most rapidly warming city in America. Projections show that within three decades, it could experience over 100-degree Fahrenheit heat for almost six months out of a year.

Denizens of southern Arizona have been relocating to Flagstaff, which is at the northern part of the state and stands at an elevated 7,000 feet. This in turn drives a higher rate for housing and living costs, while displacing those who are on the low-income end of the scale.

A coastal example is that of two Florida locations, Liberty City and Little Haiti. They are both home to minority communities. They are also 15 feet above sea level. As the population retreats from flooded coastlines, developers are coming in to buy up the elevated property, while low-income residents and the businesses that serve them are being pushed out.

The Trump administration continues to dismiss the ever-present reality of climate change and global warming, leaving American citizens in jeopardy. As recurrent hurricanes, droughts, and fires continue to accelerate, we must look to local leadership to address the question posed by displaced Americans: “Where are we going to go?”

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TOPICS: Children's Health, Climate Change, Heat and Extreme Weather, Politics, Social Justice