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

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). 


Rising Voices 8: Finding Community Amidst a Pandemic

By Jackie Rigley

I became a research assistant for LiKEN in January of 2020 and I was looking forward to attending Rising Voices 8 in April. Then, March came along and the Covid-19 pandemic unraveled any plans of an in-person workshop. I was disappointed that I would not get to experience the Rising Voices workshop; however, a few weeks later, we got news that the workshop was going to be held virtually.

At the Virtual Rising Voices 8 (VRV8) Kickoff event in April, I did not know what to expect. The program began with a series of videos from fellow Rising Voices participants introducing themselves and their homes. It was refreshing to see new faces and places as I had been sheltered at home for a month. Host Kalani Souza immediately lifted my spirits with his energetic introduction and storytelling superpowers. Conversational topics highlighted Indigenous community experiences not only related to the pandemic, but also topics such as food and water systems, climate variability, and other adaptations to the present challenges. Although many difficult experiences were shared, there was always recognition of the resilience of Indigenous communities. Rising Voices members exemplified a strong faith in one another and effort to help whenever possible. The Kickoff event introduced me to a warm and welcoming community and left me reflecting on everything that had been discussed. 

Thus far I have attended Rising Voices workshops focused on energy, phenology, community relocation and site expansion, and water. Each workshop has expanded my understanding of these separate issues, but also reminded me of the common themes among them. The collaboration of Indigenous and Earth sciences is at the heart of each conversation. Members of Rising Voices recognize the need for this partnership in addressing climate change and climate events. However, in order for this collaboration to thrive, the way that Indigenous Knowledges are valued more broadly must change. Indigenous ways of knowing are often misunderstood and disregarded by Western scientists in the United States and beyond. Indigenous communities have held the wisdom of adapting to climate variability for thousands of years prior to Western colonization; they are key knowledge-holders for climate change mitigation and adaptation strategies. 

Ultimately what stands out to me in my Virtual Rising Voices experience is the intimate community shared by its members. No matter your background, Rising Voices welcomes you with open arms. Each opinion is taken seriously and respected. Even in the virtual space, the personal connection felt significant. I’ve met various family members and pets of Rising Voices members. It has been a blessing to meet people that I share values with, and to truly feel like a part of the Rising Voices family. I have encountered many role models through this experience. On top of being a place to share knowledge, Rising Voices is also a safe space to share emotions and personal experiences. We celebrate one another’s successes and empathize with each other’s challenges. My first annual Rising Voices workshop has been enlightening and inspiring. I look forward to participating in this event for years to come.


Jackie Rigley, LiKEN Research Assistant

Jackie graduated from the University of California-Santa Barbara (UCSB) in Winter 2021, majoring in Environmental Studies and Sociology. She grew up in Chicago and going to school in California piqued her interest in protecting the natural environment. She is a board member on the UCSB Coastal Fund, which allocates funding to various projects involved in protecting the Santa Barbara coast environment. She studied abroad in Southern Chile where she had the opportunity to conduct research related to sustainable tourism. She is passionate about environmental justice and the power of community resilience in the face of climate change. Outside of school she loves exploring Santa Barbara, cooking, and painting. She is really interested in changing how cities are developed. She wants to work in Urban Planning, and help build more resilient, sustainable, and humane communities. Jackie is also interested in learning more about fighting climate change on a local, city-wide level.

New Policy Brief Calls for Equity and Justice in Response to Climate-Forced Displacement

“Climate change is the existential crisis of our time, and it’s clear that our current system is failing those who most need—and deserve—federal assistance after a national disaster. The good news is that there are affordable ways of reversing that damage and building a more equitable system. We call on policymakers and elected officials to take the initiative and work to solve these problems before it’s too late.” -Rachel Gore Freed, Vice President and Chief Program Officer at Unitarian Universalist Service Committee

Federal disaster response efforts have long disproportionately benefited the white and the wealthy, but the growing impact of climate change makes it critically important for policymakers to steer more resources and assistance to Indigenous Peoples, communities of color, and other marginalized populations. On April 12, 2021, 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 released the policy brief, Addressing Climate-Forced Displacement in the United States: A Just and Equitable Response. The brief, co-authored by 36 community leaders, legal advocates, researchers, and allies from across the United States, highlights the inequity and injustices of climate disaster response and recommends concrete, high-level policy solutions.

To learn more visit the initiative webpage where you can find links to the full policy brief, specific recommended policy solutions, and join the Legal Justice Coalition in advancing a shared agenda that prioritizes the needs and solutions of frontline communities facing the impacts of climate change.

