Climate Displacement Symposium

We’re excited to share a summary of the Symposium on Climate Displacement, Migration, and Relocation that took place December 12–13, 2016. The summary was provided by the Council on Environmental Quality, an event convener and host. Jen Marlow presented on Re-Locate work as part of a panel examining domestic case studies of climate displacement law and policy. Kivalina Tribal Council Member, Dolly Hawley, also shared a presentation of her experiences living in Kivalina and community responses to displacement. A full list of available Symposium Presentations can be found on Dropbox here.

“The Symposium brought together over 100 participants to discuss law and policy options to assist individuals and communities considering relocation as an adaptation response to climate change, in both the domestic and international contexts.  The Symposium brought together a unique group of individuals comprised of stakeholders from affected communities in Alaska and the Pacific Islands, international and U.S. domestic policy makers, academics, law experts, and others for a series of panel presentations exploring the linkages between human mobility and climate change.  Additionally, three workshop sessions explored practical approaches to working with affected areas to meet local needs, building partnerships, and communicating with media and to the public.  Symposium participants recognized that policy responses need to be specific to the type of population movement that is happening in each location, but also saw value in sharing common experiences and lessons learned between regions and amongst individuals and communities choosing different adaptation responses.

The conversations that happened over the course of the 2-day symposium emphasized the complexity and urgency of assisting communities and individuals facing immediate impacts from climate change.  Migration and relocation are very local responses to a global phenomenon, and efforts to support community and individual decision-making need to be central to any policies or programs designed to facilitate the movement of people at risk from the impacts of climate change.  Engagement and mobilization around climate-related human mobility needs to start at the local level while also recognizing that there is not always going to be complete agreement as to the best course of action.  Additionally, we need to build a more holistic understanding of how climate change intersects with other stressors to influence human mobility in order to develop appropriate policy solutions.  Livelihoods, access to material and spiritual resources, place-based identities, impacts on physical and mental health, and access to social networks are all examples of factors that can influence decision-making at the individual or community level.

Education and knowledge building are essential to creating processes that protect the livelihoods and well-being of individuals and communities affected by climate change.  It’s important to remember that individuals and communities are considering moving not for themselves, but for the next generation and those beyond.  Responding and adapting to climate change is going to be difficult for children, especially resettlement.  There needs to be an intergenerational transfer of responsibility, mobilization, and knowledge from elders to youth to help ease this process.  There also needs to be more integration of traditional knowledge with Western science to help inform the decision-making process of individuals and communities.  Education through schools, art, culture, and language should integrate local and traditional knowledge and be transmitted in a way that is accessible and understandable to everyone.  At the same time, we need more “complexifiers” to better understand the dynamics of how climate change interacts with the geographic, cultural, economic, and environmental specifics in different locations.  Improving our understanding of these complexities can help inform decision-making and lead to the development of more appropriate responses and solutions.

Funding is another essential piece of the puzzle.  Resettlement of an entire community is a very costly endeavor, and big gaps remain in identifying how resettlement can be paid for.  Even the movement of individuals or families has cost implications.  Shifting populations means that receiving communities may need to invest more in infrastructure and social services to meet new demands, while at-risk communities may have a smaller population to draw tax revenue from to help fund ongoing public services.  There is also a strong concern that the current funding models, largely based on grants, pit at-risk communities against each other where more positive outcomes could arise from a more collaborative approach.  How do we prioritize the needs of communities without making them compete for limited resources and grants?  Are there holistic planning models that we can draw from to provide assistance to the most at-risk individuals or communities?

Given the complexity of resettlement, in particular the piecemeal approach that currently exists for financing such activities, building effective partnerships around community needs is essential.  Affected stakeholders, whether at the community or individual level, need to be at the center of these partnerships, with collaborative governance structures that support affected stakeholders connecting local, regional, state, and Federal agencies and resources, as well as other appropriate partners such as the private sector, academia, or philanthropy.  Furthermore, there needs to be a clear understanding of what each partner brings to the table, and the partners who should be at the table may differ from situation to situation.

There is a need to document effective partnerships and understand what makes them work, whether for resettlement or protect-in-place strategies.  Symposium participants identified characteristics that can help build good partnerships.  Partners need a common purpose and sense of vision, along with a shared investment in that vision.  Partners need to invest in relationship-building and avoid the “drive-by” approach that has multiple groups moving in and out of a project, often with their own goals or visions.  There also needs to be an opportunity to build a strong institutional memory of how the partnership and the project have evolved, which is strongly connected to the idea that partners should be invested enough in a project or community to be a part of the resettlement conversation for the long term.  In the context of resettlement or climate-related migration, there needs to be a common understanding of inalienable rights and inalienable responsibilities as partners move forward.  Finally, there needs to be reciprocity between partners, whether that be material reciprocity or, as the case may be with public servants, an ability to fulfil their mission or other intangible benefits.

Demonstrating pathways to building successful partnerships around this issue and tangible outcomes from those partnerships can help organize and mobilize at-risk communities and individuals in the future.  A few examples of successful partnerships were raised during the symposium.  Community Development Quotas in Alaska are a good example of communities successfully mobilizing to develop policies to build resilience.  The Wilson Center has a history of working with people to help them tell their stories and amplify their voices, building partnerships to help spread messages to build results.  The Global Resilience Academy is looking at innovative financing mechanisms around loss and damage, and can act as a group of champions for individuals or communities at risk of climate-related displacement at the international level.  The Alaska Institute for Justice is working with 15 Alaska Native communities to create partnerships with federal and state government representatives so that they have access to the financial resources and technical assistance they need to adapt to a rapidly changing climate.  The Maldives were also offered as an example of a successful partnership.  After the 2004 tsunami, the government made a concerted effort to build resilience to future natural disasters and climate impacts, and brought in a different group of community participants every two weeks to help develop a new community.

Although some examples of successful partnerships exist, it’s difficult to conclude that we have enough experience responding to and finding solutions for climate displacement, migration, and relocation, to have best practices or even lessons learned at this time.  There is a need to continue to build a community of practice around these issues, with affected stakeholders from at-risk communities playing a central role in guiding how the conversation moves forward.  It is equally important to foster our abilities to communicate about this issue and navigate the complex governance structures and on-the-ground dynamics that exist around the nexus of human mobility and climate change.  We need to continue to work with affected individuals and communities while finding or creating opportunities to collaborate and share knowledge between those who are at-risk and the partners who are working with them.”




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