By the end of the century, it’s estimated that 13 million people in the U.S. will be forced from their homes due to rising coastlines. This does not count the millions more who may move due to other climate-related impacts. “Climate migration” is already underway as individuals seek housing outside their home communities in the aftermath of catastrophic weather events. Researchers predict that as sea levels rise, storms increase, and land loss compounds, the number of whole communities internally displaced will continue to climb.
This large-scale movement of people—not as individuals but entire communities—from one place to another already presents complex questions of how to decide when to move, maintain community ties, and address historical injustices while navigating one of the most existential and acute injustices of our time: climate change.
The crisis of climate-induced migration and its logistical challenges are finally getting some recognition within the federal government. However, advocates who’ve been working at the local and state level say that the lack of urgency and clear leadership on the issue is one of the primary challenges of building a plan for migration. And without an intentional and proactive approach to work with impacted communities, advocates are concerned that the histories of forced relocation, housing discrimination, and family separation will carry forward.
Without preparation, “pretty much everybody got displaced”
In October 2013, a rain system moving over Texas caused a historic flash flood, raising Austin’s Onion Creek 41 feet. The flood had a flow rate measured at twice the force of Niagara Falls, roughly 120,000 cubic feet per second. Despite being located in Flash Flood Alley—considered one of the country’s most flood-prone regions—officials in Austin and Central Texas were unprepared. They’d believed that a historic drought would forestall extreme precipitation. Two years later, in 2015, an even deadlier flood made its way through Hays County in Central Texas.
The flood destroyed homes beyond repair. And in 2017, some residents received buyouts through the Department of Homeland Security’s Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), which allows homeowners to apply to sell their property to the government so that they can permanently relocate.
Buyouts, which often take more than five years to circulate through the application and grant process, are based on an appraisal of the “pre-disaster fair-market value” of the home. But policy failures in the program can contribute to the challenges individuals face after surviving a weather-related disaster: buyouts are only available to homeowners, not renters, and if a homeowner holds non-FEMA disaster insurance, FEMA can lower the amount offered in the buyout, reasoning that insurance will cover the gap. This was the case in 2017, said Carmen Llanes, the executive director of Go Austin/Vamos Austin (GAVA), a coalition working to improve the health of communities in the region. The buyouts eventually paid to Southeast Austin residents were “inadequate,” Llanes said—coming too late and offering too little.
“Pretty much everybody got displaced,” Llanes said, adding that she didn’t know of anyone who was able to purchase another home in Austin with their FEMA money because gentrification in the city had pushed housing prices beyond what the buyout offered.
Community members who could stay in their homes—or couldn’t afford to move elsewhere—still feel the empty space left behind by friends and neighbors. According to Llanes, many residents who received FEMA buyouts sent their children to Perez Elementary School, which sits on the bank of Onion Creek, meaning that nearby homeowners had no choice but to leave.
“Those kids in that school lost 200 classmates overnight,” Llanes said. “Not only is this catastrophe there, but afterward, all these kids are gone. All these families are gone. And it’s very jarring.”
Southeast Austin, a majority and historically Hispanic region of the city, is also historically dis- and under-invested in, Llanes said. Because residents couldn’t rely on institutions for substantive investment and resources, they learned to rely on one another, growing a vast and deep network of care to “make sure everybody has what they need,” Llanes said. When families are forced to leave, “that’s what we lose in displacement.”
A culture and comprehensive system of community-based care and mutual support, which can’t be easily replaced or paid for with a FEMA buyout, disappears.
Moving beyond piecemeal “adaptation” to climate change impacts
Many under-resourced and historically disenfranchised communities like those in Southeast Austin have their own stories of displacement. If it’s not flooding that’s pushing long-time residents from their homes or homelands, it’s sea level rise in south Florida, permafrost thawing in Alaska, and hurricanes in Louisiana. Despite the experiences of climate-induced migration felt across the U.S. and the sociopolitical and economic issues that will result from large-scale migration, no unified plan or department is addressing the challenge.
That needs to change, some advocates say. Throughout 2021, representatives from grassroots organizations, including GAVA, met to discuss what would need to happen nationally to facilitate a concerted and just migration of people away from regions prone to destabilizing climate hazards. In the final report, the leaders call for creating a federal cabinet-level agency dedicated to addressing climate migration housed within a new Department of Climate Change.
