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Domestic Climate Refugees

J. Mijin Cha

The Guardian has a compelling and distressing profile of the harsh reality of climate change that many already face. The story profiles a village on the west coast of Alaska called Newtok that is surrounded on three sides by the Ninglick River. Over the past years, the river has steadily eaten away at the land- a process that is moving more quickly because of climate change.  And, according to the US Army Corps of Engineers, by 2017, the highest point in the Village could be underwater with no possible way to protect the village in place. In short, the residents of Newtok will become the first domestic climate refugees.

Over 180 native communities in Alaska are facing similar futures. Yet, climate refugees are not high on the agenda of the Artic Council, the group of countries that governs the polar regions. Instead, the Council meeting this week focuses more on biodiversity and the impact of climate pollution on the region. These issues are obviously important and should be discussed but so is the issue of climate refugees.

In fact, the focus on the scientific and not the human is one of the problems of the climate movement. Many people may understand the climate is changing but may find it difficult to translate greenhouse gas emissions into something both actionable and urgent. The concentration of carbon dioxide has just passed 400 parts per million—a concentration last seen several million years ago when the Artic was ice-free and the sea level was 130 feet higher. But, how does that translate into action and policy?

As we’ve written before, while large majorities of Americans believe in climate change, action on climate change is never a top priority. In fact, in 2013 polling, “dealing with global warming” came in as the very last policy priority. Yet, nearly half of Americans think that climate change is caused by human activity and 51 percent say they are “somewhat” or “very worried” about climate change. There is a real disconnect between the percentage of people believe in climate change, and even those that say it is a concern, and wanting action to stop it.

One real, immediate thing we could do is to move away from dirty fossil fuels and towards a clean energy economy. Doing so would reduce greenhouse gas emissions significant and without rapidly curtailing emissions, it won’t just be villages in Alaska that will need evacuation. Think of all the people who live on the coasts and along water ways.

We can either invest in transitioning to a clean energy economy now or we can pay to relocate millions and millions of people. Either way, we will pay.