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Resilience and development: best practices for studying climate-induced migration

Vicente's picture for Climate Resilience

Isle de Jean Charles, August 2007. Picture by Karen Apricot on Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0).

Any argument or narrative which attributes displacement to a single cause works against a more fundamental understanding of mobility. Unfortunately, conclusions about climate-induced migration often rely on these arguments and narratives. Media accounts and policy analyses of climate migrants will correctly attribute mobility to an increasingly hostile climate, but displacement is the product of an individual’s environment and resources. While affected communities may aspire to move away from a hostile climate, residents may be unable or unwilling to move. To present more complete pictures of climate-induced migration, policy analysts, government officials, and migration studies scholars must cooperate to predict global warming’s effects on forced migration, displacement, irregular migration, and (im)mobility. Resilience may prove to be the interdisciplinary concept experts and practitioners need to avoid rendering incomplete pictures of climate-induced migration.


A 2011 Migration Policy Institute report on climate change and migration dynamics critiques these incomplete pictures, calling formulaic predictions of mass displacement, ‘mechanistic calculations’.  Newland, the report’s main author, cites an illustrative scenario: suppose scientists predict sea levels will rise about one meter, and this increase will affect 100 million people who live below a one-meter sea level. A possible prediction, 100 million people will become displaced, does not consider the decision to remain immobile. Coastal communities may adapt (read: become resilient) to the literal sea change and fortify their areas against severe flooding. With an eye to resilience (see the 2011 UK Government Office for Science Foresight report and the World Bank’s 2018 report Groundswell), policy analysts may yield more insightful climate-induced migration predictions for receiving countries, sending countries, and (im)mobile communities.


One example of resilience and migration comes from the National Disaster Resilience Competition. The US Department of Housing and Urban Development issued a call in 2015 to fund state grant proposals with clearly enumerated ‘climate resilience’ objectives. The state of Louisiana received $48 million to address a ‘resilience gap’ through the policy framework outlined in Louisiana Strategic Adaptations for Future Environments (LA SAFE). Louisiana’s grant proposal said closing this gap will allow government officials to ‘resettle, retrofit, and reshape’ Coastal Zone communities which are ill-equipped to withstand hazardous climate conditions. One of these communities is the Isle de Jean Charles, the ancestral home for the Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw (BCC) tribe. Over the past 50 years, rising sea levels have swallowed more than 90% of the Isle de Jean Charles. All that’s left of the original island is a 330-acre strip and a 100-person community. The government’s plan is to build weather-resistant structures on the Louisianan mainland and then relocate the entire community to safer ground. A National Geographic profile on the island community dubbed members of the BCC tribe, ‘America’s first official climate refugees’.


Yet, these resilience objectives show that the BCC community has a story of mixed migration. Encroaching sea levels on the Isle de Jean Charles took place across decades, and some families decided to move onto the mainland prior to federally-funded relocation assistance. Some families’ deep-seated ties to the land inspired trepidation more than a desire to reconnect with the BCC community on the mainland. The very same National Geographic profile quoted residents initially hesitant to relocate: ‘it takes a lot of prayer to live down here’ and ‘to stay would have been my first choice‘. Some are also hesitant since they do not have the financial means to withstand a mainland move. The story of Isle de Jean Charles is one of climate refugees, government-assisted internally displaced persons, and (im)mobility.

Government aid and the private sector are also important factors in regards to resilience and climate-induced migration. Government-contracted architectural firms including EnvironMental Design, Inc. and Jenken Pacific, Inc. currently oversee construction for the BCC community’s resettlement. Louisiana’s government contracted architects who specialize in preservation and sustainability to design the Jean Baptiste Naquin Tribal Center – a place for displaced tribe members to reconnect and retain their collective identity. The Center doubles as temporary housing and tribal meeting space, hence the ‘living’ design. The Center and its surrounding housing are all retrofitted to withstand flooding, power outages, and windstorms. With the resettlement, Louisiana’s government envisions physical, economic, and cultural resiliency. Cultural resiliency offers a window into how governments’ and private actors’ interests align with individuals’: territory is necessary to secure heritage and the LA SAFE resilience objectives. Yet, there are motivations wherein public and private actors do not have common ground.  

Resilience Program and Policy Administrator Matthew Sanders, who leads the BCC resettlement, likened his work to a 'research and development project' on an episode of the Social Design Insights podcast. Sanders draws the comparison to underscore the need for best practices, so that other coastal communities can turn to Louisiana for their own climate resilience objectives. These best practices include overcoming a 'trust deficit' between the tribe and the state government while ensuring that the resettlement produces 'an array of commercial activity' to generate revenue and potential investment opportunities. Here, again, we see America’s first official climate refugees complicated with regards to resilience. Resilience objectives, which entail heritage preservation for communities, are opportunities for self-sustaining ventures among governments and their contractors. Depending on the scalability of these resilience objectives, larger and more disparate regions may see privately funded diasporas within the near future.


Global warming is a constitutive reason for the complex decision-making which motivates mobility. With an eye to resilience and its objectives, empirical cases of climate-induced migration can yield more complete and complicated stories of (im)mobility. On the Isle de Jean Charles, the federal government has effectively subsidized a mixed migration movement with the goal of standardizing relocation for other localities. This is a much more complicated account than is indicated by narratives that too easily apply the refugee label to mixed migration movements. US media portrayals of and policy reports on climate-induced migration need to move away from reductionist conclusions and recognize the more complex relationships that public and private actors clearly display in response to climate-induced migration. Disappearing lands can instigate climate-induced migration, but analysis of climate-induced migration must investigate how state and private actors’ resilience objectives sustain (im)mobility.  

Vicente Lovelace.jpeg
Vicente Lozano Lovelace

Vicente is an award-winning, published, and Spanish-speaking Oxford alum. He's spent several years in nonprofits and direct public service organizations dedicated to progressive public policy. Vicente hopes to graduate law school and become an attorney at the forefront of the sanctuary city debate and other mobility-related policy issues.

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