This piece was originally published by Just Security.
Today, almost every displacement crisis is intertwined with climate disasters: from hurricanes in Guatemala and devastating cyclones in Mozambique to record flooding in Pakistan and across the Sahel and Horn of Africa. These effects are expected to worsen and accelerate as greenhouse gas emissions continue, and require responses across the spectrum of climate action – from mitigation and adaptation to funding for loss and damage.
The Climate Displaced Persons Act (CDPA), which Senator Ed Markey (D-MA) and Representative Nydia Velazquez (D-NY) introduced this week, represents a forward-looking approach for U.S. global leadership in shaping effective and people-first solutions to the climate crisis at the moment when it is needed most. The bill creates a new pathway for at least 100,000 climate-displaced persons annually and provides resources, including foreign assistance to support those affected by climate change. The CDPA would ensure a robust commitment by the U.S. government to global climate resilience. For the first time, it also addresses climate displacement in ways that combat inequality and contribute to peacebuilding in areas at risk of climate-induced conflicts.
Improvements on Previous Versions of the Legislation
This is the third time that the CDPA has been introduced, a testament to longstanding recognition of the need to address climate displacement through resilience and pathways. Unlike its 2019 and 2021 versions, this bill focuses equally on the lingering effects of sudden disasters as well as steady, ongoing displacement as a result of slow-onset climate impacts, such as drought and sea-level rise. It is careful to note that climate change typically creates internal displacement before pushing anyone across a border and that those already uprooted by conflict – such as internally displaced persons in Somalia or Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh – are impacted by climate disasters and face additional vulnerability due to their precarious living conditions. Moreover, the bill notes that some countries experiencing protracted conflict, such as Afghanistan and Yemen, are also wracked by climate change impacts such as drought and food insecurity.
This version of the bill emphasizes equity more than its predecessors, underscoring that climate displacement disproportionately impacts marginalized communities that have contributed the least to climate change, and that the United States has not addressed its disproportionate responsibility for contributing to climate change and climate displacement. For the first time, the bill authorizes the United States to address, through contributions to “multilateral initiatives and funds,” permanent loss and damage faced by communities impacted by climate change as well as support community recovery and reconstruction after climate related environmental disasters.
This bill highlights the White House’s call to Congress in the 2021 Report on Climate Change and Migration to create new legal pathways to protect persons displaced by climate change. Since that call was made more than two years ago, the bill notes, destruction of homes and lands due to climate-related causes has contributed to asylum seekers deciding to flee. Recognizing the increase in displacement, the bill doubles the number of climate-displaced persons who would be admitted to the United States – from the 50,000 allocated in previous bills to 100,000 annually. As in the previous versions, these admissions of climate-displaced persons are in addition to – not part of – the refugee admissions goal established by Presidential determination each year.
More Precision and Equity in the Pathway for Climate-Displaced Persons
The bill provides a clearer definition of climate-displaced persons. In years past, the definition encompassed those forced to leave their homes as a result of a sudden or progressive change in the environment and lacking a durable resettlement solution to their displacement. The definition in the new bill links displacement closer to the impacts of climate change – by specifying sudden or slow-onset climate-related effects that lead to the displacement – while also recognizing that the interaction of climate-related environmental disasters with other factors, including resource constraints and human rights abuses, could contribute to displacement. Further, the bill specifies what it means to lack access to a durable solution, namely that the displaced person cannot integrate or return to their former residence because it has been rendered uninhabitable or because it is unsafe to do so due to “targeted violence, discrimination,… food insecurity, and other forms of harm.”
For the first time, this year’s CDPA calls for allocation of the 100,000 admissions of climate-displaced persons to be based upon which populations and countries are most vulnerable to, and unable to recover from, the effects of climate change, as determined through the collection of disaggregated and geographically specific data from the best available scientific and international sources. The bill calls on the State Department and the Department of Homeland Security to develop application requirements for climate-displaced persons and for training on climate displacement for both Foreign Service and U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) officers responsible for determining eligibility. As in past versions of the bill, those admitted as climate-displaced persons will be eligible for benefits accorded to resettled refugees and asylees and have the ability to adjust to permanent status.
