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Reaching Higher Ground: Avenues to Secure and Manage New Land for Communities Displaced by Climate Change

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Climate Justice Climate Environmental Justice


Politicians may be able to get away with ignoring climate change for a time, but the millions of people whose lives are being reshaped right now by the creeping realities of sea-level rise, more frequent and more violent storms, and other impacts do not have that luxury. Some will need to move, and often entire communities will be uprooted as a result. Indeed, in the United States, such relocations are already under way.

The residents of the tiny villages of Newtok, Alaska, and Isle de Jean Charles, Louisiana, are at the leading edge of adaptation to climate change — the first communities forced to relocate to higher ground. Their challenges are greatly complicated by the long history and lasting impacts of U.S. treatment of Native Americans and Alaska Natives.

A May 2017 report from the Center for Progressive Reform tells the story of these villages, as a window on the challenges that await many other communities in the United States. The report identifies a series of legal, policy and corporate tools — some accessible now, some not yet — that communities may be able to use to ease the transition, physically, economically, legally, and culturally.

“Community displacements due to climate change are about so much more than moving possessions and finding new homes,” said co-author and CPR Member Scholar Maxine Burkett in releasing the report. “They uproot entire communities and tear at the fabric of life, while threatening cohesiveness and culture, as well as doing harm to individuals, families, and businesses. However, migrations and relocations don’t have to be chaotic if communities have the funding and other resources needed to take advantage of the tools for acquiring new land and reestablishing their communities in safer, more secure areas.”

Legal tools described in the report include litigation of unresolved claims to land, lawsuits based on theories of negligence or takings, legislation to secure land for relocation, and easements or covenants in deeds to individual land ownership. Policy tools include federal assistance programs, such as a federal disaster declaration, grant or loan program, or housing buy-out. Corporate tools include community-based for-profit or nonprofit entities organizing to generate revenue for land acquisition and to distribute and manage communally held land and housing for the benefit of its members.

Climate Justice Climate Environmental Justice