Adapting and Moving in a Warming World, with Beth Gibbons and Dr. Jola Ajibade
This episode of Warm Regards focuses on two more facets of decision making based on data about how the climate is changing. We first talk to Beth Gibbons, the Executive Director of the American Society of Adaptation Professionals. Beth talks to us about the different ways that people working in the field of climate adaptation use climate data to plan for present and future climate conditions, including the different consequences of climate change (sea level rise, water shortages, stronger storms). We also discuss how adaptation efforts can respond to and work to alleviate historical inequalities that make climate change worse for marginalized communities. Next, Jacquelyn and Ramesh talk with Dr. Jola Ajibade, an Assistant Professor of Geography at Portland State University. Dr. Ajibade’s work looks at not just the importance of how we talk about different forms of climate migration (such as planned retreat, managed retreat, and others) but also how it has taken different forms around the world, with uneven levels of success and equity for the individuals and communities moving due to climate change.
Climate Adaptation and Climate Mitigation
A piece on the basics of climate adaptation.
Another piece on how adaptation has been neglected, from the Guardian.
An article arguing that Adaptation isn’t surrender, it’s survival.
An introduction to climate resilience.
An article that discusses justifications for managed retreat.
A discussion about equitable retreat.
A discussion of climate migration from NHPR’s Outside/In Radio.
Please consider becoming a patron on Patreon to help us pay our producer, Justin Schell, our transcriber, Joe Stormer, and our social media coordinator, Katherine Peinhardt, who are all working as volunteers. Your support helps us not only to stay sustainable, but also to grow.
The full transcript of this episode can be found below.
Jacquelyn Gill: One of my favorite television shows is The Expanse, which just ended its fifth season. It’s based on a series of novels by James Corey about a near-future struggle between a beleaguered but habitable Earth, a militant Mars still harboring dreams of terraforming, and the blue-collar, second-class citizens of the far-off asteroid belt — upon whom both Earth and Mars rely for water and metals. There’s so much to love about this show, from its phenomenal and diverse cast to the constant build-up of suspense, but one of my favorite things is sort of tucked away in the background. The show is set around the year 2350 (further from today than we are from the industrial revolution), but it’s a world that, for all its technological achievements, is one where the impacts of climate change are very much a reality. Humans have spread to every corner of our solar system, but on Earth the view of the Eastern seaboard at night shows a vastly retracted coastline, and shots of New York show the Statue of Liberty surrounded by barriers keeping the ocean from swallowing the city.
There’s something about how these kinds of details are just quietly there — matter-of-fact, unremarked; that’s such a gut punch for me. Rising sea levels and tensions over limited resources are presented as a simple reality — one that technology has only been able to cope with so far. This is no Star Trek universe, where you can order anything you want from a replicator. Coffee is rare, and water is more precious than gold. This is a world where climate change is a reality, and people have had to cope — from adjusting our infrastructure to migrating off the planet to seek new lives fraught with uncertainty, danger and hope.
The Expanse is a fictional imagining (just one possible climate future out of many), but to me it illustrates the ways in which, even with our best efforts, we will need to live with some impacts of climate change. I don’t mean to be pessimistic; we can still avoid the worst impacts if we act swiftly and decisively. The story of our climate future is not yet written. We may not need to build sea walls around the Statue of Liberty in the end. But we now know that prevention can’t be our only strategy. We need to think beyond the binaries of mitigation and adaptation.
Mitigation focuses on the root causes of climate change; it’s all the things we do to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions. Mitigation strategies can be big or small — think things like switching to an electric car, eating less beef, developing renewable energy, or even restoring natural habitats like forests or grasslands to store more carbon. Whatever the pathway, the ultimate goal of mitigation is to minimize the amount of warming we have to deal with in the first place, and this is historically where the vast majority of our climate actions have focused on.
Of course we know that those efforts haven’t been enough and people are already living with the impacts of climate change, from more frequent floods to disruptions to our food systems, to heat waves or the expansion of disease vectors like ticks or mosquitos. That’s why we also need adaptation — those are the things that minimize the impacts of climate change. Adaptation includes things like moving an electrical substation out of a flood zone, planting trees or green walls in cities to minimize heat waves, or even moving entire communities out of high-risk coastal zones.
For years, adaptation was seen as something of a bad word in the climate community. A lot of folks thought adaptation implied that we should just live with the impacts of climate change, either by giving up and living with it, or just sort of innovating our way out of the problem when we should be focusing on preventing the impacts in the first place through mitigation. But in recent years, it’s become obvious that the impacts of climate change are already here. We don’t have the option of a future where we won’t need to adapt to climate change. In many communities we’ve already fallen behind, scrambling to do the work that should have been started decades ago.
But we don’t have to grope in the dark here. This season, we’ve shone a spotlight on the large, diverse community working to understand Earth’s climate system — forecasting future scenarios with sophisticated models, or identifying the impacts of warming on people and ecosystems. The adaptation planning community takes all of that diverse data and asks, “What should we do next?”, because there’s no one-size-fits-all approach to climate adaptation. Every community faces its own unique risks.
Think about where you were born. Did you live near water, or did your water come from somewhere else far away? Were you by the ocean? Did you ever worry about tornadoes, ice storms, or hurricanes? Did your family work the land, or travel, or spend time outside for their jobs? Now think about where you live today. What’s the difference from where you grew up? Are the climate threats the same? What’s changed since you were a child? What worries do you carry about climate change in your own community? What impacts are you already noticing on your own doorstep? Chances are, there are adaptation planners grappling with exactly these kinds of questions right now; and while they’re obviously important, this work has received a lot less funding, and adaptation has largely been sidelined in the climate conversation.
We’ve spent a lot of time talking about why climate change is happening, and what the impacts are. Adaptation planners take the where, when, and how of climate impacts; and find ways to reduce the risks and the costs of those impacts to cities and towns. They’re the climate risk managers, helping communities to become more resilient so that we can bounce back from acute shocks (like severe hurricanes or heat waves) while addressing the chronic stresses that undermine resilience (like poor infrastructure or poverty). In other words, climate adaptation isn’t about giving up or giving in. It’s about taking care of one another while we do the critical work of mitigation. If your house is on fire, you don’t just sit on the couch waiting for the fire-fighters to put out the blaze. You grab the baby photos and your go-bag and you get to safety so you can assess and rebuild.
Welcome to Warm Regards. I’m Jacquelyn Gill
Ramesh Laungani: And I’m Ramesh Laungani. For this episode, we’ll be discussing how communities all over the world are adapting to the impacts of climate change that they are already facing today. We start with a conversation with an adaptation expert about how her field helps communities across the US build their climate resilience, from coastal Miami to inland Ann Arbor. Then, we talk with an urban geographer about coordinated efforts to move vulnerable communities in the Global South away from climate risks. The work of both of our guests highlight the ways that climate action isn’t just about reducing emissions; it’s also about surviving, and even thriving, in a warming world.
Jacquelyn: Our first guest is Beth Gibbons, the Executive Director of the American Society of Adaptation Professionals, which has the very appropriate acronym of ASAP. Beth has over a decade of experience in sustainable development and climate adaptation, and works to help bring adaptation to the forefront of conversations about how we sustainably manage cities in a warming world.
As we’ve talked about this season, there’s a wide range of climate data out there — from forecasts of climate futures to tracking climate impacts. How do you and other adaptation professionals translate that data into action? What does the work of adaptation look like on the ground?