However, the bill is not without limitations. It lacks clarity as to how admission will be allocated to members of a population from a vulnerable country who are variously internally displaced, in a third country, or physically present in the United States. It is also unclear whether domestic (instead of international organizations) will be able to refer displaced persons physically present in the United States to USCIS for consideration. These issues, and the locations of the designated application centers (or perhaps online platforms rather than physical centers), could be determined by the executive agencies implementing the legislation or added to future versions of the CDPA.
A New Strategy and a New Coordinator
The CDPA’s commissioning of a Global Climate Change Resilience Strategy, to be established across the State Department, United States Agency for International Development (USAID), and the Special Presidential Envoy for Climate, is an essential step to coordinating U.S. efforts. By ensuring alignment of strategic priorities, actions, and funding across the federal government, as well as with international partners and multilateral processes and through public-private partnerships, the United States can improve its efficacy and amplify the effects of government funding. This would build on the 2021 Report’s recommendation to establish a standing Interagency Policy Process on Climate Change and Migration.
Critically, the Global Climate Change Resilience Strategy would be developed through substantive engagement “with civil society, local partners, and the affected communities, including marginalized populations and underserved populations, in the design, implementation, and monitoring of climate change programs to best safeguard the future of those subject to displacement.” The centering of affected communities in decision-making benefits both should lead to more just outcomes and widespread implementation of the Strategy.
Many recommendations from the White House’s 2021 Report on the Impact of Climate Change on Migration have yet to be implemented – partially due to a lack of coordinated effort and no single focal point of responsibility. Climate change and migration policy intersect with the purview of agencies, budgets, and mandates across the entire government, from the National Security Council to the State Department and USAID; given this diffusion, it is all too easy for its priorities to be overlooked amid the day-to-day challenges of governing.
However, the longer the world waits to address these issues, the more severe and costly climate effects will become. The CDPA would also create the role of a Coordinator of Climate Change Resilience within the State Department. Establishment of this role will ensure that the buck stops somewhere – assigning responsibility for making progress on the CDPA’s specific actions and initiatives.
The Time to Act Is Now
As the CDPA is introduced this week, the world stands at a critical juncture.
Released on Nov. 14, the 5th National Climate Assessment, which serves as “the government’s premier compilation of scientific knowledge” on climate change, paints a bleak picture of the current and projected impacts. As one of the largest contributors to climate change, the United States must commit to supporting vulnerable communities in responding to the effects of climate change – whether through adaptation and resilience-building strategies or offering pathways to protection for those unable to safely stay in their homes.
As the U.N. Climate Conference, COP28, approaches at the end of this month and the global community comes together to make pledges and decisions that will affect Earth’s climate and the living conditions of billions – not to mention the prospects of future generations – the United States must be bold enough to meet the existential threats of the climate emergency. Not only must the United States reduce emissions, but, by passing the CDPA, it can also support the frontline communities already facing the effects of these impacts that they did not cause.
Past versions of the bill have been co-sponsored by Democrats in the House and Senate on the Foreign Relations and Judiciary committees. This version of the bill merits more bipartisan support given how climate change pervades all aspects of our lives, from access to water and food, to insecurity and conflict, and the interest by legislators in using alternative pathways to help manage the border. It is significantly more expensive to respond to climate disasters after the fact, while investments in adaptation and resilience yield three to ten times a return in reduced need for disaster response and humanitarian assistance. Those concerned with efficiency of foreign assistance should appreciate the bill’s focus on funding resilience and coordinating a shared vision, spurring cooperation among multilateral organizations, galvanizing other governments’ development assistance, and mobilizing public-private partnerships.
Featured Image: Habiba Hassan Leesow fixes her tent in a displacement camp for people impacted by drought on September 3, 2022 in Baidoa, Somalia. Photo by Ed Ram/Getty Images.