By Salote Soqo

Salote Soqo is the Senior Partnership Officer, Climate Justice & Crisis Response with the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee. She will be speaking and taking questions at the Kaldor Centre Virtual Conference 2021 in the session, 'Should I stay or should I go? Planned relocations', on 21 October, and registration is open.

Climate change is one of the most important drivers of forced displacement and migration and much remains to be understood about the complexity of this issue, particularly from the perspective of grassroots.

The World Bank estimates that by 2050, at least six regions in the world will have 216 million more people who are forced to leave their homes and communities because of climate change. Unfortunately, no international legal frameworks guarantee the protection of those who are forced to cross borders due to climate change impacts and the capacities of already vulnerable nations to address internal displacement is stretched thin.     

Within the United States, there is an effort to develop a law that recognises and protects the rights of people who seek entry at our borders. U.S. Senator Ed Markey reintroduced legislation that will establish a national strategy to address global climate displacement, providing support and implementing solutions for climate-displaced people. This is a rare opportunity for the United States to become a global leader in responding to this critical issue. 

At UUSC, we support the agency of those who are most affected by the impacts of climate-forced displacement around the world. Native Tribes in Alaska are facing forced displacement due to melting permafrost, storms, and rising seas. In Louisiana, rising seas and storms are forcibly displacing American Indian communities. The predicament in both cases is similar: These people do not choose to leave their homes. But they are forced to because of the untenable living conditions that are exacerbated by the climate crisis. 

There has been some gradual progress. For example, a new community called Mertavick has been developed using congressional funds to resettle the Alaska Native village of Newtok. This is excellent news, but about half of the population remains in Newtok today. The Isle de Jean Charles Band of the Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw Nation was awarded a federal grant in 2016 to resettle its community, but today, no resettlement has taken place and the Tribe has withdrawn from the State-led resettlement process due to the State’s lack of transparency and respect for the Tribe.   

In both cases, state government and federal authorities failed to protect these Indigenous communities and have been complacent, through their permitting of oil and gas extraction in the Gulf and in Alaska, in causing the climate crisis that extends beyond these communities. 

In the Pacific, sea-level rise, droughts, and intensified disasters are leading to food and water scarcity, socio-economic insecurity, health disparities and forced displacement. These conditions force people to move around – internally at first – back and forth between rural, urban, and suburban areas. The movement is not linear, not predictable at first, and depends on various factors, such as whether there is an existing social network; availability and types of work and education; culture; traditional relationships with place and people; and racial and religious make-up of the destination. These are some considerations that displaced people must consider when forced to move. Historically, when Pacific peoples relocated, factors like work and race were not the most significant considerations, but this is changing today. 

UUSC’s partners are also challenging our language, particularly in how we describe a climate-displaced person (CDP). It is important to acknowledge that a climate-displaced person does not choose this identity or status. This description reflects the set of external circumstances that have been imposed on any person due to factors beyond their control like rising sea levels, flooding, drought, etc., and how these impacts affect their lives. In the United States, most of the people who are at risk of climate-forced displacement are Black, Indigenous, People of Color (BIPOC) men, women, children, leaders, farmers, fisherfolk, LGBTQI and gender non-conforming people, caregivers, people of faith, ancestors, grandparents, youths, etc. – who have intersectional identities and roles in our societies and must be treated as such.  

But there are existing terminologies such as ‘climate refugees’ and ‘climate migrants’ that the media, researchers, and other groups have used to describe these people. The International Organization for Migration (IOM) uses the word ‘environmental migrant’ and defines it as, ‘A person or group(s) of persons who, predominantly for reasons of sudden or progressive changes in the environment that adversely affect their lives or living conditions, are forced to leave their places of habitual residence, or choose to do so, either temporarily or permanently, and who move within or outside their country of origin or habitual residence.’

There are some key questions we should be asking ourselves when it comes to the language we’re using in this context: 

• Why are we forced to develop such a description? 

• What are the conditions that force someone into becoming a climate displaced person? 

• Who determines when and how these conditions are met? 

• How do we address these questions in a way that dismantles systems of oppression?

• How do we center, support, and follow the leadership of climate displaced persons?

These questions are political, moral, and ethical in nature and their answers should be well informed, because in many ways, they inform the political narrative and the policies and laws that we put in place to address this issue. However, as we are all aware, policies are inherently not grassroots led or bottom-up. This must change, firstly by taking heed of what UUSC’s partners are reminding us – that a climate-displaced person is more than the circumstances they are forced to experience. 


Please register today to join Salote Soqo and others at Kaldor Centre Virtual Conference 2021, Whose move? Addressing migration and displacement in the face of climate change, 19-21 October 2021.

Read more about Salote in our Speaker Spotlight.