Beth: Well, thanks so much for having me on the show. I really appreciate that you’re coming to the conversation of what is climate change adaptation as you’re exploring what is the trajectory that climate data takes (or all forms of data take) because we think about that a lot. We think about the life cycle of data and where the work of climate change adaptation and climate change adaptation professionals specifically falls in this life cycle. I’m the Executive Director at the American Society of Adaptation Professionals. From that perch, the people who are part of our organization are working on climate change adaptation from all different sectors. So we have members who are in the nonprofit field and the private sector; they’re in government from federal down to local/tribal; and in academia. When we think about this, we say a climate change adaptation professional is somebody who’s integrating future climate conditions into their day-to-day work. We need to be adapting. We need to be changing our policies, our practices, our social behavior, so that we are more prepared for the impacts that are with us and will continue to be with us. And climate change adaptation is an imperative that we have if we believe that people are people, because climate change is happening; those impacts are occurring. People are dying today. So if you believe that people are people, adaptation is a core part of taking climate action.
Jacquelyn: What kinds of climate data do you leverage for planning? I suspect our listeners are probably thinking about things like how many degrees warmer it’s going to get or how many feet of sea level rise we’ll see, but climate impacts are really diverse. So what other kinds of information do you need to help communities prepare for a changing future?
Beth: I am not somebody who believes that fear’s a good motivator. It’s not. But I also feel like we have to be really honest about the conditions that we’re working in right now. The scale of change that people have to be adopting and adapting is really incredible. It comes back to this data question though in general, because when we think about data, we think about a framework that asks a question of “What has happened?”, “What will happen?”, and “What are the impacts?”. Of course, we know that the global changes that we’re anticipating are fairly stable. When you start bringing that down to a regional level, you start contending with regional climate drivers. I’m in the Great Lakes region and, when we think about climate change in the Great Lakes region, we think about lhe lakes and the way that the lakes interact with global models and global forces. The Lakes have really this kind of engine role that they play, that our climate is dominated by the lake activity. Other regions may experience that with their mountain ranges or other really kind of iconic features that they have of their landscape.
Then when we get down to the local level, things get really difficult, right? Our uncertainty about what will happen starts to spike as we go towards the future, but the demand is really high. Most people when they’re thinking about “What do I need to adapt to?”, they want to know what to adapt to at a geography that is really below what our climate projections can share with us with high levels of certainty. And so one of the important ways that we go about producing climate information that’s actionable is that we start with this conversation of what has happened. By using first historic data, you can help to provide a quantitative background for what people’s qualitative experience (or subjective experience) has often been. We feel like it rains more, or it seems like it’s raining more in the fall than it used to in the summer. And you can say like, “Yeah, we can actually look and we can see where increases in precipitation have been taking place annually but the greatest increases are happening in the spring and fall, so we know that you’re experiencing more drought in the summer.” That can come from a historic record. When you can ground that for somebody in their place, suddenly they have much more appetite also for thinking about what’s going to happen next. So we bring in historic data to be able to provide, what I’ll phrase as “locally relevant climate information”. It’s not that it’s future information, it can be specific down to a climate station.
And then the other thing that we use to make sure that we’re bringing data in that is really relevant is understanding what people’s experience has been thus far of how their systems are getting pushed out of their coping range. This is also referred to as using thresholds. That might be related to where a hospital is starting to see more intake from heat-related illnesses. It might be talking with a community about where they have nuisance flooding or stormwater backups during a severe storm event. Because then you can start to say, “This is where your system,” your human health system or your infrastructure system, “isn’t going to be able to withstand a certain level of impact or input,” and you can begin to look at how often do we think we’re going to meet that data point — and use that to really frame and provide useful and actionable information for a decision maker. Because you can then say, “Okay, so if you think that you’re going to end up exceeding a heat threshold” . . . and heat I keep going back to because there are more heat-related deaths in the United States than from any other climate factor annually; it’s really this very deadly silent killer. But different people in different regions of the country have a different heat tolerance, too. So it’s not like just because people who are living in Maricopa County, Arizona, are hot all the time that people who are living in Marquette, Michigan, are going to be able to withstand that same kind of condition if suddenly they start experiencing these hot days.
Anyway, it’s about finding out what’s the threshold that’s meaningful and then saying we think that based on different climate scenarios, you could be exceeding that threshold ten times annually, twenty times annually, thirty times annually; and you start having conversations then more about risk management. What is the pathway that you want to take to think about your communication system, your transportation system, your infrastructure system (whatever it may be); what is the action that you want to take based on your appetite for risk as a decision maker around that community.
Jacquelyn: Let’s say I’m on the city council of Marquette in Upper Michigan, where I have family. How do I go about finding the information I need to plan for the future? In other words, how does all this information get into the hands of the folks on the ground?
Beth: When we think about the adaptation professionals, usually you’re thinking about somebody at a city staff who’s maybe in a planning department, maybe in an engineering department; although engineering is a little harder to crack because engineering is really, really devoted to historic data [laughs] and climate change really doesn’t care for that. This has been a place where interdisciplinary applied climate has been making a lot of advances. But more is needed because engineers, they basically rely on having a historic model to tell them how to build.
Anyway, sorry, a little bit down that rabbit hole.
So somebody in the planning staff . . . there might be somebody from a community group, a lot of watershed groups. Up in Marquette, specifically, it’s Superior Watershed Partnership, which assists multiple communities with regional planning and they work on climate adaptation planning. You can get this input from a diversity of places. To get at the data itself, you have to have a really strong climate data provider, and they’re relatively hard to come by still. The best available data is public data. Depending on what region of the country you’re in, you may be served by a NOAA program that’s called a RISA (a Regional Integrated Science and Assessment program). You may be served by a RCC (a Regional Climate Center). You may have in your region a climate adaptation science center. You may have a climate agricultural hub (an ag hub). But even as I’m listing these, I basically can confuse myself because there’s a real lack of consistency in the way in which we in the United States disseminate usable, useful climate information for decision making.
So for somebody who is in a community and wants to be informed about climate change and climate impacts, they first have to find a way to tap into this network of information providers, and it’s not very clear. Even after they do, it can be very difficult to navigate if there is or is not a RISA. Do I go to that RISA? Do I go to a RCC? Do I go maybe instead to a private provider? Because there are companies who will do downscaling for you. If you’re a community or maybe you’re an individual who somehow has funding to pay for your own dynamic downscaling, there are companies that will do that in kind of like a black box format. At ASAP (speaking from the ASAP perspective), we’re really working to make sure that companies that are offering for service for-profit climate services are making their data transparent so that there’s consistency of data being applied across decision-making spaces (across jurisdictions) because it’s deeply problematic for climate data to be black boxed, and end up with municipalities that could be acting on different climate information. It discredits them and it really sews distrust.
Ramesh: So Beth, you highlighted that there are a lot of climate data resources available, but what do you see as the biggest barriers that climate adaptation professionals like you face? Is it coordination among the different data entities, translation of the data to policy makers, or is it funding to do the work that your organization focuses on?
Beth: This is a spectrum, for sure. I have a very hard time answering this question because people are coming into the climate conversation all the time. If you are a newcomer, you may have the first instinct that the thing that is missing is the data. I really strongly believe that the data is there. It may be a challenge to connect with the data, but a lack of climate data is not what is actually holding up action. There’s good data, or at very minimum good enough data. Specially for planning at infrastructure, social programs (which you can actually modify pretty relatively quickly in a two-to-five year window). Infrastructure, where most infrastructure is not being put in the ground to have a life cycle that exceeds seventy years. We’re not talking usually about planning horizons that exceed what our certainty is about data. People may feel at first when they come into this space that data is a holdup but, really, connecting people with data is the role that the climate adaptation community is trying to play. There’s actually a broader group that’s called the Resilience Ecosystem, which is housed and supported by NOAA (the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration). The Resilience Ecosystem is intended to be a kind of connective tissue from data modelers all the way through to end users / decision makers.
