USA TODAY 11/04/19
By Michael Shank and US Congresswoman Yvette Clarke

An environmental crisis in the early 1900s created ‘Dust Bowl refugees.’ Today’s climate crisis is much bigger and will last for decades, not years.

“Climate refugee” is likely a new term for most Americans. Also referred to as environmental migrants, climate refugees are people who are now forced to seek refuge from the life-threatening impacts of the climate crisis.

Californians are the tip of the spear this fall as increasingly destructive wildfires drive people out of their homes — more than 200,000 just in the last couple of weeks. Soon, however, everyone in America will know what a climate refugee is. Given current estimates on sea-level rise and its threat to coastal communities, as many as 13 million Americans are projected to become climate refugees by the end of this century. That’s a lot of displacement and instability across our coasts.

For some, displacement that can be linked to climate change has already occurred. In Brooklyn, thousands of families were forced from their homes and communities by Superstorm Sandy in 2012, which flooded entire neighborhoods and left demolished houses in its wake. Many families to this day have still been unable to return home, and key pieces of infrastructure are still undergoing repair.

Displacement on a massive scale

We can expect to see only more displacement as the climate crisis continues to worsen. The latest report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change highlights that ever more powerful tropical cyclones and floods are headed our way, as warmer ocean waters combine with rising sea levels to fuel more frequent and devastating storms.

This is our new reality: Americans having to move from their homes to avoid the climate crisis and its worst impacts, whether that be sea-level rise, flooding, wildfires, hurricanes or droughts. And many Americans don’t have the resources to just pack up and move, making the displacement all the more precarious.

We’ve seen this happen before in response to an environmental disaster. Hundreds of thousands of “Dust Bowl refugees,” for example, migrated westward in the early 1900s looking for safer ground and more protected, secure livelihoods. And now we’re witnessing it again, but this time in response to a much bigger environmental crisis and one that will last for decades, not years.

Across our coasts, from Alaska in the northwest to Louisiana and Florida in the southeast, we are facing the threat of displacement on a massive scale. In response, and for the first time ever, the Department of Housing and Urban Development has provided $48 million to move an entire community out of the Isle de Jean Charles in Louisiana to avoid coming climate impacts. And in Alaska, the village of Newtok recently secured more than $15 million to relocate households to safer ground.

Cities at risk must prepare now

These early relocation efforts by the federal government actually save millions of taxpayer dollars down the road. Instead of the constant rebuilding of repeatedly damaged homes and livelihoods, which is unfortunately all too often the case, relocation avoids that cost to taxpayers and helps ensure that communities can thrive in safer environments.

This is just the beginning. For example, in the coming years, given predicted rates of sea-level rise and the increased frequency and severity of storms, several counties in Florida will need to relocate over 4 million residents to avoid climate disaster. New York, California and Louisiana will also face the possible migration of hundreds of thousands of their residents (New York City is one of the 10 cities in the world most vulnerable to sea level rise, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development).

And we can’t rely on walls to keep the water out, despite the current administration’s proclivity for erecting physical barriers. Waves are now 20 times more likely to overwhelm a New York City seawall, for example, than they were in the mid 1800s. Something other than walls will be necessary.

So, what’s the answer? For starters, New York City is investing $10 billion to extend lower Manhattan into the East River by two blocks, build seawalls and sand dunes, elevate parks and construct removable flood barriers. Other at-risk coastal cities are pursuing similar adaptive measures.

The climate crisis is upon us

Such measures are certainly helpful on the municipal level, but on the federal level we also need a longer-term, strategic assessment of our national preparedness to adapt to and mitigate climate change risks and impacts. We need to identify at-risk zones and proactively work with vulnerable communities who are on the front lines of the climate crisis to build resilience and leverage federal resources.

Frankly, the federally funded Alaska and Louisiana relocation efforts, as mentioned above, took too long to greenlight. We can’t wait until these communities are underwater. Similarly, our “safe zones” — where the climate crisis is less capable of displacing and devastating communities — need to be identified and developed to make space for those seeking refuge, similar to how Lancaster, Pennsylvania, became a refuge for Puerto Ricans fleeing the devastation of Hurricane Maria.

Recognizing that not every American will be able to move to the most secure safe zone, we also need to do everything we can to simultaneously build community resilience and tackle the climate crisis before it becomes too late.

The climate crisis is upon us, whether we choose to recognize it or not. As we work to decarbonize our economy and curb greenhouse gas emissions, we must safeguard our communities and allocate resources to those already on the front lines, especially low-income communities and communities of color.

Rep. Yvette D. Clarke, D-New York, serves on the House Energy and Commerce and Homeland Security committees Michael Shank teaches sustainable development at New York University’s Center for Global Affairs and is the communications director for the Carbon Neutral Cities Alliance. Follow them on Twitter: @RepYvetteClarke and @Michael_Shank