Addressing Climate Change and Displacement: Four Recommendations for the Biden Administration from Frontline Communities

On Earth Day 2021, Refugees International joined the Climate, Migration, and Displacement Platform, a global platform of practitioners and advocates with a common concern for climate justice and the human rights of migrants and displaced people, to discuss how the Biden administration can center the needs and voices of frontline communities in its policies related to climate change and displacement. The conversation was organized in response to President Biden’s February 4 Executive Order, which requested a report on policy options to address climate change and forced migration.

Panelists emphasized that the United States has a tremendous opportunity to lead on these issues and called on the Biden administration to prioritize equity, justice, and human rights in its policymaking. And they offered four major recommendations from the perspective of frontline communities:

1. Acknowledge that climate-related displacement is already happening in the United States and abroad—and provide funding and technical assistance to affected communities.

Panelists urged the Biden administration to recognize that climate-related displacement and relocation is already occurring in the United States and abroad, as they have seen first-hand in the United States, the Bahamas, Pacific islands, Burma, Central America, and South Asia.

Panelist Salote Soqo of the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee explained that climate change is disproportionately impacting Tribal nations and communities of color. Sea level rise in the Pacific Islands and Louisiana, extreme weather in the Bahamas and the Gulf of Mexico, and erosion and flooding in Alaska are posing existential threats to communities now—and planning and projects are not happening at the urgent rate required.

“The Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw tribe in Louisiana was awarded a [U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development] grant to relocate its entire village in 2016,” Soqo said. “It’s been five years, and nothing has been built.”

Climate change is also a governance crisis, and communities need targeted resources for adaptation and relocation for both their physical and cultural survival.

2. Invest in climate finance and increase climate-specific funding for developing countries. 

All panelists emphasized that, as the biggest emitter of greenhouse gases, the United States has a moral responsibility to provide its fair share of financial costs to help developing countries cope with the effects of climate change. This would mean increasing U.S. funding to developing countries that is specifically allotted for adaptation, resilience, and disaster risk reduction.

“We want developing countries to put the right kinds of policies in place, but these programs and policies need resources,” said panelist Harjeet Singh of ActionAid.

Panelist Helena Olea of Alianza Americas said that U.S. foreign aid is key for Central America, which was recently hit by hurricanes Eta and Iota and is still recovering from Hurricane Mitch, and emphasized the need for investments in both shorter-term humanitarian solutions and long-term solutions that help people in the region adapt and rebuild. Panelists also said the United States should invest more in climate financing—including public financing—and push for the establishment of a loss and damage fund.

3. Establish safe and regular pathways for migrants from regions affected by climate change.

Panelists agreed that the United States must formally recognize migration as a form of adaptation. Olea said that the Biden administration’s renewed focus on the root causes of migration should not detract from the reality that even with increased investments for addressing root causes, people will move. She called for the Biden administration to issue Temporary Protected Status (TPS) designations for Nicaragua, Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador—all countries affected by hurricanes Eta and Iota. But she reiterated that this designation is only the first step and that the Biden administration must also create pathways to permanent residency for TPS holders.

Olea explained, “We cannot create a temporary status which does not include a path for permanent residency for those individuals who have remained in the U.S. for a number of years, and that is precisely the situation of the Central Americans who were impacted by Hurricane Mitch and have been in the U.S. for over twenty years.”

4. Engage affected communities in the development of climate and migration-related policies.

Soqo noted that the communities most impacted by climate change in the United States and world have a lot in common. They largely live in remote areas and are Indigenous peoples whose identities are tied to their land and waters. They are also consistently not included in the policy processes that affect their lives.

“Their agency, knowledge, and wisdom are not adequately recognized in policy making,” she explained. “They are not receiving adequate financial and technical assistance. And they are not meaningfully engaged in the development of the policies and governance frameworks at the international or national levels.”

Centering equity, justice, and human rights in climate change and migration-related policies means meaningfully engaging with communities on the frontlines of the climate crisis. The Biden administration has a huge opportunity to do this as it drafts the Executive Order’s mandated report, which is due in August. As moderator of the discussion and manager of the Climate Displacement Program at Refugees International Kayly Ober concluded: “The Biden administration can play a catalytic role. . . and we hope to see a really transformative report from [the administration] in August.”

PHOTO CAPTION: A Syrian man looks at a submerged tent after heavy rain at the al-Hasoub camp for the internally displaced in the Maaret Misrin district in the northwestern Idlib province, Syria on January 19, 2021. Photo Credit: OMAR HAJ KADOUR/AFP via Getty Images.