Where adaptation professionals tend to get held up are a few places. You can get your hands on the data, but then it’s like, what do you do with it? There is not a lot of funding for climate change adaptation. There’s not a lot of funding from the public side, and there’s not a lot of funding from the philanthropic community. And there’s not a lot of acknowledgement of climate change adaptation as a kind of fundable activity that you would go to for private donations, individual donations — and that’s not a good way to fundraise probably like a social program or infrastructure projects anyway, although it’s being done. There’s a funding issue and that funding issue can become a problem because — one — adaptation professionals need to know how to take available data and translate it into usable decision-making. If they’re doing that correctly (like properly), they’re doing that through really intentional and iterative community engagement processes, and those take investment; it takes investing in people’s time, so that you’re providing a venue where people can meet and be comfortable. You’re providing childcare. You’re probably providing stipends for community members who bring their knowledge, which is often undervalued — if valued at all, basically. Robust community engagement is a serious cost.
And then when you start talking about actually investing, we’re talking about infrastructure projects, right? They’re either social or they’re built, and we as a country are not investing in the public good. We have been disinvesting in the public good from our schools to our roads to our health systems, and climate change adaptation really requires a robust public will to be investing in the future; and we are really struggling with that in the country. So adaptation professionals can have really terrific data (they can have examples from their colleagues) and they can still end up in a position where they’re sitting there and waiting to be able to implement an innovative adaptation strategy.
Jacquelyn: This is all making me wonder: are there places that you can think of that are doing a good job of integrating climate projections into their planning? I guess I’m wondering who you think is a model for communities interested in climate adaptation planning?
Beth: Yeah, absolutely. The first example that comes to mind for me is southeast Florida. What I will talk about that’s happened in southeast Florida is really a culmination of a lot of the things that I’ve talked about already. There are four counties of southeast Florida that are highly exposed to climate impacts, and about twelve to fifteen years ago they began lobbying their state and also national-level Congresspeople for more investment in action on climate change and climate impacts. But each of the counties was using different data. They all had different sea level rise projections and, because of that, their requests were being dismissed and they were really being discredited. So they joined together and they formed what’s called the Southeast Florida Compact. It’s the first regional climate collaborative in the country that actually now is ten years old; it’s eleven years old this year. They’re into their second phase and the counties have committed to sharing data, to using the same data. They’ve used this now as a foundation for also creating water sharing rights and activities, which is a huge thing because fresh water is at a premium in southeast Florida. And they’ve also been really proactive in not just developing climate adaptation and climate strategies and then putting them on the shelf, but explaining and being clear with the constituents in those counties that this is an iterative process.
Broward County, specifically, has just finished its second resilience plan and they saw a 20% increase in what are called IDF curves, which are their intensity duration frequency curves. This means that they have got to update their engineering standards by 20% from when they last did this study (which was within the last ten years) in order to be able to withstand the expected storms that are coming up. They were able to do this; they were able to do this update. They also had a significantly update their expectations of sea level rise, and they were able to do this and pass it with really strong private sector support (support from developers) because they had brought people along on a idea that this is not going to be a one-and-done kind of work, but we’re going to have to think about climate impacts over and over again and keep reassessing where we are. The private sector developers really welcomed Broward setting a baseline for resilience, of saying that this is the new resilience standards that need to be incorporated into any buildings (any development plans) because it provided a level playing field so that you didn’t need to be a developer that was trying to be a good guy to do the right thing. They really welcomed that and embraced Broward setting these standards for their whole industry, and so lobbied for it at the government level to make sure that these standards were passed. I know that when I talk about adaptation, it’s a little bit about data (maybe it’s a lot about data) but it’s a lot about data dissemination, interpretation, and then also creating will for action.
Ramesh: Often, climate change is framed as a sea level rise problem and therefore adaptation to climate change seems very far away for my students in Nebraska, and others in the middle of the country. Do you have a non-sea level rise example of positive collaborations to move the needle on climate change adaptation?
Beth: Yeah, definitely. There are really positive examples of where other regional collaboratives have emerged to increase information sharing and really be able to accelerate how climate adaptation actions take place. There’s a collaborative in the West which is called the WAA, which is the Western Adaptation Alliance. It’s a group of cities that extends up the Front Range. There, their issues are extremely different. They’re focused on snowpack: how has snowpack reduction been impacting water supply, and on forest fire and how do we handle wildfire and forest management. I don’t have as concrete an example of the outcome of policy change that we saw out of southeast Florida, because Southeast Florida’s Compact really came first, and has been quite binding and effective. But the WAA is a great example of a central U.S. alliance of cities, where they’re accelerating their practices and exchanging ideas, finding ways to better manage forests and ensure that there is just some more adaptation taking place across that community.
There’s a network in the Great Lakes region which is called the Great Lakes Climate Adaptation Network, and it includes both U.S. and Canadian cities. There, their issues are much more focused on precipitation. Precipitation and the changes in precipitation pattern tend to be the calling card of climate change in the upper Midwest. We’re seeing much more severe storms and a kind of mantra of “less water when you need it and more water when you don’t”. The City of Minneapolis has completely built out. Their gray infrastructure system has no more capacity, and in Minneapolis they’ve had to work extremely hard to reeducate (or educate at all) people in the city about the role of streets and that streets are actually conveyance mechanisms; and the reason that there are curb cuts (curbs like we have) is so that when water falls, water is able to use the street as a backup convenance mechanism. But they’re at the point now where they are just seeing the street as a primary conveyance system, because they can no longer build in-ground infrastructure because they’re built out on it.
Ramesh and Jacquelyn: Wow.
Beth: The coordination that happens across GLCAN (as it’s called, the Great Lakes Climate Adaptation Network) is the sharing of green infrastructure solutions across cities that are having more severe precipitation events. How do you do something like . . . I was talking about the city of Ann Arbor had moved its tree canopy from being supported in its general fund to actually being supported as part of its stormwater infrastructure, so you no longer are seeing it as a bonus. The trees aren’t just nice; they’re playing an infrastructure role. And then we’ve also seen efforts (talking still about stormwater and stormwater management) around introducing storm water fees — which has been done well and it’s also been done very, very poorly in different places. The stormwater fees are a way in which cities are able to bring in additional income to be able to manage this increase in precipitation and storm water that they’re having to manage. They can develop stormwater programs which incentivize homeowners and business owners to create permeable surfaces (so creating rain gardens, removing driveways, making their own lots that they control more permeable so that the water that falls on your property doesn’t have to go into the public stormwater system) and then you pay less in the fee because you’re not contributing. So it’s really a user fee, versus a tax.
Jacquelyn: We’ve talked in previous episodes about how climate impacts don’t affect everyone equally, even within the same community. I would love to hear more about how adaptation professionals take that into account in the planning process, given that there are so many inequalities that are just baked into the system.
Beth: I appreciate that question, and it’s definitely true that the impacts of climate change, disproportionately impact communities that have been marginalized historically; and that when we’re thinking about addressing climate change and we’re thinking about this as a future pursuit, it’s really critical that we look at how historic injustice, how structural racism, and how the way that we value specific types of knowledge and specific types of people weigh in on where we are today and where we want to go. Last year, I was asked to participate in a congressional briefing on Great Lakes resilience. The question was, “What are the kinds of policies that we need for resilience in the Great Lakes region?” I took time to talk about the history of policy and what it has meant for the Great Lakes region up until now. The Federal Highway Administration being used as a tool to destroy Black and Brown communities throughout the cities of Detroit, Milwaukee, and countless other cities in the United States. I talked about a recent study from Jeremy Hoffman that has identified how communities that were subjected to redlining today still are experiencing those heat disparities between the neighborhoods and communities that were redlined versus those that had AA rating, and that heat disparity that continues today is at minimum (I believe) ten degrees and in some places up to thirty degrees difference. It’s really critical that we don’t just hope for a new future; that’s not sufficient.
