Since the start of the year, there have been 21,461 wildfires blazing through more than a million acres of land in the United States, with 13 active fires (National Interagency Fire Center). In New Mexico, the Calf Canyon and Hermits Peak fire has been burning across the southwest for more than a week, devasting more than 116,000 acres and displacing thousands as they flee following evacuation orders (KOAT News). Due to high temperatures continuing to dry out soils and turn vegetation into kindling because of the climate and ecological crisis, wildfires along the West Coast are a common threat (The Guardian). In 2020, almost 8000 fires burned over 3.6 million acres in California alone (Cal Fire), causing many residents to question whether they could stay (CNN). Whether they should stay. Or whether they should pick up and move away from their families and communities, joining the ever-growing climate migration across the globe.
Climate migration refers to the movement of people due to climate change-induced environmental stressors, including heat, drought, and natural disasters. This is already happening globally; in 2018 alone, 17.2 million people were internally displaced (within their own countries) by environmental disasters (Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre). But according to researchers, almost 162 million Americans will experience a “decline in their environment, namely, more heat and less water” within their lifetimes (NY Times). Another study predicts that one in 12 Americans in the South will have to move within 45 years due to environmental factors (Journal of the Association of Environmental and Resource Economists). While such migration will eventually affect everyone on earth, it matters to anti-racism work because of who is most affected. Climate change disproportionately affects communities of color, developing countries, and low-income and underserved populations (NAACP).
• Support people and organizations fighting for climate justice, not just against climate change. Check out the Gulf Coast Center for Law and Policy (@gcclp) and your local members of the Climate Justice Alliance (@cjaourpower).
• Hold corporations and the governmental bodies that enable them accountable for their actions. Companies benefit when we only focus on our individual actions (recycling, shopping, etc.) instead of corporate culpability.
• Investigate the politicians on your ballot. What are their positions on the Green New Deal? On immigration? On social justice? These issues all affect climate migration.
“It is important to acknowledge that those impacted the most by the climate crisis are victims to decades and centuries of norms, values, regulations, behaviors, and policies that have made it this way today,” wrote Chanté Harris on environmental racism. Hurricane Katrina is an excellent and terrible example.
In the New Orleans area alone, 272,000 Black people were displaced, comprising 73% of the parish’s total displaced population (Congressional Research Service). Across the Gulf South, a lack of affordable housing has made it impossible for many former residents to return to the area.
In 2015, a decade after the disaster, there were only one-third as many public housing apartments in New Orleans as before the disaster, while housing costs rose 40% (AmnestyUSA). The same year, a Kaiser Family Foundation/NPR survey showed that white residents and Black residents had very different experiences after the crisis. 70% of white residents could return to their homes within a year, while less than half of Black residents were able to. Additionally, around half of the Black and low-income populations did not believe recovery efforts had helped them. In contrast, about two-thirds of the white and higher-income populations thought that recovery efforts had helped them. (Kaiser Family Foundation). Read more about how climate migration will reshape America in New York Times Magazine.
After such disasters, people— especially people of color and those below the poverty line—have to pick between two difficult choices: to remain in their homes and communities or leave. There’s little to no security in either option, though the former will likely be struck by disaster again, with governments that fail to prioritize their recovery.
Internationally the situation is even direr. In India, 600 million people are already facing a water crisis, whether because of drought or degradation of water quality (National Geographic). Each year, runoff declines leading to water scarcity (Climate Institute). Such events are leading to mass climate migration across the globe at the same time as nationalistic immigration policies rise in the West (ProPublica). Here, yet again, the climate crisis goes head-to-head with America’s racist, xenophobic laws. Read ProPublica’s report and model of climate migration across international borders.
Our cities and our communities are not prepared. In fact, our economic system and our social systems are only prepared to make profit off of people who migrate. This will cause rounds of climate gentrification, and it will also penalize the movement of people, usually through exploited labor and usually through criminalization.”Colette Pichon Battle, founder of the Gulf Coast Center for Law and Policy, an organization that “advances structural shifts toward ecological equity and climate justice in Gulf South communities of color.” Watch the rest of her TED Talk here.y
Climate migration shows the necessity of climate justice, a movement that focuses specifically on addressing racial and socioeconomic inequities and transitioning away from our current toxic, exploitative economy.
Issues like climate change can feel insurmountable for us individuals to confront. We don’t always know what to do in response. And indeed, many well-meaning initiatives like banning plastic straws can shift the focus onto individual culpability instead of corporate accountability while having unintended side effects (NPR). But what I do know is that there is power in community action. We cannot rely on our government or a top-down plan of action. Look at the member list at Climate Justice Alliance for organizations in your area. Support them—by volunteering your time, money, or social media feed. And when you think or talk about climate change or climate migration, make sure you remember how racism impacts the climate crisis.
• Because of climate change, many areas are becoming uninhabitable for humans. The shifting environment is leading to climate migration across the globe.
• In 2018 alone, at least 17.2 million people were displaced by environmental disasters (Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre).
• Climate change disproportionately affects communities of color, developing countries, and low-income and underserved populations (NAACP).
*This piece was originally published on 9/29/20. It was updated and edited by The ARD on 5/6/22.