Addressing Climate-Forced Displacement in the United States: A Just and Equitable Response

green coastal marsh flooded with houses along water

By Julie Maldonado

The climate crisis is ravaging communities nationwide and disproportionately affecting Black, Indigenous, and People of Color, who are losing their homes and livelihoods due to more severe and frequent storms, rising seas, erosion, flooding, extreme heat, wildfires, and various other climate events. These communities are further disenfranchised through inadequate and inequitable public policy responses to our climate crisis, including extreme weather events, which further exacerbates and even creates the unfolding, accumulating disasters.

To motivate action to advance community-led solutions to climate-forced displacement in the US, the Legal Justice Coalition (facilitated by the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee and the Lowlander Center) and the Rising Voices Community Relocation & Site Expansion Working Group issued policy recommendations earlier this year. The set of recommendations is designed to guide policymakers to address the shortfalls of official current responses to the threat of climate-forced displacement but also challenges them to launch a concerted effort to respond to this urgent crisis. At the heart of these policy recommendations is the need to center the agency, leadership, and self-determination of frontline communities in addressing climate-forced displacement.  

The policy recommendations for both Congressional and Executive Action include the need to: 

  • Increase resources for frontline communities
  • Grant government funds directly to communities
  • Make FEMA more equitable
  • Establish a just response to support adaptation-in-place and/or relocation
  • Create a human rights governance framework

The US Government Accountability Office identified that “unclear federal leadership is the key challenge to climate migration as a resilience strategy.” Currently, there is no lead federal agency tasked with managing and coordinating the federal government’s climate crisis response, nor is there dedicated funding to support community relocation efforts and/or adaptation measures to prevent communities from forced relocation, instead of adaptation in place. 

As detailed in the full policy brief, while the need for dedicated funding for adaptation in place and relocation is clear, it is critical that government programs and policies and the process of disaster planning, response, and recovery should go beyond only financial support for material upgrades to homes and infrastructure. The entire process must account for the true costs to a community, including loss of sacred sites, cultural values, burial sites, health and social well-being, and other intrinsic values—which frontline communities, and in particular Indigenous Peoples, experience when separated from their ancestral lands and subsistence way of life. This is why it is even more imperative that Tribes and community representatives are included in disaster planning at the state and federal levels.

The federal government should establish a governance framework for climate-forced displacement that protects the rights and dignity of communities and provides them with financial resources and effective support. This process calls for a better partnership between science and governance grounded in principles of justice, and for that partnership to jointly explore pathways that put relocation in the context of a larger set of adaptation measures to better understand the tradeoffs across these options over time.

To achieve a response to climate-forced displacement in the United States that centers justice and equity, the UUSC and Rising Voices-Working Group coalition offers a summary and topline recommendations, along with the full policy brief

This coalition of community leaders, legal advocates, researchers, and allies invites you to join in urging our elected officials in the Biden Administration and in U.S. Congress to center equity, justice, and human rights in addressing climate-forced displacements in the United States. 

Please refer to the initiative webpage to read the recommended policy solutions and to sign-on. We looking forward to working with you to #SupportClimateJustice. 


Julie Maldonado, Associate Director

Julie Maldonado is a cultural anthropologist and serves as LiKEN’s Associate Director. As part of this role, she is Co-Director of the Rising Voices: Climate Resilience through Indigenous and Earth Sciences program, in joint partnership with the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research/National Center for Atmospheric Research (UCAR/NCAR), and is the lead for the LiKEN-produced PROTECT film, in partnership with Paper Rocket Productions. She also works with the Institute for Tribal Environmental Professionals to facilitate and support the development of tribes’ climate change adaptation planning and vulnerability assessments. Julie is a lecturer in the University of California-Santa Barbara’s Environmental Studies Program and for Future Generations University. She is also a founding member of the Culture and Disaster Action Network (CADAN). 


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.