The Rising Voices Impact

– Vera Petrovic, Lawrence High School, Kansas

It is almost dark. The sky is a dusky blue, and meets the murky waters of Lake Superior at the horizon line. Elongated grey waves approach me, and their foamy resolution echoes sweetly in my ears. The professor guiding my research group bends down to touch the water. He smiles. “You can drink it,” he says. “It’s that pure.”

Rising Voices 6 participants at Lake Superior. Photo courtesy of Sara Herrin.

I visited Duluth, Minnesota in April 2018, my junior year of high school. The waterfront city was hosting the 6th annual Rising Voices: Climate Resilience through Indigenous and Earth Sciences workshop, and I attended as a research assistant for LiKEN, the co-organizer. Both my father and brother had been involved with Rising Voices, but this was the first year I was actively participating in the workshop, compiling information for the public workshop report. My job was to listen and observe. I spent three attentive days with individuals at the forefront of climate advocacy, and a month later, when I sat down to write the report, I had no shortage of material to expound upon.

When I think of Rising Voices, I am reminded immediately of its warmth. People laughing and hugging, enjoying food and company, sharing stories and wisdom. I have little experience with professional workshops, but from what I do know, the atmosphere of Rising Voices is distinctly welcoming. It gathers together activists, scholars, and scientists, and most importantly, enables a discussion where Indigenous voices are heard and heeded. Indigenous knowledge is the pillar of climate knowledge, and it is fittingly the focus of Rising Voices. The conference takes a widespread and publicized issue–the impending threat of climate change–and presents adaptive solutions through a lens of traditional ecological knowledge. It is truly a revolutionary approach, because it combines both Western and Indigenous knowledge in a single exploratory event. 

Rising Voices is an enlightening experience, but its greatest value comes in its wisdom.  I remember Daniel Wildcat, Acting Vice-President for Academics, Haskell Indian Nations University, musing that perhaps “society has developed too much.” To listen to the speakers of Rising Voices is to take a pause from a fast-paced and urban approach to life and science. To listen deeply is to understand that climate resiliency and prosperity comes from honoring the Earth, as indigenous communities have done for centuries. Rising Voices is almost narrative in its nature, because so many of its speakers reflect on their personal connection to the land. Such a personal interest, in turn, prompts strengthened and consistent action. 

Water from Lake Superior, shared during the Opening Ceremony of RV6. Photo courtesy of Craig Elevitch.

I touch a finger to the water, and it is frigid. The professor bends down next to me, and takes a handful in his palm. He raises the seeping water to his mouth and drinks. Behind us, other members of the group marvel at the waves and walk slowly along the black rocks. As I watch them quietly delight in the view of Lake Superior, my stomach swells with gratefulness. I realize how grateful I am to be here, along Lake Superior, with people from the Rising Voices workshop, a gathering that cherishes a personal connection to the natural world and encourages a traditional ecological approach as the first combatant to climate change. 

Rising Voices: Representation and Empowerment

Itzel Flores Castillo

B.A. Environmental Studies

University of California, Santa Barbara

 

Rising Voices is a program that facilitates “cross-cultural approaches for adaptation solutions to extreme weather and climate events, climate variability and climate change.” It brings together Indigenous community members and physical scientists, social scientists, and engineers to establish conversations and plans to help communities who are adversely affected by weather and climate impacts. However, Rising Voices is much more than that. It is a place for Indigenous community members to speak of their struggles, their fights, and the need for Western science to acknowledge them and their knowledge. And for me, it is a program where I found the representation and empowerment from people of color who could be my mentors – people who I do not often see in an educational system that is predominantly white. 

 

I was introduced to LiKEN and Rising Voices through Julie Maldonado in 2017 when I was taking her course in the Environmental Studies Program at the University of California, Santa Barbara, which focused on the impacts of governmental policies and projects on communities across the globe. This class is where I first learned about Shishmaref, Alaska and how this community is suffering from island erosion, and how our government is not supportive enough – if at all – of relocating or financially supporting this community. Later I became a research assistant for Julie and LiKEN and had the amazing opportunity to attend the 6th annual Rising Voices workshop in 2018, held in Duluth, Minnesota as a notetaker and aid in writing the workshop report. I say amazing because I found in Rising Voices much needed inspiration, role models, and revelations that I had not quite realized I needed.

 

The majority of participants were Indigenous. They were people of color completing their Masters degrees, running for public office, working in STEM fields, running their own companies, and so much more. Most of all, they were people who were fighting battles against a system that has primarily aimed to colonize our minds and taught us that the Western way is the only way – that being light skinned is the only way to get ahead. And it was being in the presence of all these people that made me realize this was the first time I had ever been surrounded by so many people of color at once and see just how lacking all of our systems are of these kinds of conferences, discussions, and people to represent us. 

