Climate Refugees in the United States


Since 2009 over 22.5 million people have become climate refugees (IDMC 2015). These refugees of clmate changeare people that are forced to move because their communities are no longer inhabitable, whether this is from sea-level rise, floods, severe droughts, hurricanes, etc. Americans typically think of climate refugees as something that is happening somewhere else in a distant land. Which is true. There have been climate refugees in Africa and the Middle East for years; 2011 droughts in Somalia, 2010 floods in Pakistan and the 2015 earthquake in Nepal to name a few significant crises.

Although climate refugees has been a concern for primarily third world countries, the United States is now starting to witness climate refugee issues within its own borders. In January 2016, the US Department of Housing and Urban Development issued a grant to help 13 states rebuild and strengthen their infrastructure. $48 million of this grant is going to the effort of actually relocating an entire community, Isle de Jean Charles in Louisiana. This is the first time federal grant dollars have been used to move a community due to climate change. Also, in 2016, the Inupiat Eskimo village of Shishmaref, Alaska, held a vote to determine whether they should relocate from their coastal home to higher ground. Over the last 35 years the island community lost over 2,500 feet of land to erosion. (There are another 31 other Alaskan communities at imminent risk of destruction due to sea-level rise.) Both the Louisiana and Alaska communities have decided it may be better to rebuild elsewhere, than to continue to fight back rising sea levels.

On a wider scale, this week a new study by Matt Hauer at the University of Georgia was published in Nature Climate Change. This study considers the impact of climate change on climate refugees in the United States out to the year 2100. Over this time period it is anticipated that US coastal areas will witness sea level rise of over 6 feet. This increase in sea level could potentially displace 13 million people.  The big losers in this sea level rise are Miami and New Orleans. The big “winners” would be Austin/Round Rock, Las Vegas and Phoenix. Unfortunately, these cities that are expected to take on climate refugees, all have significant water supply issues. Kind of an out of the frying pan into the fire type of scenario.

There is no uncertainty that the sea level will rise and people will be displaced. We already see it happening. However, because Hauer’s study projects so far into the future, there is much uncertainty as to what the migration patterns will look like. The immigrant receiving cities may be facing their own climate crisis and may not be able to receive additional people into their communities. With all of this occurring, it is key that Cities start planning appropriately for climate adaptation. This includes not only making their infrastructure, economy and community more resilient and adapted to forthcoming severe weather events, but to also start thinking about these large population shifts. Beyond the grant from HUD to the Isle de Jean Charles Community and a tiny sum of $2 million to the Inupiat Eskimo by the Obama Administration, not much has been coming from the federal government to help. It will largely be up to local communities and states to take the appropriate action to improve their communities’ resilience. Some cities that appear to be on the right track for adaptation planning are: San Antonio, San Diego Miami, Los Angeles, New York.

Some resources for communities to consider would be:


  • – a federal resource providing helpful technical assistance

Published by

Gavin Dillingham

Program Director for Clean Energy Policy at HARC a sustainability research institute in The Woodlands, TX. Work on climate adaptation and investment strategies for resilient infrastructure.

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