I’m really proud at ASAP that we have a justice, equity, diversity and inclusion committee that was formed in 2019 and really took on framing what is ASAP’s position when it comes to addressing justice and equity and racial justice, specifically. Our justice equity, diversity inclusion statement comes out and is very clear that part of our work is dismantling white supremacy: it’s identifying how white supremacy has been a part of us not recognizing traditional ecological knowledge, ancestral knowledge; and really calls on ASAP members to make sure that as they conduct their work they are thinking about the fact that they hold power, that they are influencing decisions, and that they have an obligation to distribute that power — to release it whenever they can to ensure that they are finding ways to value, incorporate, and really bring forward diverse sources of information coming from the community and other places. So that we’re not just hoping for a different future but we’re really listening to what is happening now, what has happened historically; and so we’re not being content to just continue perpetuating those injustices.
Ramesh: I’m curious — what do you think climate change adaptation will look like under the Biden administration? How does it change and how does it stay the same?
Beth: Yes. [Laughs] It’s super nice for me not to have to reconcile my mind around our former president on a daily basis. Like, “That’s really it?”
I think that there’s an important role for the federal government to play. We’ve championed for the last four years (and before that) the importance of cities in addressing climate change — the “We Are Still In” campaign, the US CAN [United States Climate Action Network]; we’ve talked about how cities are innovators and they’re the engines of action. But the fact of the matter is that cities have been in this really dire financial position before they were introduced to this economic crisis that we’re heading into, and cities are also creatures of the state. Cities are not independently able to go out and to make the kinds of policy changes and decisions that are needed to get to the level of resilience which is necessary; that takes federal leadership. It means that when I think about what we need from the federal level, we need improvements to the National Flood Insurance policy. We need changes to the Stafford Act and how we treat disasters — that we are not just creating perverse incentives — where there’s only dollars to address a disaster after it’s happened and expectations to replace what was lost (where it was before). These were not ways for us to actually get to more resilient places. We need a federal government to really become clear on how it will disseminate good climate information.
That is going back to these, this kind of patchwork of programs that we have right now, many of which are wonderful, wonderful programs. This is in no way tearing or dragging on any of those programs that I listed, but there has to be a clear federal policy that makes sure that there’s no region without climate service providers; that it’s easy to navigate that system of service providers; and then the federal government really needs to make sure that they’re providing the kinds of funding and support to allow regional collaboratives to thrive. Because what we don’t need is for the federal government to come in and act as if there hasn’t been climate adaptation work happening for the last four, five, ten years. There has been and that needs to be recognized; and where those collaboratives exist, they need to be supported so that where people know to already go are actually armed with the resources that their service area needs to become resilient.
So I am hopeful. I’m also spending quite a bit of time in conversations with the incoming Congress or transition team people, encouraging them to look at what has already been laid. The Obama administration left us with a very strong foundation and good ideas around what adaptation could look like. We don’t need to reinvent the wheel.
Jacquelyn: Over the last four years, we’ve seen a total lack of climate leadership at the federal level and a lot of people have focused on climate action at the state or local levels, and we’ve actually seen some strong developments there; that’s been positive. But while those efforts were important, it sounds like you’re saying that’s not enough — there are some things that really do need to happen at the national level. That climate change is too much for local communities to respond to on their own.
Beth: I don’t believe that we can allow the federal government to abdicate its responsibility to the welfare of people across the country. When we cheer for and champion local leadership, that is right. When we depend on local government and local leaders for all of those security and services, it is not. It is not fair. It is the federal government that has the resources that are aligned to the scale of the challenge that is ahead of us. When we talk about the scale of the challenge that we’re facing, there is but one country — really — in the world that can bring that kind of authority and financial largess to address this challenge. And so I think about a lot . . . my background is actually in international development. Prior to becoming a domestic adaptation professional, I worked in HIV/AIDS and then I worked in development in Sub-Saharan Africa. My degree is in planning and developing countries and sometimes I really long for doing the international development work, but I also realized that the US is in really doing climate adaptation work in the U.S. is international development work because the US leadership is so sorely missing from the international discussion and the international arena right now, that we just cannot afford to allow for that to continue. My cautionary tale is not one that is, “We shouldn’t cheer on and look with admiration and pride at what cities are doing”; it’s that we cannot allow for federal leadership to let go of their responsibility to people across the country.
Jacquelyn: So it’s not even just a national failure; it’s just really a global failure on our part?
Beth: It is, unfortunately, but it doesn’t have to be. It can get better, and I do feel hopeful. I think a Biden administration is going to at minimum buy us time to figure out what needs to get done and I think that they are going to be intentional. We had recommended to the Clinton administration (when we were doing transition memos in 2016) the establishment of a climate czar, and so the appointment of John Kerry into that role as climate envoy is really helpful. Having somebody who’s going to be sitting in on decisions at a cabinet level to bring a climate perspective is appropriate. That is where it needs to happen. It needs to happen at the top and it needs to be happening across all decisions. I think that that was a great signal.
I wish everyone being appointed was a woman and preferably like a Black and Brown woman. It’s a lot of white men that he’s appointing so that’s like sort of boring, but I think the envoy role is a really exciting one and certainly John Kerry has demonstrated his commitment to this cause. I think that he’ll be well listened to in those rooms, which is great for everybody working across the climate spectrum.
Jacquelyn: Beth, I’ve learned so much from this conversation. I’m thinking about adaptation in a totally new way, and I imagine a lot of our listeners are, too. I’m wondering: are there any other aspects of climate adaptation people should know about that we haven’t discussed yet?
Beth: I want to add a little bit of broader context to where climate conversations are moving forward at a rate that is very, very exciting, and that’s actually in the corporate sector. I’m somebody . . . you know, you’ve gotten a lot of my cards on the table already. I’m a pretty bleeding heart liberal, former Peace Corps international development, now climate change adaptation; and I’m looking at what’s happening in the corporate sector, and I’m actually seeing a lot of hope. There’s an acceleration among corporations to be not just looking at their climate risk (which has often historically been defined as the risk that they will face by having to reach mitigation goals), but rather what is their physical risk and how will they disclose that publicly? That demand for public disclosure is going to give all of us more information about how corporations are thinking about protecting themselves. There’s also some people who are working in the corporate sector who are part of ASAP and part of other organizations that are working very hard to make sure that equity and justice are becoming part of those corporate conversations and ensuring that corporations are not simply avoiding their risk by abandoning communities where they perceive it, but rather thinking about their obligations in place. We know that the corporate world can move faster than the public world; that’s just a known, it’s a guarantee. And so when we think about where is climate action going to be coming from and where is climate adaptation and resilience information and activities going to be basing out of, in the next couple of years the acceleration among the corporate world is I think going to be defining this space. For people who are not watching that, they’re going to miss a tremendous source of information and also really a tremendous space that we all need to be thinking about “How do we influence that?” and “How do we ensure those actions are good for all?” Corporations, they feel the pressure of their customers, and I mean especially of their shareholders. If you have a 401k and you don’t know where your stock is, you should find out and find out what they’re doing. Ask that question. If you’re somebody who is in a white collar job, you’re probably a shareholder somewhere and you should find out what are they doing and tell them what you want them to do.
Jacquelyn: Where can people learn more about this work, or even get involved?
Beth: If you want to learn more about climate change adaptation and meet and mingle with people who are working on this all the time, you can go to AdaptationProfessionals.org. We have a lot of resources that are available on our website for free. Anything that we develop is member-led and member-derived, but we put it out into the public.
Justin Schell: Hey everyone, producer Justin Schell here. This week’s Data Story comes from Toby SantaMaria. They describe how experiencing the effects of climate change in their childhood led them to become a climate scientist themselves.
