Climate Refugee Crisis on the Horizon

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There are those that still claim that climate change is merely a man-made myth, rather than a man-made problem. Yet a 2014 study conducted by NASA and the University of California, Irvine, reveals that a section of ice about 75 miles wide in the West Antarctic has melted irreversibly, and could raise global sea levels by four feet.

If this is the case, islands and their native communities will be the first casualties of global warming. While many tropical communities have prepared for evacuation scenarios, most people in these areas will become climate refugees.

As of yet, no clear-cut solution exists for this issue, largely due to the fact that no committee or organization—international or otherwise—provides legal protection for these people. Why? Because, by definition, they aren’t actual refugees.

According to the 1951 Refugee Convention in Geneva, which laid out rules and policies involving refugees and their rights, a refugee is defined as a person who has a well-founded fear of being persecuted because of race, religion, nationality, or membership of a social group or political opinion, and are unable or unwilling to seek protection from their home countries.

If there isn’t a home country, technically, there isn’t anything or anyone to seek refuge from. With this catch-22 in mind, some Islands are preparing for the worst, but their residents are not planning to leave their home.

The Cook Islands, an archipelago in the South Pacific, believes adaptation is the way to surviving the potential threat to their land.

“Big countries are into mitigation, but adaptation is our only choice,” Deyna Marsh, Education and Awareness Coordinator for the Cook Islands National Environment Services, told Global Earth and Peace Educational International.

“Changes are already happening. Sea levels are rising all around the Pacific. If nothing is done now, we will lose our Islands, our traditions, our culture. Buildings and infrastructure on the foreshore will be lost or damaged, and both food security and the health of the people will be affected.”

The Cook Islands Climate Change Adaptation Plan was developed from a recent series of workshops that focused on the issue, with the intent to achieve “a resilient and sustainable Cook Islands where our people are resilient to disasters and climate change and able to achieve sustainable livelihoods.”

By ensuring that their people are prepared for disasters and climate change impacts, “the impacts of disasters and climate change are reduced.”

The overall indicative cost for implementing the Joint National Action Plan over the period over 4 years was estimated to be NZ$ 53.7 million (36.09 Million USD).

Inhabitants of the Pacific and Oceanic islands are not the only ones at risk of facing climate-driven relocation. In other areas of the world, resiliency plans are simply no longer an option.

The Isle de Jean Charles, a Louisiana island located 80 miles from New Orleans, is almost completely uninhabitable due to rising sea levels and damage wrought by Hurricane Katrina.

Since the 1950s, the isle’s native tribe has lost 98 percent of its land, and studies suggest that the island will be completely submerged in another 50 years. Whereas the island once constituted 22,000 acres, today it only spans 320, with as few as 25 remaining inhabited houses.

In January, 2016, the State of Louisiana received $92,629,249 in National Disaster Resilience Competition (NDRC) funding to support its Louisiana Strategic Adaptations for Future Environments Program (LA SAFE). Of that, a portion will go to the Isle de Jean Charles, to “relocate to a resilient and historically-contextual community.”

“I’m very, very pumped,” Chief Albert Naquin of the Isle de Jean Charles Band of Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw told Indian Country Today. “I’m very, very excited. I’ve been working on this for 13 years. I’ve taken some pretty big hits for doing that, and not just locally.”

“Maybe we can be the model community to teach others,” he continued.

A hopeful thought, but even in the United States, other coastal areas were unable to implement resiliency or relocation plans.

In Newtok, Alaska, the island is projected to be submerged by 2017. The state of Alaska was looking to receive part of the same grant from the NDRC to make the move from Newtok to a town called Mertavik.

They were, however, unsuccessful.

As sea levels continue to rise at increasingly rapid rates, situations where coastal communities are unable to obtain funding to fight the environmental factors threatening their homes will likely increase as well. Finding an effective means of accommodating them in safer spaces will soon become an issue of international urgency.