Climate change is increasing the number and intensity of natural disasters at a terrifying pace, displacing millions of people. We’re not ready for them.
The current humanitarian crisis in Puerto Rico drives home the scary reality that we’re not remotely prepared to deal with the legions of climate refugees left in the wake of natural disasters, now or into the future. Extreme weather due to climate change is not just a reality-TV spectator sport on the Weather Channel; it’s actively displacing hundreds of thousands, and potentially millions, of people around the world here and now. According to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), one person every second is displaced by climate-related events or factors, averaging about 24 million people worldwide since 2008 alone. Future estimates suggest between 25 million and one billion more will be displaced by mid-century. Countries all over the world are already struggling to deal with both climate and conflict refugees (and yes, the two are often connected, as conflicts over natural resources like water and oil intensify), as evidenced by the rise of right-wing political parties in the U.S., Germany, France, and the U.K., all spouting rhetoric against refugees. What will happen when climate change doubles or triples their numbers?
The series of hurricanes that have battered the eastern U.S., Cuba, and the Caribbean, and devastated the U.S. territories of Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands reveal how unprepared the United States is to handle the scope of this crisis. Every disaster that leaves destruction in its wake also creates climate “refugees,” people who must leave their homes either temporarily or permanently. Though the 1951 Refugee Convention’s legal definition of a refugee only grants amnesty if one is fleeing due to conflict or persecution, this may be forced to change in the wake of more and more devastating climate events. In fact, military and climate experts concur that climate-change wrought drought and famine have played a major part in the Syrian crisis, which led to massive numbers of refugees.
Despite decades of climate science raising alarms about these very situations, and a beseeching report begging Trump to take climate change seriously by the Climate and Security Advisory Group, “a nonpartisan group of 43 U.S.-based senior military, national security, homeland security and intelligence experts,” the Trump administration has made it patently clear that it does not prioritize climate change in the slightest, nor respect climate science. Trump has made feeble attempts to reassure survivors of the latest natural disasters and has remained all but silent on Puerto Rico, where post–Hurricane Maria conditions have been described as “apocalyptic.” EPA head Scott Pruitt is a climate denier whose only response was to chastise those “insensitive” enough to mention climate change as a factor in recent natural disasters and attack the journalists who pointed out that no EPA staff were on hand to ensure that superfund sites hit by Hurricane Harvey didn’t leech toxics into the water and surrounding environs (they did). Trump’s move to pull the U.S. out of the carbon-emissions reducing Paris Agreement underscores his dangerous lack of understanding. The scientific community has been deeply disturbed by this attitude, as evidenced by a climate report put together by 13 leading U.S. climate scientists (led by atmospheric scientist Katherine Hayhoe, director of the Texas Tech University Climate Science Center). Where does this leave people who are just one bad storm, or several more inches of sea level rise, away from devastation?
“This is not just about countries far away or small Pacific Island nations,” says Rachel Cletus, Climate Policy Director of the Union of Concerned Scientists. “This is millions of people and some of them are right along the U.S. East and Gulf coast.” Not to mention the West coast, from California’s coastal communities under threat of sea level rise and inundation, to indigenous communities such as the Quinault Indian Nation village of Taholah on Washington’s coast, and as many as thirty more native Alaskan villages that are under threat from climate change.
By the Numbers
The biggest hurricanes and “superstorms” of the past 12 years—Katrina, Sandy, Harvey, Irma and now Maria have displaced millions of people and left some of these communities husks of their former selves, as people can’t or don’t return.
Hurricane Katrina displaced over a million people and destroyed as many as 275,000 homes, with estimated damages of $160 billion to the gulf area ($75 billion of that in New Orleans area alone). Superstorm Sandy, which struck New York and New Jersey in 2012 was dubbed “the most damaging hurricane” by Scientific American (they couldn’t have imagined Harvey and Irma yet), and refugees of the storm were in the tens of thousands, with an estimated $19 billion in damage to New York and $8.3 billion for New Jersey. Together the storm damaged 650,000 housing units. And then came Hurricane Harvey in August of this year. Its damage is still being assessed, but may surpass Katrina’s total— FiveThirtyEight reports some estimates are as high as $190 billion. Irma followed, devastating the Caribbean island of Barbuda, rendering it uninhabitable. The estimated 2,000 residents were evacuated to neighboring Antigua. The entire island of Puerto Rico is expected to be without power and in dire straits, for as many as three to six months; devastating tallies will likely follow.