Toby SantaMaria: Hello, my name is Toby SantaMaria and I’m a scientist from Tucson, Arizona. When I was growing up, I kind of lived split between two places. My grandparents and I largely stayed in our home in South Tucson, but we would also go to my grandparents’ ranch that was in northern Mexico — in Ímuris, Sonora. When you live and grow up on a ranch, it’s really important and obvious that you kind of depend on the climate around you, because it’s really hard to grow cattle if there’s no grass for them to eat and no water for them, cuz there’s not like a municipal water system in Ímuris yet. It’s not like if there’s drought that there’s somehow going to be water for you; I really remember water being rationed as it came down from the dam and stuff like that.
This was a great way to grow up, but something that happened when I was thirteen was that there was actually a drought so severe that most everyone in our village lost their cattle, including us. It was pretty apparent that our management schemes couldn’t really keep up with the way climate was changing. That really motivated me as I started kind of growing up to pursue a career in the sciences. At first, I kind of thought that I would just see where things would go as I started in undergrad, but then I realized restoration ecology was a thing. So now I’m actually getting my PhD in plant biology and ecology and evolutionary biology here at Michigan State and my thesis is actually on restoring grasslands and other grassy biomes, so that the things that happened to me like losing the ranch and losing a huge part of my childhood and my identity doesn’t have to happen to other people just because of climate change.
Justin: If you’d like to share a data story with us, you can leave us a voicemail by calling 586–930–5286, or record yourself and email it to us at OurWarmRegards@gmail.com.
Ramesh: I grew up on the south shore of Long Island, New York. If you look at it on Google Earth, it’s like looking at an unevenly torn piece of paper. The myriad of irregularities and indentations result in little bays that connect to small inlets. The edge of my backyard of my childhood home ran right up against the banks of one of these small inlets. It was so small in fact that it didn’t have a formal name, but it was large enough that some of my neighbors owned small boats that they would use to zip up and down the inlet during the summer. The inlet connected to one of the larger bays on the South Shore called Jamaica Bay, which in turn led to the Atlantic Ocean. Outside of the summer months, the inlet was a rather tranquil body of water that would just meander along at a snail’s pace, with most of the activity being those same boats gently bobbing up and down as they were tied to docks that neighbors shared with each other . Even as a kid, I could always watch the water and feel a sense of calm, like it was telling me to just slow down.
Although most of my memories of the inlet are pleasant, there is one memory that I still look back on and shudder. It was in October of 2012, more than a decade after I moved to Nebraska for grad school. Specifically, it was October 29th, 2012, when Hurricane Sandy hit New York.
My climatologist spouse and I intently watched as Sandy moved further up the East Coast of the U.S. With each hour we watched the storm track closer and closer to my parents; that small inlet now seemed like a huge threat. We were frantically on the phone with them making sure that they had flashlights and other supplies that they needed. But as the storm came closer to the South Shore of Long Island we began to plead with my parents to drive to stay with an uncle that lived more inland.
We started by gently prodding, “Hey Mom, I think you should really head to Uncle’s house.”
“We’ll be fine,” she said.
“Mom, this is going to be really bad. You should really go to Uncle’s house, it’s only thirty minutes away.”
“We’ll be fine.”
I felt myself starting to get angry. “Mom! Why won’t you go there? I’m trying to make sure that you are safe!”
“I know, I know, but our neighbors are staying. We’ll be fine!”
Finally, my argument had to get a bit more heavy-handed. “MOM! You were a physician. You expected your patients to listen to you because you had the knowledge to know what would keep them safe and healthy. Your daughter-in-law is a professional climatologist! She is saying that it’s going to be really dangerous for you to stay in the house! You NEED to go to Uncle’s house!”
I don’t know if it was this argument that clicked with them or they wanted to avoid further pestering from me the rest of the night, or they saw an update on the Weather Channel or what; but eventually they drove to my uncle’s house more inland that was less threatened by the storm. They ended up staying there overnight while the storm passed and the roads became more navigable. When they returned the next day, they could definitely tell the normally small tranquil inlet had flooded the basement during the storm. The water had made it about a foot and a half up the wall. Even with that amount of water, my parents luckily had minimal damage to the basement and the furniture. Unfortunately, the damage to their neighbors houses was much worse, more water in basements and some houses ultimately needed to be entirely gutted and re-done.
This memory came to mind as I prepared for this episode, because my parents had the ability and resources (in the form of a car and nearby family) that allowed them to evacuate safely as the storm hit their home. This is not the case for many people who year-after-year are impacted by increasingly intense storms and extreme weather. Sadly, many times, if they choose to move away from their home in response to these types of events, they do so at great risk to themselves and their families and — unlike my parents — they cannot easily return to their homes. These climate migrations, however, are not composed of a monolithic group of displaced peoples escaping the ravages of a particular weather event. As we will learn from our second guest, Dr. Jola Ajibade, the movement of people in response to climate change can take many forms — from single families making an independent decision to no longer live within a particular set of climatic conditions, to the movement of entire communities through planned government action, to even entire nation-states negotiating where populations will relocate across international borders as sea levels rise.
Dr. Ajibade is an assistant professor at Portland State University who studies how the politics of climate change adaptation and resilience planning can both help and hurt those that are most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. She also examines how to effectively build equitable policies around climate migration and planned relocations of people displaced by climate change.
Jacquelyn: So Jola, you’ve written about the differences between climate migration and managed retreat. For our listeners who might not be familiar with these concepts, can you tell us a bit about what those terms mean and why they’re different?
Jola Ajibade: Thank you again for inviting me to this program. In my opinion, climate migration is typically what people have done — not just even when people, even animals, right? We know that birds, all kinds of animals migrate from one location to the other (whether in search for food, whether there is seasonal changes) and humans do that as well. We do that for multiple reasons why we migrate because we’re looking for new opportunities. But in the context of climate change, we’re seeing people migrate more because of the impacts of climate change.
Typically climate migration has to do with you find this very loose movement of people. It’s not as though they’re a current community, it’s more like a loose collective in many cases where in some cases you find situations where farmers are leaving their particular location because of drought, because of flooding. You might see this in Bangladesh, you might see this inparts of India, in several parts of Nigeria, as well; other parts of the world (even in Latin America) where people move because of climate-induced impact or risks, and then they move to another location. Sometimes this relocation is temporary/seasonal, and other times it’s permanent. Those are what I would classify as climate migration, where people are just moving on their own.
But managed retreat is somewhat different. In the work that I’m doing, I’m actually calling it not just managed retreat. Some people call it climate relocation. Some people call it resettlement. Some people call it realignment — all kinds of language. I think that the reason why it’s important to differentiate this climate migration which has often happened in history and continues to happen from managed retreats, is that with the retreat we’re seeing a more planned approach to the relocation of people. Sometimes it may be relocation within the same city (it might be within the same community), but moving people from a high risk area (particularly areas that are exposed or prone to flooding or drought) and they’re moving them to a relatively safe area. Often in the case of managed retreat, what happens is that it’s not just people that moves. It includes the mobility in some cases of businesses, of housing (literally just giving people new houses in other places); it might including mobilities of lighthouses in some case, and in other cases might even include the mobility of the old capital relocating in a capital like in Jakarta — they are planning to relocate the capital elsewhere in the country (and that’s in Indonesia).
So the managed retreat parts, the interest and thing for me is that there is in many cases an oriented decision to put in resources towards it. When people are migrating on their own, nobody’s giving you money to migrate. You do that on your own, right? But when it comes to managed retreat, whether it’s here in America where people are getting buyouts from the government or even elsewhere I’ve seen (in the case of Rwanda or Manila in the Philippines, or Colombia) is a situation where you have in some cases community pooling their resources together to relocate, or in other cases the government also getting involved to put in resources to help people relocate from a places that is high-risk prone to a place that is less risk-prone.