“Adaptation measures are things like aspirational seawalls or new levies … that kind of thing,” said Stephen Eisenman, who wrote the final report published by the Anthropocene Alliance, which bills itself as the nation’s largest coalition of frontline communities fighting for climate and environmental justice. Eisenman is married to Harriet Festing, both of whom are co-founders the organization. The efforts so far to adapt to or mitigate climate impacts are “small scale” with little to no attention paid to the “large-scale human impacts that are anticipated,” Eisenman said. Not to mention that seawalls contribute to the fast erosion of the coastline and are expensive to build and maintain: a mile of can cost tens of millions of dollars.
A new agency housed within a new department would accomplish two objectives. First, it would create a blueprint for community-led migration efforts grounded in anti-racism. Second, it would standardize a process that suffers from a piecemeal approach that often excludes the individuals and communities with the least ability to resource their own movement.
Part of the challenge of incentivizing and facilitating community-level migration is that nearly all cities rely on properties for a tax base—fewer residents means less tax income. Mark Rupp, the adaptation program director at the Georgetown Climate Center, had not previously heard of the proposal for a cabinet-level Office of Climate Migration, but he said it could help municipalities start foundational discussions around migration.
“A lot of people probably don’t know how to start the conversation because people have created a community together,” Rupp said. “The idea of talking about how you need to move people out of a shared community is not an easy conversation to have.”
Juan Declet-Barreto, a senior social scientist for climate vulnerability for the Climate and Energy Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists, isn’t convinced that a new federal agency is the way to go.
“I do agree of course that we need a national plan that addresses inequitable climate impacts and displacement while recognizing that many impacted communities have been placed in harm’s way due to racist mistreatment and segregation of people of color—both in urban areas and in other places where they were forced to relocate all the way back in the colonial past before climate impacts became evident,” Declet-Barreto said in an email to Prism.
But questions around infrastructure and job availability might not be addressed by such a department, Declet-Barreto added. For this reason, he believes the National Climate Adaptation and Resiliency Act is a better path forward. Introduced in 2022, the bill calls for creating a chief resilience officer, a council on climate adaptation and resilience, and a national strategy to address climate change impacts.
Addressing the status quo of battling climate impacts
There’s little to no precedent for community-led community-wide climate migration out of vulnerable regions.
Until recently, state and federal agencies preferred rebuilding destroyed homes rather than paying for their relocation, a costly, time-consuming, and emotionally challenging convention. And still, FEMA’s hazard mitigation funding continually rebuilds homes, called “repetitive loss” properties, in floodplains even after ample evidence that flooding will occur again. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE), the only federal agency with authority to build infrastructure for community-wide relocation, has either historically taken a position opposed to relocation or pushed through relocation efforts by force or funding coercion. The Stafford Act, which funds disaster relief, hinges on an acute definition of disaster that effectively ignores the ongoing impacts of climate change—and impacted communities by proxy.
In 2022, FEMA set aside a total of $1,709,632,043 in project funding for states, tribes, and territories to fund eligible mitigation projects in their jurisdictions in the aftermath of 52 declared disasters. In the past five years, New York ($680,190,673), Florida ($609,948,206), and California ($557,070,375) received the greatest amount of funding for hazard mitigation, according to FEMA, with Florida, California and Texas sending in the most applications for hazard mitigation grant funding.
Starting in April 2023, FEMA will require mitigation planning to consider equity and climate change impacts.
In Santa Rosa, California, where the 2017 Tubbs fires destroyed 5,300 homes, participation in the state’s Fair Access to Insurance Requirements (FAIR) program, which has ballooned by 180% since 2015, allows for and encourages homeowners to rebuild rather than relocate. Some coastal cities, backed by housing developer interests and industries, are welcoming more residents despite the risks to property. Currently, there is more in-migration to flood zones rather than out-migration.
Funding homes and properties in regions most exposed to and affected by climate risk ignores the high-emission scenario prediction of a 97% increase in large fire weather days by 2099 in Southern California, 1 inch per decade of sea level rise in San Francisco, and erosion that 250,000 residents in Southern California—one of the most populated regions in the country—will contend with by the end of the century. Miami, a city that’s rapidly changing due to climate gentrification, is home to a quarter of the 13 million predicted U.S. residents who will experience or flee from six feet of sea level rise by 2100. Across the country, nearly 40% of residents live in low-elevation coastal communities.
Some officials, urban planners, and researchers feel that climate adaptation is about changing the way that the environment functions and that climate migration is akin to ceding a battle with an ecosystem. But it’s neither of those things. Intentional climate migration is the emotionally invested and sometimes painful process of deciding to leave a place a community once called home.
