Climate Change Displacement and Dislocation-Coming to a City or Town Near You!

Posted on November 3, 2016 by Wendy B. Jacobs

It is time not only to plan and prepare, but also to bring human rights and land use policies together into the discussion and much-needed governance reforms. When one thinks of population migrations, one often thinks of international movements. The issues of human rights are front and center in that context, but we don’t yet have a developed language or set of principles to apply when thinking it through here in the U.S. Hence, last week, I co-hosted a 2 and ½ day workshop on the subject with my colleagues in the International Human Rights and Immigration Clinics. We brought together experts on human rights from all over the world to focus on 4 case studies. One was the Horn of Africa where pastoralists are on the move to escape drought conditions; one was Central America/Mexico from which people are fleeing not only gang violence and poverty but increasingly severe climate conditions; a third case study focused on Native Alaskan communities; and, a fourth on coastal cities in the U.S.  In addition to international experts, also participating were government representatives of several coastal cities, an expert on the Hurricane Sandy property buy-outs, several climate justice activists (including the NAACP), and people working to relocate Native Alaskans. 

Together we brainstormed how to build on the Nansen Initiative and other internationally-developed principles for creating governance structures and funding mechanisms to implement plans to protect displaced persons. (Brief mention was made of imposing a carbon tax and then applying the funds to adaptation measures.) A key point of consensus was the need to use “bottom up” approaches (including local referendums) to ensure that policy makers and decision makers understand the needs of affected communities when pursuing much needed legal reforms and to begin planning now for ultimate displacement instead of waiting for disaster to strike. Many barriers exist, however. A major barrier to effective and cost-efficient planning for and management of dislocations in the U.S. (and elsewhere) is the “siloing” of jurisdiction and expertise between the many tiers of government (domestic and international). Another is the dependency of municipalities on a strong tax base which leads many to resist the notion of “retreat” or “relocation” of at-risk populations. Furthermore, land-use planning is managed separately from disaster relief planning in the U.S. More resources are (inefficiently) disbursed for responding to disasters than avoiding them. Indeed, the sinking of communities into the sea is not even considered a “disaster” under current U.S. law. Many legal reforms are needed, ranging from zoning policies to building codes to jurisdictional issues to preemption. One example: the National Flood Insurance Program not only creates perverse incentives to continue building and re-building along the coast, but it does not require that municipalities adopt zoning codes that take sea level rise or storm surges into account. We discussed legal and policy mechanisms for managing infrastructure in communities that will need to be abandoned and creating infrastructure elsewhere to support people forced to relocate. Alaskan communities are caught in a terrible Catch 22: some still lack fundamentals, such as running water, but the government does not want to invest in infrastructure in communities that will have to relocate and yet the government has been tied up in knots and unable to build the necessary infrastructure in the areas to which these peoples will relocate. And, we discussed climate change gentrification and the need to ensure affordable, sustainable, safe and healthy housing for the dislocated poor.

There is much work to be done. If any member of the College is interested in working on any of these issues with us, please let me know!



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