The first time when I was writing this paper around climate migration and managed retreat, I realized that in the literature people were using them interchangeably. As I said in one of my interviews that this just really got me worried because I find that people who are actually climate migrants are far more vulnerable to not just the impacts of climate change, but even the response in which they’re using climate migration as an adaptation response. It is not as easy because they don’t have the resources. They don’t have the institutional support. They don’t have the government support. They do this on your own. In many cases, they become exposed (whether in the process of moving) to weather conditions that might be deleterious to their health. In some cases they don’t have the resources to do it, but they are forced to do it. Sometimes they are moving abroad. Sometimes they are moving to cities, and in those process where people are relocating without much support you have several examples (especially people moved from Africa to Europe) where people have lost their lives — traveling on ships that are not protected, traveling in canoes, traveling on things that you wouldn’t even think it’s possible to even transport humans from several countries in Africa. I’m thinking in Libya or wherever, and people moving towards Italy.
So I find that whether it’s internal migration or international migration, the situations of people are much more precarious.
Ramesh: [Sigh] So many of those stories can be so tragic, but even communities that are part of a managed retreat face vulnerabilities as well, right?
Jola: Well with managed retreat, it is not to say that it’s an easy decision for people to make, but this is a different set of vulnerabilities that people face. But even as they face those vulnerabilities and impact of climate change (whether it’s repeated flooding or exposure to heat waves or persistent drought), to some extent they may have the resources they need in times of moving from that high risk-prone area and moving there to relatively low. Typically that’s what you expected (that people will be able to move to a lower exposure area), but it doesn’t always happen that way. That’s the orientation that managed retreat sort of offers; that’s the goal.
There are just huge differences between these two sets of mobilities, and therefore when people ask me this question about what happens when people face climate-related impacts, what kind of mobilities are we talking about? I don’t put all of these mobilities in one language and say “climate migration”. I’m like, “No, we need to differentiate what are the different types of mobilities.” And we also need to remember, there are people who are trapped — people who cannot even move. If you are able to migrate, you do have some agency; that’s what it means. Maybe you have a little resource by yourself. You have your physical health that you are able to do that. There are people who are disabled; they may not be able to do that migration; others can do, they may not be able to even move. They may not have the resources to move. Poverty keeps people from moving.
Those types of people also require attention when we are thinking about climate change impacts. And sometimes when people leave they will move. If you are able to move (whether from the local or rural area, you’re able to move to the city and you get there), you may end up being trapped in a slum area where your life might even be worse than the rural area you’re coming from; and therefore you can’t even move if you’re planning to move abroad. You’re so trapped because of the poverty that you encounter, because of maybe in some cases other types of risk. Women, they tend to encounter sexual violence. All sorts of things happen to people that then trap them in this condition that keeps them from even adapting the way they thought they would be able to adapt to impacts of climate change, or the resources they thought they would have in these new places.
Similar things happen here in the US where people move from one location to another hoping, “Okay, if I migrate on my own to Portland,” for instance, “I’ll find resources that I need.” And then we find that a lot of people ended up being homeless. Then they end up in this cycle where they can’t get the right job, because they don’t have the ID cards to show. They don’t have the resources from friends. They don’t have family; they don’t have the social network, and therefore they are trapped in that condition where homelessness becomes their new reality.
So when we are talking about impacts of climate change, in my opinion it is important to look at the whole spectrum of all of the different groups of people that might be facing different impacts, but also the spectrum of mobility and immobilities and the complexity within those mobilities (even when you’re able to move). In some cases, you may get stopped within the space that you’re moving to. Let’s think again about the refugees, for instance. People who were able to even migrate from Africa you end up (whether it’s in Germany or in Italy) let’s say in a refugee camp there. There are a lot of information in the last ten years that shows that people do spend more than ten years in refugee camps. They are hoping they will be able to relocate to a new country or get resettled in a new country, but then they find that that refugee camp becomes their home. For multiple reasons, right? Whether the receiving country says, “No, you can’t come in,” or people don’t have the documents, or they are debating whether climate migration is legally protected by international law.
Right now, we don’t have any law that covers climate migration, that gives you the kind of protection you want. If you’re not a typical refugee (meaning that you’re not a political refugee), you don’t have asylum based on fear of being killed by individuals (meaning by people); but you have the fear of being killed by climate change, by impact of climate change. But that right now in the international treaties that we have, there is no protection for you. Because we can not define . . . we can, but we haven’t; that’s what I think, we can define what climate migrants are. Or there are people who say we can call people “climate-displaced person”, but we haven’t given this “climate-displaced person” a legal status internationally. Until we’re able to do that, we find that there are a lot of people who have been able to somewhat migrate (if you’re thinking about the mobility as a successful thing, they’ve been able to reach the refugee camps) but then they get trapped there because no country is willing to take them because there is no legal protection for people who are climate-displaced people. So there are multiple layers to this relationship between climate migration and managed retreat.
With most of the managed retreat cases, it has been internally done — in the sense that the mobility is not that much people going abroad. It’s people trying to relocate from one area within their country to another (or within their city to another) with the support of the government. Small island states, they are thinking about (in some cases) they will be able to fund the relocation of people from their country. If their country were going to go underwater, they’ll be able to pay to relocate people into places like New Zealand or Australia. This is in conversation. There was a period where the government of Tuvalu suddenly invested a lot of money in doing that; right now, they’re holding back again. But later there’s a conversation that they are willing to invest in their people to get them to safety.
But when people move on their own, literally whatever happens without international law (without legal status, without resources from government), a lot of these people are going to end up perhaps even in worse situations than where they’re moving from.
Jacquelyn: How well do you think governments are set up to be able to deal with these kinds of planned retreats? Do you think that we have a good model for how to handle resettlement efforts? And how do we even define what success looks like here?
Jola: In the work that I’m doing, this is the question that I’ve been getting from every single interview that I’ve gone to. Because I’ve been receiving this question from like everybody, I’ve decided I was going to write a paper on it. So I’m working on a paper on this to identify what are the models of success. The first thing is that I’m not sure because there’s always a trade-off, right? What exactly do we mean by success? Success for whom, and success in what context? If you’re thinking about success, as people moving from one point (whether it’s lack of safety because of flooding, because of hurricane, whatever), and you move people to another relatively safe area, then you’re successful if that’s what we want to think about success. That’s a techno-managerial success.
But if success has to do with equity in the ways in which we planned those retreats or we planned those relocation (whose voices are centered in the decision-making?); where we have guidelines before we even try to start moving people; where those guidelines are co-developed by the national or the local governments and city planners and other practitioners and the local people that’ll be affected; where first of all we come together, we’ll sit at the table and we plan, “Yeah, this is a place that has been facing a lot of climate change impact,” whether it’s wildfire in California or whatever. And we sit together and say, “We acknowledged this as a problem. We need a guideline,” and we co-design those guidelines, and then we’ll also co-implement them.
In some cases like in Manila, in this case, this was exactly what happened with the community. They worked with people; they worked with governments to co-design guidelines for relocation. This was in Iloilo, in the Philippines. It’s not like the major city that people know Manila, but it’s another city that is also relatively popular. They co-designed a relocation plan. Another thing that also occurred in that case was when they were going to build the houses that people needed, they also built the houses with the NGOs that helped. There were several NGOs that were doing all kinds of relocation, so I’ll focus on NGO A. The NGO A, for instance, worked with the people and they decided this, “I want the housing to be to be three-story,” two, to whatever, you know? And so they created that house and then they started relocating people once the housing was completed. There were other NGOs that didn’t have as much resources as NGO A, and so the housing that was developed or built was not as sturdy and there was not a lot of support from the community, so that didn’t end well.
