Is the U.S. Prepared to Protect Climate Refugees?
BY CHIARA FIELDS
Through his speech and highly restrictive refugee quotas, President Donald Trump succeeded in cultivating a racist and stigmatized narrative of refugees that saw them as threats, radicals, and free-riders during his presidency. It is not surprising then, that many Americans have formed attitudes towards refugees that reflect the coldness of Trump-era policies. What many Americans do not realize, though, is just how familiar the words "climate" and "refugee" will become as rising sea levels, forest fires, and extreme weather events force them to ask themselves: Do I need to move? Can I move? How do I move?
The term “climate refugee” refers to people who are forced to leave their homes and migrate within or between countries as a result of climate-change-caused issues, like natural disasters, rising sea levels, coastal erosion, extreme fires, drought, resource wars, etc. Importantly, this term also implies that people who are disproportionately impacted by climate change (e.g. people living in the Global South, women, indigenous communities, impoverished peoples, etc.) are also much more likely to become climate refugees.
While many people living in the continental U.S. might be unfamiliar with the idea of climate change induced displacement, indigenous communities in Alaska have been repeatedly forced to leave their ancestral lands which have succumbed to sea level rise, erosion, thawing permafrost, and flooding. Towns like Kivalina, which have been fighting to overcome political obstacles since the early 1990s, will likely be uninhabitable as soon as 2025, according to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The U.S. government has not only ignored indigenous peoples’ warnings regarding the imminence of climate change, but it also systematically deprived them of their right to assistance by withholding support from tribes that are not federally recognized or by forcing tribes to coordinate with more than a dozen federal and state agencies. In fact, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers rejected Kivalina’s proposals for relocation twice in the 1990s, apparently due to the high cost of moving and funding restrictions. In 2020, when the town had lost 50% of its habitable land, Kivalina still hadn’t been granted relocation assistance. The U.S. government’s failure to act was so apparent and egregious that Kivalina, along with four other indigenous tribes residing in coastal Louisiana, sought help from the United Nations. Unfortunately, the UN could do little to help outside of verbally condemning the U.S. government for its inaction.
If the U.S 's inability to quickly or adequately assist indigenous communities in Alaska is proof of anything, it is that the U.S. is sorely unprepared for the rising issue of climate migration and the humanitarian crisis that is likely to accompany it. For the U.S., climate migration assumes great implications regarding national security, unemployment, food security, federal and state cooperation, budget allocation, and asylum law, among other things. In hopeful news, President Biden did actually acknowledge this in his Report on the Impact of Climate Change on Migration. In it, President Biden does point out the apparent lack of legal and political framework for climate refugees, and he recognizes “a national interest in creating a new and legal pathway for individualized humanitarian protection.”
However, even though his report did successfully bring national attention to the issue of climate migration, critics point out that it did not provide concrete policy recommendations or timelines for the necessary legal pathways mentioned. Biden and his predecessors have actually done fairly little to mitigate the effects and causes of climate migration. Locally speaking though, vulnerable states have poured money into mitigation efforts, but have not been successful in producing long term solutions. Florida, for instance, just passed a bill to provide Miami with $4 billion dollars to combat rising sea levels. Unfortunately, the Florida state government acknowledges that some areas of the city, and of the state, will be unsalvageable, and that these mitigation efforts are technically only temporary. Moreover, this money will largely be going towards infrastructure development, like pump stations and sea walls, not necessarily towards the prevention and protection of displaced peoples.
Internationally speaking, there is much work to be done. While the current UN Secretary-General, and former UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Antonio Guterres acknowledges that “Climate change [is] now found to be the key factor accelerating all other drivers of forced displacement,” there is no international legal framework for climate refugees. This essentially means that when a person is forcibly displaced from their country due to climate change-induced disasters, they are not protected under international law, nor are they technically considered refugees. This is shocking when one considers World Bank estimates, which forecast that a daunting 200+ million people around the world will become climate refugees by 2050.
What’s worse is that these estimates are the result of a crisis precipitated by Global North countries who, for the most part, refuse to assume responsibility, or provide actionable responses. This makes it difficult then, for the international community to reach a consensus on the status of people seeking refuge on account of climate-change related disasters.
So, what can the U.S. do? Well, climate change is happening, and it’s happening now. Even though mitigation measures would best tackle the heart of climate migration issues, they will not be effective. As such, the U.S. should reform its immigration and asylum laws to make it easier for climate refugees to be recognized as distinct groups of people eligible for the same protections typically provided to refugees. Specifically, the U.S. should clearly redefine what it means to be a refugee. The U.S. could also develop migration schemes and better train immigration officers to understand the relationship between climate refugees and domestic laws. For those seeking temporary refuge, the U.S. could provide Deferred Enforced Departure and Temporary Protection Status measures as well. Deferred Enforced Departure is a discretionary power that allows a U.S. president to prevent the deportation of immigrants who hail from a specific country. Temporary Protection Status similarly prevents the deportation of immigrants, but does so by providing provisional lawful residency on an individual rather than national basis.
It is crucial that the U.S. rethink the narrative it has constructed regarding refugees, as the likelihood increases that its own citizens become refugees themselves. If the American public better understood how global climate change will directly affect them, they may be better at mobilizing the U.S. government to take action against the climate crisis.
If you are interested in learning more about climate refugees or providing assistance to these vulnerable populations, please visit the following link: