Webinar Recap: What Climate Migration Means for Labor and Communities

by Katie Tracy

February 05, 2020

Last week, more than 100 advocates, academics, and reporters joined the Center for Progressive Reform (CPR) for a webinar with three leading experts on climate migration and resilience. Presenters discussed the biggest challenges that communities and workers are facing due to the climate crisis.

As the climate crisis brings about more frequent and intense weather events, from wildfires to disastrous flooding, some families have been forced to flee to new communities. Maxine Burkett, Professor of Law at the University of Hawaii and a CPR Member Scholar, explained that while decisions to migrate are often multifaceted, families affected by extreme weather events are now considering climate change and environmental disaster in decisions about whether to leave their homes and communities.

Burkett added that slow-onset disasters, such as sea-level rise, and planned relocation are among several climate-related triggering scenarios that scholars focused on migration and displacement are studying. According to her research, millions of climate migrants will likely remain within their nations' borders, posing a range of infrastructure and other issues. And, of course, we must also prepare for cross-border migration and the unique challenges it presents with regard to asylum and refugee laws and border conflicts.

Matt Hauer, Assistant Professor of Sociology at Florida State University, agreed with Burkett that migration decisions involve many factors. In addition to environmental concerns like extreme weather events, families consider economics, demographics, and social and political issues. Hauer's research confirms that even when families have ample reason to move, they are simply not eager to leave their communities. If they do make the difficult decision to leave, they often move only short distances where they have established social networks or job opportunities. In trying to shape policy, this means that cities, counties, and states that are most likely to be "receiving communities" should begin to plan for incoming migrants by conducting outreach to their communities and positioning themselves to ensure migrants have access to programs that enhance their quality of life.

Saket Soni, Executive Director of Resilience Force and the National Guestworker Alliance, has focused his research on how we enable families to return home after they have fled or are forced out of their communities due to a climate disaster. When Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, an estimated 400,000 people were forced out of the metro area. These families were locked out of the job market post-Katrina. Instead, thousands of migrant laborers were brought in to help with disaster relief and reconstruction and found themselves exploited by contractors who did not pay their wages, forced them to sleep in uninhabitable buildings, and exposed them to dangerous working conditions and toxic hazards. 

Soni quickly learned that whether an individual was displaced or was brought in amid climate change, the sources of their vulnerability and power were the same. Recognizing that racial, economic, housing, and other social inequities are compounded in the aftermath of climate disasters, he is particularly interested in identifying the government interventions and social supports that can be put in place to help families return home and ensure that laborers brought in to rebuild receive fair wages, livable housing, and safe working conditions.

To tune in for the full conversation, you can watch the recording below.

To learn more, please take a look at these additional resources:

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Also from Katie Tracy

Katie Tracy, J.D., is a CPR Senior Policy Analyst, focused on workers’ rights policy. Her previous experience includes working for more than two years as a regulatory policy analyst at the Center for Effective Government, where she advocated for strong regulations to protect health, safety, and the environment.

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