The looming migration crisis

by Marvin Contreras

Just off the Louisiana coast, in the bayous, an island is disappearing. The Isle de Jean Charles, the ancestral land of the Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw, has nearly been engulfed by rising sea levels.  The native band, which has lived for centuries on the Isle, are the first federally funded climate migrants in the United States. Now, they are faced with a choice: leave their generational home or stay and risk the dangers of this changing world. It is a wrenching decision that soon many will face as extreme weather and flooding make some areas uninhabitable for humans.

As distant as climate dangers seem to most of the nation right now, the reality is that within 30 years, the demographics in America are going to begin to be dramatically shifted and the levers of regional power will move. Up to 162 million people across the U.S. will face a decrease in the quality of their environment due to climate change. Knowing this gives us time to prepare and to protect communities across the U.S. And, as we do so, ensure that this time BIPOC communities don’t suffer the disproportionate harm they have endured (and are still  facing) from unequal treatment, environmental deterioration, and natural disasters.

Migration will begin in the communities afflicted by pollution and the impacts of a changing climate. Like the native residents of the Isle de Jean Charles, among the first to experience the effects of climate change firsthand will be BIPOC communities. A study published in the Proceedings of the National Academies of Sciences found that Black and Latinx communities are exposed to more pollution than they produce.  Another study found that the residents who are most vulnerable in cities that are in danger of flooding—who live in the lowest-lying areas or in neighborhoods without green space for water absorption—are often poor and members of minority groups.  Leaders from low-income, Black, Latinx and Indigenous communities across the country have called for the creation of a “Climate Migration Agency” within a new “Department of Climate Change.”  Addressing historic injustice through such new initiatives is of paramount importance for the communities that find themselves on the frontlines of the climate crisis.

Currently after a disaster, or before other threats arise, an at-risk community can be relocated through federal home buyout programs. Local governments purchase the homes with federal money which the homeowners can then use to migrate elsewhere. This is called “managed retreat.”  It is a system plagued by bureaucracy and delays that can make obtaining a buyout a years long process. However, it is also a system capable of accomplishing much more with increased investment so that whole communities can be resettled away from climate danger zones.

New Census Bureau data demonstrates an alarming trend: the move by many Americans toward increasingly perilous areas like the Southwest and the coastal South.  There is a lack of education on future affected areas, and because of this, many people who are moving to these areas now will have to decide whether to move again in a matter of decades.

One business is attempting to change this. Redfin, a real estate brokerage firm, is unveiling a new partnership with two leading climate data organizations, First Street Foundation and ClimateCheck, on its website. Visitors or potential homebuyers will be able to input their address, city, neighborhood, or zip code to receive a climate safety rating. It will range from 0 to 100, based on how much an area may be at risk for five climate-related disasters over the next thirty years:  storms, temperature, drought, fire, and floods.

New tools like this one could be game-changers in how Americans begin to perceive the dangers of climate change over time. More meaningful education on what specific areas could look like soon could potentially inspire people to reconsider relocating to a risky area or decide against putting down roots in a climate change danger zone.

Migration has always been part of the human story. The migrations in the coming years, however, will be different. They will change us; create more disparities, more divisions. We must adapt. Although our nation has never been equitable, it still has time to be—as long as we prepare for the coming change and protect those who are most likely to be left behind.

Marvin Contreras is a contributing member of the Grassroots Network Climate Emergency Mobilization team. If you have a suggestion for a future topic or are interested in joining the team, please reach out to us at climateemergency[at]sfbaysc[dot]org.


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