Rising Voices made me realize just how much I needed to see people who looked like me in higher positions so I could know just how much I am worth and how much I can do. We need to continue growing so we can have our voices heard; so communities of color can get the help they need and not be pushed to the back of the agenda because they are not considered important enough to put first; and so that the younger generation can have more role models who look like them and who can help them navigate the system. Especially given the current political context, programs like Rising Voices are more important than ever.

Rising Voices: Decolonizing Climate Science and Action

Sophie von Hunnius

B.A. Environmental Studies

University of California, Santa Barbara

I was invited to attend my first Rising Voices workshop this year as a note-taker and research assistant for the Livelihoods Knowledge Exchange Network (LiKEN). In April 2018, I traveled to Duluth, MN, to participate in Rising Voices 6, Rising Together: Mobilizing and Learning from Local Actions. 

 

Bob Gough, Heather Lazrus, and Julie Maldonado established the Rising Voices: Climate Resilience through Indigenous and Earth Sciences program to facilitate cross-cultural approaches to climate chaos. The first annual convergence was hosted in 2013 in Boulder, CO. Since then, Rising Voices has grown into an active network of individuals and organizations dedicated to deconstructing the various barriers to effective climate research and action and creating pathways for sustainable solutions. Participants from across the United States and globe come together to address the complexities of climate change and its unequal impact facing Indigenous peoples. Although each annual RV workshop varies in its specific focus, the overall goal is to facilitate constructive dialogue regarding current climate change adaptation and mitigation strategies, protection of Indigenous knowledges, sustainable Indigenous practices, and political and institutional barriers to protection and stability. The theme of Rising Voices 6 (RV6) was “Rising Together: Mobilizing and Learning from Local Actions.” RV6 was hosted in Duluth, MN, and thus we focused on the resiliency of Indigenous peoples in the Great Lakes region and the mobilization of local partners. 

 

My priority throughout the three-day program was to listen and to learn from and about others, so I spent most of my time listening, thinking, reflecting, and feeling. I was continuously reminded of the importance of relationships, responsibility, respect, and resiliency in enhancing life on this planet. One of the most notable things we discussed was the necessity of giving Indigenous wisdom, science, and knowledge of place the same credibility and legitimacy as Western science. Although decolonization is the only definite way to address reconciliation and Indigenous self-determination, creating new research processes from both old and new forms of knowledge and knowing is one way to move forward from where we are today. Cross-cultural collaboration, learning from those with different backgrounds, perspectives, and ways of knowing, and collective mobilization are essential to create stronger solutions to climate change.

Rising Voices 6 keynote speaker Karen Diver (College of St. Scholastica) and participants Rosina Philippe (Grand Bayou Village), Boyo Billiot (Isle de Jean Charles), and Betsy Taylor (LiKEN). Photo courtesy of Craig Elevitch.

The overall goals and major successes of Rising Voices are rooted in decolonization, thus establishing the necessity of such a program. Rising Voices facilitates constructive collaboration between Indigenous peoples, allies, and potential allies, while centering Indigenous voices throughout. Priority is given to Indigenous-led efforts for climate research and the return of land and resources; Western scientists and agencies are then challenged to deconstruct their colonial mindsets and commit to supporting tribal sovereignty. Participants in the Rising Voices
program—especially White and non-Native participants—are encouraged to take a critical lens to colonization, capitalism, and all marginalizing practices, and to take action based on their knowledge. 

 

Rising Voices initiates dialogue that is rooted in pain, mistreatment, and historical trauma. The tension that stems from historical injustice can be palpable at times, and I was happy to see that nothing is swept under the rug for the sake of cooperation. Rising Voices provides the opportunity to discuss shortcomings in past partnerships and warnings for future collaboration, and participants feel comfortable voicing their concerns. This sense of comfort comes from the platform of respect that Rising Voices is founded upon. While the tension between participants coming from different perspectives and worldviews was at times palpable, I also felt a lot of love in that room in Duluth, MN, and throughout the entire Rising Voices community. In addition to being an educational experience, I felt that Rising Voices creates a foundation for future healing based upon the love and support I witnessed during the three days we spent together. 

 

I met many wonderful people at the 6th annual Rising Voices workshop. Thank you all for welcoming me and inviting me to participate in such an essential program. Some of my most memorable moments were during our time spent learning from the local communities, and the times we shared together outside of the workshop’s schedule. I hope to attend Rising Voices in future years, knowing how much more I will learn and grow as an individual and as part of this beautiful community.