Reaching Higher Ground in the Face of Climate Change

by David Flores

May 03, 2017

We've seen a flurry of news coverage in the last several weeks on climate migration, displacement, and relocation. In a new report published today, the Center for Progressive Reform explores these issues and examines tools and resources that communities can use when faced with the challenges of relocating out of harm's way. 

The New York Times Magazine recently profiled one homeowner in Norfolk, Virginia, who purchased a home that had never been flooded, but in the ten years since has flooded twice, causing her flood insurance premiums to skyrocket and the home to lose almost half its value. She ended up leaving her home and the city. 

But climate-based migration and displacement isn't just affecting people on an individual level. Large-scale human movement, driven in part by climate impacts, is already occurring in various places around the globe, as noted in another article in the New York Times Magazine. Desertification, drought, diminishing sources of fresh water, and increased frequency and intensity of storms are contributing to social unrest and migration, from the Amazon Basin to Syria to the Philippines. 

Isle de Jean Charles, Louisiana, is one of 17 known climate relocation communities in the United States. In the new CPR report, Reaching Higher Ground: Avenues to Secure and Manage New Land for Communities Displaced by Climate Change, CPR Member Scholars Maxine Burkett and Robert Verchick join me in examining the challenges that communities like Isle de Jean Charles face in acquiring and governing land for relocation. 

What all of today's climate relocation communities have in common are their small size, proximity to major waterways, generally remote location, and largely indigenous populations. Twelve climate relocation communities are Alaska Native Villages, and four others are located on federally recognized American Indian reservations on the Pacific Coast of Washington's Olympic Peninsula. And Isle de Jean Charles is largely comprised of Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw Indians. But with 13 million Americans threatened with displacement by sea level rise alone, the number of climate relocation communities is sure to grow significantly in coming decades. 

Communities face many challenges with the prospect of climate relocation, including land acquisition, governance, rights to evacuated property, and funding. Our report details some of the legal and policy options available to climate relocation communities to acquire and govern new land for relocation sites. Some of those tools include corporate entities, such as community land trusts and homeowners' associations, while others include legislatively approved land transfers and novel theories of takings and tort litigation. The report includes profiles about how other relocation communities have used some of these tools for land acquisition, governance, and property rights. 

Ultimately, climate relocation communities cannot identify and adopt these solutions alone. These communities, and those who will face these challenges in the not-so-distant future, need the support of the federal government, state governments, and nonprofit organizations. The resources and technical assistance provided by the federal government are inadequate to meet even current need among the comparative handful of climate relocation communities today, much less the demands that are on the horizon with millions of other U.S. residents facing the need to relocate. A uniform and fully funded federal program for climate relocation is necessary, one that includes a set of policies that are designed for the unique land acquisition and governance needs of relocation communities. 

You can find the Reaching Higher Ground report on our website. To read CPR's other work on climate adaptation, visit our Adapting to Climate Change page.

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