In this paper that we’re developing, we’ve collected about around 150 case studies across the world globally, to look at what are the different models that we’ve seen of success. In my mind, there were five things that I saw in this work that I’m doing:
One is the techno-managerial model.
There is also what I call the repairative model, where you just buy people out or just give them a house and you’re off, as a government.
There is another model, which is a restorative model where your focus is on the land. We just want to restore the land; we want to make it a safe area. If you’re successful at restoring the land to recreational area that everybody can benefit, you think you’re successful but the restoration does not necessarily mean that it is equitable.
So we have another model which is called the reformative model. And the reformative model is the one I was talking about in the Iloilo case in Philippines, where the guidelines were co-developed by the people and the NGO and the government, and then they implemented it together. There were also results that people’s lives after the relocation was much more better than what it was before the relocation. Essentially, it was what you would call a success story. But even though it is a successful story, I still call it a reformative model because it doesn’t literally address the root cause of some of the challenges that led to the relocation in the first place.
There is a final model that I’m been looking at, I’m seeing. There is not too many of them, but at least one is here in the US which I will call a transformative model, where that model of success actually sought not only to address the impact of climate change as an issue (which it definitely was; in that case study it’s in Washington here), but it involved indigenous people where the goal was also to use the relocation as a way to address historical injustices that the community had faced, and also to provide new opportunities for these communities and to help them envision their city or their new place in the way they want it to be. There was a master plan that was created before the relocation even started, and this was co-created with the community. The community literally had all of the ideas of what they felt were addressed, both the current challenges they face in terms of impacts of climate change (in this case, potential sea level rise and flooding), and also the historical marginality they faced over time. That model for me was an example of a transformative model.
So as we were thinking about the issues of success (as I would say), there are all of these different spectrum and different types of model. The work that I’m doing right now is to be able to help us identify where are these models, what did they get, who was at the table, who wasn’t at the table, and what happened after the relocation? Were people’s lives improved, where their health conditions improved, were their sense of social wellbeing and socio-cultural cohesion (and also the visions that they want for themselves but also for the next generation of their families) addressed in this relocation process?
As we know, when you relocate people from a particular area, they’re giving up a land and land is always a resource that is important. A land that is a resource you can pass from one generation to the other. So when you give up your land for whatever reason, you want to make sure you get another land elsewhere because that generational wealth that could have been created by that land is gone once they take it away from you. So I tell people, “Buyout is not necessarily always the solution. You have to think about what you’re giving up for what.” While safety is important for people, we also need to look at who has been moved; who has been encouraged to move? If you’re living in like this plush area in Florida (for instance) or in parts of California, those lands are essentially very expensive. If you’ve been bought out by the government and those lands (for whatever reason, I hope not) were being given to property developers in the future, then you’ve forgone your own generational wealth that could have been created there. Those are inequity issues, right? We must not move people away from areas that are relatively exposed to sea level rise and put other people there. That must not happen. For whatever reason, we must not let that happen. Otherwise, we are reinforcing an historical injustice that we know had always happened where indigenous people — people of color — they have forcefully (in most cases) relocated from places and then moved to areas that are less economically viable, less socially viable. We know that redline was an issue obviously here in the US, where people were moved to zones that didn’t really matter — that were heavily polluted. So centering the issue of equity and looking at what equity means to different people and allowing those people to come in conversation with the practitioners and scientist (all of the folks working on retreat) and centering the voice of the marginalized groups in this case (and most of the time it’s people of color). Most of the time it’s indigenous people; it’s low income groups. And oftentimes we forget women as well.
Gender is an important issue when we’re thinking about relocation. Whose house has been bought off, and who will get the resources when we give people new homes, right? There were instances in Manila, for instance, where people got new homes, but some of those homes went to men rather than to women. These are things we want to begin to think about when we’re thinking about who relocates and was able to also negotiate the real terms that would be favorable to them when they relocate.
Ramesh: So Jola, the examples of successful planned relocations in response to climate change that you’ve highlighted have been all within a single country, and I’m sure it is still a huge challenge to build a relocation plan that is fair and equitable that includes as many stakeholders voices as possible. Are there success stories of these planned relocations that crossed international borders?
Jola: All of these success stories that we’ve seen so far, all of these models quite frankly were within countries. But there is one. I don’t know if I’ll call it successful yet; I need to go to the books and look at it. It will be the one in Fiji. So the interesting thing in this case that the government of Kiribati actually purchased about a twenty kilometer expanse land in Fiji for around eight million each to relocate these people because of sea level rise in case the country gets inundated. The issue that I was thinking about when I read about this was: let’s say a few people decide to relocate from Kiribati to Fiji. Now, the question becomes, “What identity do they take up?” What about the social cultural dynamics that you may encounter when you move people. Even within states, right? You move people from the southern part of the US and you move them to West Coast here; there are all these tensions. Even from California! People went from California to Portland and like, “This is how Californians do,” or, “This is what Portland people do. We don’t salt our roads, we don’t do this. We don’t talk that way,” whatever. You have all of this issue, even just in the general population.
So when you think about populations like small Island nations, they have different sets of cultures in how they do things. Some of them are fisherman, all kinds of things that are peculiar to Kiribati that may not necessarily be the way people in Fiji lead their lives. So when you relocate people from Kiribati (let’s assume, god forbid, their country do go underwater and you had to relocate a whole lot of people from Kiribati to Fiji), the challenge is that you’re likely to come up with this tension between different cultures; the challenges is with resources as well — like they have this twenty kilometers of expensive land. That is a confined area. Would they be allowed to move around just like every Fijian? Also would they be allowed to take up or would they be willing (if they do want to) to take up the Fijian identity or nationality, or would they want to remain Kiribatians within Fiji? There are all of these issues that makes the conversation around success. An interesting thing, until it happens I think it was still the how to define what success will mean in the case of international relocation — particularly for a large group of people. It’s different when you’re talking about a few individuals relocating and therefore being settled well in a new country. But if it’s a particular peculiar group (like the people in Kiribati, a small Island group), they have a culture, right? It’s more like in some cases like the way you define indigenous people and indigenous cultures — same thing with Kiribatians. They had their own peculiar culture and fun stuff (all of those good things). [laughs] Then when you move a lot of them into this new place (which is also a small island state, right? Fiji is also small), there will be a lot of challenges. Until that happens, it will be difficult to say what success will be.
Jacquelyn: What does this process look like for people living in these communities? I imagine a city that’s dealing with chronic flooding, and maybe there’s just not enough time to think or plan — just an urgent need to deal with the crisis as it occurs — and I wonder if that can lead to reactionary responses. Do these communities even have access to the information that they need to plan successful re-settlements? And what kinds of data do they need on the ground?
Jola: I’m going to answer this question as I am a political ecologist, and I typically question things. So when you say, “How does data inform decision-making on all of these multiple levels?”, the question that I would ask your audience in this case is, “What is data?”. When you thinking about climate data, the data that the individuals (people who are exposed to climatic risks) use in making their decision, obviously it’s different from what we, as scientists, might call data.
I grew up in a place that got repeatedly flooded in Nigeria, in Lagos, the place was called Ijeshatedo. We were living in this ground floor, and I just knew all of my childhood we got flooded: my bed, my beddings, my books. Even right now, I don’t have pictures of my parents. I don’t have pictures of me when I was one or two years old, two or three, or even five or ten years old — just because all of those things were washed away in multiple floods. As people were not scientists (I wasn’t a scientist — obviously I was a kid and my parents were not scientists), but we saw the water every now and then, and for us we needed to make a decision; we needed to move. At the time the type of managed retreats planned relocation was not popular; even climate change was not like a popular thing that we were aware of. We just knew we got flooded and we knew we had to just move. We eventually had the resources to do so and moved to a relatively safer area.What area never really got flooded except when all of Lagos gets flooded.
