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The Biden administration needs a climate migration coordinator

Conservative states along the coast prepare for sea level rise without mentioning climate change.

During his last month in office, President Obama made a last-ditch effort to address one of the more difficult climate questions facing our nation: as sea levels rise and wildfires rage, who should receive government assistance to move away from America’s frontlines of climate change?

Established in December 2016, an interagency working group was convened and tasked with developing a framework to help guide American towns through the process of voluntary relocation — strategically abandoning their housing, assets and public infrastructure and rebuilding them out of the path of climate hazards. Predictably, once President Trump disbanded the group once he took office and embarked on his tenure of climate denial and environmental deregulation.

After four years of inaction, the challenge of climate relocation looms even larger. Each year since 2016, the U.S. has averaged more than 1 million disaster-related displacements.

In 2017, Hurricane Harvey’s historic U.S. rainfall forced out over 30,000 people and ravaged 200,000 homes and businesses. In 2018, California experienced its costliest, deadliest and largest wildfires to date, costing over 25 billion dollars in damages. Also, in 2019, historic inland flooding in the Midwest inundated millions of acres of agriculture, cities and towns and widespread damage to infrastructure. 

America’s new normal of fleeing from extreme weather in search of safety shows no signs of slowing. Last year, the United States experienced a record-breaking 22 billion-dollar disasters, displacing thousands of Americans from California to Louisiana. 

But with the inauguration of President Biden comes the hope that we can limit the devastation of displacement in a rapidly warming world. 

Biden has promised swift action to tackle the climate crisis — his administration has wasted no time in fulfilling that pledge. He has established new climate positions in the White House, rejoined the Paris Agreement and begun the difficult work of dismantling the harm done over the past four years. Biden’s climate goal of net zero emissions, economy-wide, by 2050 is both ambitious and necessary. He’s also assembled an all-star team to lead climate policy in the White House to meet that goal. 

It’s now time to add a leader on climate displacement and relocation to his roster.

A July 2020 report published by the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) “found that unclear federal leadership is the key challenge to climate migration as a resilience strategy.” Biden should appoint a relocation coordinator to lead a relaunched interagency working group on community-led managed retreat and voluntary relocation under the White House Office of Domestic Climate Policy. The coordinator can streamline the relocation process and promote cross-agency cooperation so communities can migrate at the pace necessary to respond to climate change. 

A first task of the working group should be to improve transparency in project selection by setting national standards on which communities qualify for relocation assistance. Standards for funding relocation projects should include equity, safety and cultural impact indicators, and the White House Climate Office can provide municipalities with the criteria that will be used to evaluate eligibility and guides for how to conduct comprehensive cost-benefit analyses of proposed relocations.

While communities seeking relocation today have difficulty accessing funding for relocation before a disaster hits, the Biden administration’s strategy to shore up as much as $10 billion at the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to protect against climate disasters. A subset of these larger FEMA grants and programs will provide newly available funding to states, local governments, tribes and territories to move buildings out of the path of climate hazards. 

Applying for and matching funds for new federal grants will increase local capacity and Biden’s plan to create a Civilian Climate Corps Initiative can help build that capacity. Members of a climate repurposed AmeriCorps can support development of community consensus building, relocation plans, federal funding applications and coordination of technical assistance.

In his first days in office, Biden has built the foundation for funding and implementing climate relocation. What is now needed is the leadership communities are calling for.  

Establishing coordination on climate change displacement and relocation is, like Biden’s carbon neutrality goal, ambitious and necessary. No matter how much we decrease our greenhouse gas emissions, at least 414 towns, villages and cities across America will be partially flooded by the end of this century. If future emissions from our current infrastructure are accounted for, the number of at-risk municipalities jumps to 604. Each of these will require transformational adaptations, and some will choose partial or full retreat away from America’s eroding edges.

The challenge ahead is daunting. But, for the first time in four years, I’m confident that the president will take seriously the risks of climate displacement and protect those residents most vulnerable to its impacts. 

Victoria Herrmann, PhD, is the managing director of The Arctic Institute and an assistant research professor at Georgetown University.

Tags biden administration Biden climate plan Climate change climate policy displacement Donald Trump flooding Global warming hurricanes Joe Biden wildfires

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