The blog of the Urban Institute
May 20, 2021

Nine Principles to Inform Federal Climate Displacement Policy

May 20, 2021

Weather-related events in 2020 displaced residents more than 1.7 million times in the United States—almost double the number from 2019—as reported today by the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre. Hundreds of thousands of people suffered evacuation and displacement from relentless hurricanes and multiple western fires, and smaller, just as devastating tornadoes, floods, and storms also contributed to these cases. Displacements occur after many kinds of hazards, but the frequency and severity of these events last year were unprecedented.

These numbers don’t include international displacement from the same events, nor do they include households forced to abandon their communities because chronic flooding, heat, drought, and other environmental changes are not categorized as disasters. Public-sector incentives, infrastructure needs, land conversions, and diminished local economic bases will lead to even more people moving.

All these phenomena are effects of climate change. As the effects become more daunting, the human toll and economic damages will skyrocket, and displacement will increase even more.

Awareness of climate migrants is growing in the media and among elected officials in both the legislative and executive branches. Federal solutions are finally being put forward, but there is still no policy action on the ground for the families who have been moving and who will continue to move. And federal action has largely excluded these communities when creating solutions.   

With Enterprise Community Partners, the Urban Institute hosted the Stakeholders Summit on Federal Policy for Climate Displacement, Relocation, and Migration in November 2020 to discuss the challenges and opportunities for federal intervention. Participants came from the federal government; state, tribal, and local governments; local environmental organizations; national environmental and civil rights organizations; and the scholarly community. 

Attendees discussed gaps in the federal response to displacement and migration within climate adaptation, with the goal of envisioning a new framework as climate policy evolves under a new presidential administration. These nine principles, summarized from stakeholder conversations at the summit, can inform federal strategies:

1. Use science

Federal funding could support research that measures places’ physical exposure to climate effects and assesses their social and economic vulnerability—including legacies of underinvestment, political marginalization, and capacity constraints in local government. This research could define at-risk places eligible for federal intervention and inform residents.

2. Serve people

Current disaster services do not meet all needs, nor do they cover climate-related relocation. A range of services—including basic housing, employment, and wraparound services for health, education, and cultural integration—must be coordinated, offered to affected households clearly, consistently, and accessibly through community-based case managers, and monitored.  

3. Prioritize need

Prioritizing low-income households in concentrated at-risk areas with low public-sector capacity and progressively scaling the total value of individual aid can help make climate relocators whole again. Factors that contribute to vulnerability—such as living in a historically segregated neighborhood, having a disability, and having an undocumented immigration status—could be considered in prioritization decisions as much as income.

4. Elevate residents

Inclusive engagement helps communities and households understand their challenges and, in some cases, devise their own solutions. Federal agencies could advance science communications and improve resident engagement techniques, build capacity in underprepared local governments, require decisions to be made by and with residents, and fund local organizers.

5. Avoid harm

The federal government could slow losses to economies, workforces, and cultural resources in highly exposed jurisdictions through creative funding and programming, such as revolving loan funds, bond negotiations, and pilot relocation programs. Federal funding could also deter at-risk communities from further development of exposed land or unsustainable economic activities by requiring jurisdictions to commit to reducing harm to be eligible for future federal aid.

6. Innovate

Innovative policies and programs are needed to address unprecedented crises. Areas ripe for federal innovation include methods for serving and monitoring households, applying households’ lived experience and wisdom to pilot programs, encouraging governance arrangements for regional planning that might produce land and infrastructure cooperatives or mutual adaptation agreements, bringing global design and social capital–building expertise to local governments, and developing public education campaigns to counter xenophobia.

7. Streamline processes

Aid must balance speed, quality, and suitability for residents. The federal government could take steps to better understand how timing (from its own timelines to the deadlines it imposes) can affect service quality, migrants’ well-being, and community outcomes. But authentic community engagement, currently the most streamlined process, should not cut corners and should begin well before a crisis.

8. Invest

Federal resources could support community viability, neighborhood cohesion, resident livelihood, and vernacular culture, as well as one-way tickets out of harm’s way. The costs could be justified with improvements to cost-benefit analysis tools and mitigated by distributing the burden across government tiers and private-sector actors according to their proportional contribution to the risks. Because these bills would likely be too large for low-income households and low-resourced local governments, federal resources would be critical.

9. Reform current approaches

Climate policy should not be equated with disaster policy. Community planning and environmental goals should include migration, but these broad approaches require clear lines of government authority, oversight, and leadership, combined with capacity building for underresourced local jurisdictions and promotion of “bottom-up” solutions from residents. Transparent, apolitical criteria for federal investments in site adaptation and resident relocation could also be developed to mitigate the future effects of climate change.

As environmental justice and equity become cornerstones of the nation’s climate policy, attention should be focused on populations most vulnerable to climate change’s effects and displacement. Displacement is already happening. Developing a framework of shared principles for how the nation will prepare for, fund, and implement programs is critical. That framework must equitably consider people who move, the environments and communities they leave, and the places they go.


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People line up to board a bus for evacuation before the arrival of hurricane Delta in Lake Charles, Louisiana on October 8, 2020. - Hurricane Delta gained strength October 8, 2020, as it churned across the western Gulf of Mexico towards the United States, threatening to batter part of the Louisiana coast still recovering from a separate storm just weeks ago. (Photo by CHANDAN KHANNA/AFP via Getty Images)

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