Population displacement is the greatest human rights challenge created by the climate crisis. People are already losing the places they live and love because of extreme weather events and slow ongoing environmental change, such as sea level rise, and are having to make the extraordinarily difficult and painful decision about whether to stay or leave. Newtok, Alaska is one of the communities that decided more than two decades ago to leave. Tribal, state, and federal government and non-governmental agencies agree that a community-wide relocation is their best long-term adaptation strategy. Yet, despite the tremendous efforts of the Tribe and these agencies for the last 15 years, relocation has not occurred. The policy and practical challenges have been enormous. The U.S. government has written numerous well-documented reports highlighting these challenges yet continues to provide completely inadequate assistance to prevent the ongoing human rights violations which are being caused because people in Newtok are currently living in a humanitarian crisis. This article explains in detail these challenges and then proposes a path forward. The laws governing disaster relief and response, land use, and human settlements are anachronistic to the ways the climate crisis is making the places where people live and maintain livelihoods uninhabitable. The U.S. government urgently needs to create a relocation governance framework based in human rights protections. This article provides a template about how to create this framework.
The United States should lead the effort to respond to climate-induced community relocations and implement legislation to provide governance tools and resources so that communities forced to relocate due to rapid and radical climate change can be resilient.
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