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Jan Lee headshot

There Are Climate Change Refugees in the U.S. Right Now

By Jan Lee

We often talk about climate change in the broader scope of what it impacts us on a daily or weekly basis: too much rain or too long a drought; migrating icebergs and shifting rain forests.

But for many Americans, the real evidence of global warming is at home, in our houses and on our streets. It's what's playing out as we make plans to go to the store or head off to work across town. And for many who rarely make the front page of major media, it's the say-so of whether they can harvest the fish they need standing on the seashore or maintain the foundation under their ice-supported homes.

America's first 'climate change refugees'

Some years ago TriplePundit published a post about an exceptional climate change story that was unfolding in Alaska. It was exceptional not because of the rising tides that were progressively eating away at the slim finger of soil the town was built on, or because of the community's determination to stay where it was. It was considered phenomenal because of the financial dilemma that was increasingly facing a Native American town that couldn't afford to move and didn't have the government funding to make it happen the way the residents wanted.

Four years later, Kivalina, AK's situation has grown more dire. It's also grown partners in its effort to both buttress their current location and to find a new home. But the financial costs that the town faces underscore the true impact of climate change. As a story on Climate Resilience Tool Kit explains, "Each year, estimated relocation costs increase, with some estimates for moving the approximately 400 residents ranging from $100 to $400 million—up to a million dollars per person." Moving Kivalina isn't a simple process.

It also isn't a singular story any more. In 2016 the Native American town of Shismaref, also in the Arctic's Chukchi Sea, voted to move. Rising tides and warming temperatures were putting the small island of ice they are on in peril. Relocation costs estimate in the millions as well, coming in around $180 million in 2016. A 2015 funding allocation issued by then Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell of $8 million for "projects that promote tribal climate change adaptation" doesn't even begin to scratch the surface for either tribal community.

Nor does it take into consideration the fact that Alaskan tribes aren't the only communities being flooded out by global warming. The fates of Shismaref and Kivalina are now joined by that of the coastal community of the Isle de Jean Charles, a small Louisiana town that by 2015 had been reduced to a strip of road large enough to maintain a county road and a diminishing number of houses. Today, the town, is under full assault from rising gulf waters and has become uninhabitable.

Isle de Jean Charles, LA: 'No more land'

Most of the residents are also Native American (the Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw and the United Houma Nation tribes) who have significant historical ties to the area. But due to geography, it will cost town residents much less to relocate. So far $48 million has been allocated to moving the 25 or so remaining families.

The Louisiana town also had the benefit of local governmental savvy. The $48 million came via a Housing and Urban Development grant paid through the National Disaster Resilience Competition initiated in 2015 that also provided aid for a neighbor community of Kivalina. But it was apparently the Louisiana Office of Community Development that put in the application for the grant, realizing that funding for a phenomena that has rarely dominated American life was going to be hard to find. It also realized that in the words of one besieged resident, there really was "no more land" left.

Unfortunately for Kivalina and Shishmaref, answers as to how to move their disappearing towns are harder to find -- and getting less attention. There have been a number of attempts to shore up protection for the towns for the towns' coastlines with revetment and seawall construction, but the measures are only expected to extend the lifespan of the town by a decade or so.

There was also an effort to set aside funds via an unlikely bill: the American Energy and Conservation Act; (pg. 41). Proponents in Alaska saw it as one way to set aside funds to help endangered communities fund their relocation or adaptation. The bill died in Congress in 2016.

Shortly after word came out that Isle de Jean Charles would be forced to move, residents found themselves with the unlikely media title of the "first climate change refugees." Its a status that neither Kivalina or Shishmaref residents would likely want to compete for, but it does lend to the argument that when it comes to news about climate change, it's often the communities that are closest to our geographic area that get the fastest and most intense media attention.

Meanwhile, as a member of Refugees International told CNN reporter John D. Sutter, the real problem is that there are no federal programs in place to address these kinds of relocations.

"There's no federal or state law -- no institution in the United States -- with a mandate for how are we going to manage relocation internally," said Climate Displacement Program Manager Alice Thomas. Relocating climate change refugees who never expected to lose their ancestral homes to Mother Nature is "going to be enormously expensive," said Thomas.

And maybe that's a funding  mandate whose time has come.


Flickr images: Isle de Jean Charles - Karen Apricot; Kivalina - US Coast Guard Lt Com. M. McNeil/ USCG Press; Shismaref - USCG Press


Jan Lee headshot

Jan Lee is a former news editor and award-winning editorial writer whose non-fiction and fiction have been published in the U.S., Canada, Mexico, the U.K. and Australia. Her articles and posts can be found on TriplePundit, JustMeans, and her blog, The Multicultural Jew, as well as other publications. She currently splits her residence between the city of Vancouver, British Columbia and the rural farmlands of Idaho.

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