A New Type of Refugee

When you hear the word “refugee,” you may picture Syrians in massive camps hosted by Jordan or Lebanon. Or maybe you imagine Africans in rafts trying to cross the Mediterranean to Italy.

Now we’re starting to hear reports about “climate refugees.” In late April, during a trip to Canada, U.S. Secretary of Interior Sally Jewell said, “We can stem the increase in temperature, we can stem some of the effects, perhaps, if we act on climate as we are committed to do through the Paris accords. But the changes are underway and they are very rapid. We will have climate refugees.” 

She was referring mainly to Arctic communities in Alaska and Canada, where temperatures have climbed more quickly than they have elsewhere. “We have to figure out how to deal with potentially relocating villages, or supporting communities in their adaptation and in building resilience within those communities to a changed reality,” she said.

A  2003 report from the Government Accountability Office found that most of Alaska’s 200-plus Native villages are affected by erosion and flooding, and that four were in “imminent danger.” In 2009, the GAO said that 31 villages were in imminent danger.

In Newtok, home to 350 Natives whose homes are perched on a low-lying tuft of land between two rivers, residents saw the water creeping closer every year, gobbling up fields where they used to pick berries and hunt moose. Paul and Teresa Charles have been watching the Ninglick River inch closer and closer to their blue home on stilts, bringing with it the salt waters of the Bering Sea. “Sometimes, we lose 100 feet a year,” Paul Charles told Alana Semuels of The Atlantic. 

Thousands of miles south and east, in the wetlands of Southern Louisiana, Isle de Jean Charles, a town of about 60 people, has been dealing with the encroaching seas for years as the state’s coast continues to sink. Due to several manmade and natural causes, The New York Times reported in May 2016, the coast is slowly becoming a part of the Gulf of Mexico, and if unabated, it’ll be taking towns like Isle de Jean Charles, its residents, and their homes with it. Combined with erosion caused by loggers and now-rising seas, since 1955, about 90 percent of the town’s original land has sunk.

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development allocated the town a $48 million grant for the resettlement, which is a portion of the $1 billion set aside to help communities living under the threat of rising sea levels.

“We see this as setting a precedent for the rest of the country, the rest of the world,” said Marion McFadden, the Department of Housing and Urban Development official who is running the resettlement program.

Worldwide, an estimated 50 million to 200 million people will be forced to relocate due to climate change, many likely without the benefit of government aid. The figures come from the United Nations University Institute for the Environment and Human Security and the International Organization for Migration. Some of the world’s most vulnerable people are likely to suffer the consequences of rising sea levels, droughts, flooding, and reduced access to fresh water. 

The cost of moving threatened communities like these is enormous. And imagine when major population centers like Miami and other coastal cities in Florida have to retreat.  How will we manage and pay for that? By comparison, today’s refugee resettlement effort in Europe will look like child’s play.

Yet there are still many politicians warning us that we cannot afford to take action to counter climate change. They need to start factoring in the extraordinary expense of losing villages and cities and resettling residents.

What about places where there is too little water due to climate change? As 90,000 people return to Fort McMurray, Canada, after a wildfire burned their city to a crisp, the soaring price of inaction is painfully clear. 

Is our nation going to rise to this challenge? Or will we continue to take baby steps and take the chance that water levels will rise six to seven feet over the next century, as scientists recently reported could very well happen?

The least expensive, quickest, and most efficient way to limit the number of places facing elimination is to put a price on carbon, the primary culprit in the rise of sea levels. It should be considered an investment that would pay dividends for centuries to come.

But every week that we dither, the potential damage to our planet, our health, and our livelihoods increases. Congress must move off the sidelines and help the United States be a leader in this effort. By passing a revenue-neutral carbon fee, Congress can drive a reduction in carbon emissions and help us avert a natural and economic calamity.