Weather and climate related incidents displaced 30.7 million people in 2020, according to a report by the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies. The majority of those impacted were disproportionately impacted Black, Indigenous, and other people of color. The world is at a crisis point and climate scientists say we must consider all options for climate change adaptation.
Compared to many other countries the U.S. has more available space, money and resources to better protect those at risk and we are better positioned to accommodate climate refugees from around the globe. But first we need to be honest about why and how decisions are made when determining which climate change adaptation strategies are applied where and for whom and make it fair.
State and federal governments are investing in various protection measures but there is increasing evidence that these adaptation efforts are exacerbating socioeconomic inequalities because of how and where they’re deployed.
Geologist Robert Young, Director of the Program for the Study of Developed Shorelines at Western Carolina University, says we spend federal dollars to protect property deemed valuable, (i.e., businesses and homes that are owned by companies). Conversely, people who live in working class, blue collar and poor Black communities are bought out and/or relocated.
Climate change adaptation expert A.R. Siders has conducted studies to document this. Siders heads the University of Delaware Disaster Research Center, Geography and Spatial Sciences. In a 2020 study published in Ocean and Coastal Management, Siders put North Carolina under the microscope. She looked at the relationships between the risks of sea level rise and flooding, the socioeconomic status of the residents and the mitigation strategies used to protect them. She found that, while the implementation of coastal adaptation measures is linked to risk, which measurements are used depends on socioeconomic factors and, as a result, coastal protection measures are creating a host of new inequalities.
The nation’s federal disaster policy is designed to protect assets rather than protecting populations. In North Carolina, shoreline armoring (using physical structures to protect shorelines from coastal erosion) and beach nourishment (adding large quantities of sand or sediment) were used in high-value, wealthy communities. The state employed buyouts and managed retreat (the purposeful, coordinated movement of people and buildings away from risks) almost exclusively for low-income communities of color. Wealthier communities are almost never pushed to relocate, even if it may be less costly in the long run.
In an interview with Yale Environment 360, Idowu (Jola) Ajibade, assistant professor at Portland State University, says that unless the process and policies are made more equitable, we are likely to see what she calls climate colonialism, exploitation of the poor to benefit the wealthy.
Ajibade says climate mediation decisions must take several issues into account: Who is losing the generational wealth because they’ve been asked to move? What are the cultural implications or loss associated with such relocation programs? How do we move people away from places of risk without stripping them of their identity, agency, culture, and indeed livelihood?
Inequality influences who can stay in climate-vulnerable locales, who can leave and thrive elsewhere, and who can’t do either. “What's really central for climate displacement is making sure that people not only have the option to move but also have an option to stay at home if that's what they want,” says Ajibade.