Though there are efforts to monitor climate refugees at a global level, there is no unified global relief effort. There are some relocation efforts already underway in the U.S., put into place under the Obama administration, which Cletus hopes will not only persist, but lead the way for additional efforts. In January 2016, the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), under Obama, announced $1 billion in grants to 13 states to help communities adapt to climate change. One such relocation effort is for the Isle de Jean Charles in Louisiana, most of whom are members of the Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw tribe, who must flee their community due to the dangerous encroachment of sea level rise. “For the first time HUD is actually taking on the issue and a lot of learning will happen in the process,” Cletus says. However, she has questions about HUD’s leadership. “Is HUD under Secretary Ben Carson going to take this seriously, are they going to try to scale up this kind of effort and really meaningfully try to engage with the challenge?”
Similarly, the Alaskan Native village of Kivalina on the Chukchi Sea has been desperately raising funds from federal, local and non-profit sources to relocate from its coastal home. Global warming is even faster and furious in Alaska, where temperatures have risen nearly twice as fast as the rest of the nation, melting away protective ice that protects them from the encroaching ocean. Sea level rise and strong ocean storms have caused flooding and erosion, destabilizing their homes, and livelihoods and making winter travel dangerous. In 2000, the 400 or so members of the community settled nearby in another location called Kiniktuuraq. However, in 2010 the Army Corps of Engineers determined that even this area would not be a long-term solution for the community, and built a retaining wall they warned would only buy the community another ten years. Relocation costs for their next move, which rise every year, are estimated at as much as $400 million.
Figuring out how to stay ahead of these climate disasters “is a complex problem that is going to require coordinated action from federal, state, and local policymakers,” Cletus says. That would be less alarming if the current climate-denying Trump administration were not the ones in charge of the agencies most needed to provide their help, from the EPA, which sets environmental regulations, to FEMA and HUD which offer mitigation and relocation assistance.
But as climate change impacts become more severe, displacing entire villages, islands and provinces, where do all these people go, and how do they integrate their lives into communities that may not be enthusiastic about having them? Resettlement attempts are notoriously fraught with political and personal tensions. Just look to the Cataret Islanders of Papua New Guinea, considered to be the first climate refugees to have to abandon their entire civilization due to sea level rise. They moved to the neighboring island of Bougainville, ostensibly a similar culture with similar values, but the Bougainville residents viewed the 2,700-person increase to their population as more of a threat than a welcome joy. Such conflict only intensifies in situations where refugees and their host countries ascribe to different faiths and cultural norms.
Inevitably there will be everything from petty squabbles to serious violence over resources in the not so distant future.
Even in the instances where relocation is successful, there are psychological and quality of life concerns that go beyond the financial.
“These kinds of relocations are very harsh circumstances in which to thrive, and so there’s definitely a mental and psychological aspect, in addition to just the financial and physical well-being of people,” Cletus points out.
Cletus says people value the community that they’ve created, not just the physical land and the place they’ve grown up. “So just picking people up and scattering them around isn’t obviously the answer.”
That’s why early preparation for these events is so important. “You have to [prepare] right now so that it’s not being done in crisis mode, because in crisis mode all you can do is get people on a bus, rescue them in a helicopter, just get them out of harm’s way,” Cletus insists.
In an attempt to hold some parties accountable for the climate change that has contributed to these disasters, a burgeoning field of “attribution science” uses computer models to link extreme weather events to past greenhouse gas emissions, then tie them to specific industries, and specific companies. Approximately two-thirds of all the industrial carbon dioxide and methane gasses emitted into the atmosphere can be directly linked to 90 crude oil and natural gas producers, according to a new study in the journal Climate Change. This information is driving new lawsuits against the fossil fuel companies, like those filed in parts of coastal California for climate-change related sea level rise damages.
Climate refugees will mount as conditions worsen, also driving people out of their countries in search of habitable homes, which will cause tensions. Todd Miller, journalist and author of the new book Storming the Wall: Climate Change, Migration and Homeland Security points out that such people are extremely vulnerable. “Border systems are set up to actually repel people,” Miller says. “They have absolutely no grounds to declare asylum from a climate issue and would receive no sympathy from the border guards.” He envisions that climate refugees of this sort, such as those coming from Mexico or other South American countries, will likely “be arrested, detained, and probably deported” back to the bleak situations from whence they came.
Climate change that uproots people’s lives “is the new normal,” he says. He adds, “We’ve crossed a threshold. With climate, all of a sudden what you think is your normal life could suddenly be pulled out from under your feet.” And of course, the people most negatively impacted are often those who are already the poorest and most marginalized in the world.
So while the Trump administration buries its head in the oil sands, Cletus feels that it’s up to people with the privilege and resources to tackle a disaster “to just keep speaking up. I think that’s the responsibility in this moment.”
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