To Eisenman, the harrowing numbers point to the necessity of coordinated action—action that needs to happen quickly. The old way of doing things, by rebuilding or buying out homes, will fail as the scale of migration increases.
“If you’re talking about … 50,000 people, you can’t just say OK, ‘we’re gonna buy you out with whatever money we have,’” Eisenman said. The larger the scale of the buyouts, the smaller the payouts will be, he predicts—and there’s no guarantee that any buyout will consider which communities take in the individuals forced to leave, a concept referred to as “receiving communities.”
Slowly, factions of the federal government are waking up to the reality that many millions more U.S. residents will face temporary or permanent relocation.
A 2020 Government Accountability Office report advocated for a climate migration pilot program and even wrote that “unclear federal leadership is the key challenge to climate migration as a resilience strategy.” A 2021 report from the White House on international climate migration acknowledged that “domestic climate-change related displacement is also a current and future security risk as sea-level rise, permafrost thaw, drought, and wildfires threaten U.S. populations” and that “the individuals most at risk are the least able to relocate.” Then, in November 2022, the Department of Interior and FEMA established a Community-Driven Relocation Subcommittee within the White House National Climate Task Force.
But never before has a federal agency created a framework for whole-community relocation. It’s a gap in the government’s climate change response that’s allowing communities and local cultures to falter. Meanwhile, industries benefit from or outright perpetuate the underlying causes of the climate crisis.
Communities need to lead their own migration
Woven through the call for a coordinated response to climate migration is the concern that an ahistorical approach would compound the harms that put so many communities of color in vulnerable climate positions to begin with.
For instance, starting in the 1930s, redlining segregated Black and white homeowners, effectively creating a blueprint for where investment would flow. As a result, neighborhoods were chronically under-resourced and over-polluted, and homes could not appreciate in value and lay a foundation for generational wealth building.
Or, there’s the example of the Indian Removal Act and forced relocation, federal efforts often undertaken by USACE to dissolve Indigenous power and allow white people to build wealth on stolen land. In WWII, Japanese Americans were forcibly relocated to incarceration camps because the federal government viewed them as a threat to national security. In 1946, the U.S. military forcibly relocated Marshallese people from Bikini Atoll in the Marshall Islands to use the atoll for nuclear testing, the fallout from which continues to impact Marshallese people. During the Trump presidency, family separation was official federal policy. Legal land grabs by way of eminent domain have stripped BIPOC families of the homes they worked hard to purchase.
There’s also the fact that climate change is a preventable and mitigable ecological crisis that the federal government has known about since the 1950s. For the past seven decades, as global warming has led us to the brink of the sixth mass extinction of plant and animal species, extractive industries have profited from contributing to the climate crisis while taxpayers have covered the cost and communities of color have suffered the majority of the consequences.
It’s in the shadows of these legacies that advocates are navigating the complex landscape of climate migration.
Robin Bronen, the co-founder and executive director of the human rights organization Alaska Institute for Justice and a council member at the Climigration Network, has worked with the White House Council on Environmental Quality and said that climate migration policy must center human rights principles and equity. Without those considerations, the federal government will repeat some of its ugliest histories.
Most importantly, policy efforts must allow impacted communities to decide if and when to migrate.
“There’s this giant disconnect, where the folks who are looking at this issue from a theoretical standpoint are not in conversation with the communities that need to be making these decisions,” Bronen said.
If those conversations were to happen more frequently and more openly, they might reveal that migration as a response to environmental and climate challenges can also be an opportunity. For instance, Indigenous communities that were forcibly relocated to certain places may find that community-wide relocation is a way of deciding for themselves how they’d like to build their future.
In Alaska, Indigenous tribal governments are hoping to leverage funds to move to areas less affected by sea level rise and thawing permafrost, which can destabilize the ground on which homes are built, putting them at a slant or disappearing them into the water altogether.
Morris J. Alexie, who is Yup’ik and spent all of his life in Nunapitchuk, a community of fewer than 1,000 people located southwest Alaska, is working as a permafrost pathways liaison with the Alaska Institute for Justice to collect environmental data that can help guide the community’s relocation efforts.
Many of the homes in his community, which Alexie notes were built with personal funds, have begun to slant. With each year there’s less and less ice pack, which means less reliable clean water for many people living in Nunapitchuk who don’t have running water.
He looks forward to the day that the community relocates in part because “it was not our forefathers who chose this site to begin with,” Alexie said. “It was mercenaries, and it was the school system who had forced the small tribes or surrounding tribes to gather [here].”