So when you’re thinking about what helps people (everyday people) make the decision, they see the water. They see the drought. They see the wildfire. And oftentimes, if you look at the psychology of humans, we want to either fight or fly, right, when you encounter a disaster or you encounter a threat, most of the cases that I have seen people do want to leave. It’s just that oftentimes they don’t have the resources to do so. In my case, we were fortunate that at some point my parents had the money were able to move to another location, but not everybody had this resource to make those decisions to relocate from a place that is obviously threatening to their wellbeing — threatening to the wellbeing of their children and to the future of their children as well.
When we’re thinking about the data for local governments and national governments or other levels of government that might be involved in this relocation, it’s a different sort of issue, right? They want to see how many times — in what places that this happening and where, and of course in some cases (as you and I know), people get NSF funding to go study this and to go put all of this information together. But ultimately what makes people (in my opinion) make those decisions, it’s not just about the data. It’s not like we don’t have data. I think we have a lot of data that has definitely reinforced the impact of climate change and where they’re happening and maybe why, as well. But the data we don’t fully have maybe would be who or why people move, or why people do not want to move?
Those are data that I think needs to be collected, but just an anecdotally (in my opinion) there are reasons why even when people get repeatedly flooded areas where they may not want to move (one of which might be the lack of resources), others might also be the fear of the unknown. If you have to move from a place where you grew up — your family, your friends, everybody’s there — and you have to move to a place that you essentially haven’t moved before, it can be very threatening to a lot of people who have not encountered those reasons to move. There’s always this idea and people’s mind that we can always mitigate. “We can build a stronger levee. We can build new dikes. We could come up with all kinds of infrastructure to help us adapt.” Sometimes we do, but with climate change we’re realizing that some of those levies are failing, and they’re failing repeatedly. And so, brand new location for some communities will be what they will have to confront with. I think the data we would therefore need is how do we help people to understand that moving may not be a bad idea, and that they may be able to still have a better life in the new locations. If we are able to show people examples of relocations that were successful and where they are and how it was done, then these might help people to decide to participate in these planned relocation efforts that will happen (whether we want, it will happen), but it will happen with the consent of people rather than be grudgingly accepting the buyouts or being begrudgingly forced to relocate.
In some parts of the world (I would say in Australia, for example or some parts of New Zealand), some of those relocations are not reactive. They are proactive in the sense that they are thinking about report from IPCC and also the other scientific data that has come out locally in New Zealand or Australia and therefore people are willing to relocate based on those information. It’s just that the majority of retreats that we’re seeing or planned relocations, most of them are simultaneously reactive and proactive where after a particular major storm (usually it has to be a mega storm where people call it focusing events), when that happens, people try to move before the next one. So there is that, okay, we know that there is the science (that is the anticipatory) and the reaction, we know that the next storm will happen; let’s do it before the next one. We’ve seen it in the papers that we’re collecting. We’re seeing that there is a lot of relocation that has both elements (reactive and proactive) and there are some that essentially are just reactive; and there are a few that are anticipatory (that means proactive). But those anticipatory ones are not a lot. The ones that were the bulk of the work that I have seen in this paper that we’re exploring is mostly a combination of anticipatory and reactionary locations.
Ramesh: Jola, in your personal story you said you and your family moved because there were repeated flooding events. Was there a certain flood event or a certain number of floods that cemented your family’s decision to move?
Jola: It wasn’t one event; it was cumulative. We just got tired of it. We got flooded every year. In Nigeria (I was in Lagos) we have two seasons: rainy season and dry season. That’s it. And so every rainy season we got flooded; that was just it. You’re like, “Okay, it’s gonna be June and we were hoping that the rain would not be too much this year,” but the point is that every other year it got worse. At the time we didn’t know about climate change. We knew the area was the coastal area. It was a swampland that was now industrialized, built up. When you look at the buildings from outside, you think, “These houses, they’re not bad,” but then in the rainy season you don’t want to go there; they’re horrible. I was young at the time, but I guess in my parents’ minds maybe they were hoping the next year the rain would not be bad. But then it was. That might be as a result of the change in climatic conditions that we didn’t know at the time (not many people knew about climate change), but we knew that it just got worse and worse every year. So it wasn’t one big flood. Every flood for us was a big flood.
I think what led to the relocation was the fact that we had the resources at some point. My aunt who was also living in the same area, she went abroad. She was working in England; she had some money. She sent it back home and she was like, “Okay, you guys have to use this money to get a new place.” Then my mom also moved away entirely from that neighborhood and she moved to a different neighborhood that got less flooded Basically our ability to move was because at some point the money was available to do so. I would say we would have done so earlier if we had the resources. It wasn’t about the amount of flood; it was about when do we have this money to be able to do this. When the resources became available, it was no brainer. We had to do it.
Jacquelyn: Jola, I’m wondering: what are the cultural implications of planned retreat — not only for the people leaving but also for the communities they leave behind, or even for the receiving communities? What advice might you have for people on all sides of these resettlements?
Jola: I honestly think the receiving communities are the winners in this case. Many times they think of themselves as people losing something because some other people are joining them. But I say, “No, you’re actually gaining.” You’re gaining new wealth in form of social capital. You’re gaining new wealth in form of human capital. You’re getting new labor. You’re gaining new wealth of knowledge — brains and innovation that would come with that. Markets, businesses that will come with that. I think, in my opinion, the countries (or in this case, even the communities) that are shrinking, they are the ones that are losing. Losing because . . . and then we’re going back to the cultural issue that you mentioned. I remembered when we were living in this area that I said I grew up, I knew my neighbors, we were friends, I had all of this connection, and people would just knock on your door and you play and eat your stuff. Initially when we moved to the new place, I felt disconnected. I didn’t have a lot of friends, my school was far away because my school was still in the other area that got flooded, so I still had to walk miles and miles to get to school.
That disconnection happens. Those relationships get severed, they get broken up. So those set of cultures that you’ve developed that are like your fallback to (especially when you have mental health issues, when you are struggling financially in some cases, when you’re struggling socially or emotionally), these are things that you fall back on. But in a new place, you don’t have those or you haven’t developed them. They will be developed over time, it may take like three years or more. You will eventually have them, but those things at the beginning feels broken and severed, and you’re fearful. You’re worried. But when you move to this new location, of course, the people you’re meeting are also very worried about you. They don’t know where you are. They don’t know what you bring. Sometimes people even think that they’re criminals and usually they’re not; we just need to give ourselves time as humans and treat each other with humanity and think of ourselves that, “What if it was me? What if I was the person relocated because of these climatic challenges? Would I want people to treat me unfairly or would I want to be treated as a neighbor, as a friend, as a family?”, putting ourselves in the shoes of people who have gone through multiple trauma because of climate change impacts, and then thinking and reminding us of that even the relocation is another form of trauma for them. It’s not something most people want to do. I didn’t really want to leave where I grew up, but then we had to. So thinking about that as a second trauma, and then thinking that if you then receiving community do not open your hands to these people, it’s going to be a third trauma for them. There are all of these three layers of trauma that people may go through in the course of adapting to the impacts of climate change.
And therefore I really want to tell people we need to be open-minded. We need to think of a shared humanity and we’d need to think about climate change as a shared challenge. Addressing this challenge, adapting to this challenge will take everybody coming together, working together and being loving on each other — really supporting each other. That’s how we can get through this.
Ramesh: So as someone who studies planned relocations and climate migrations, what advice would you give to someone who is trying to think about these decisions for their own well being? What should they be thinking about when making this decision?
Jola: I would say to people, there is something they call perspective taking. Perspective taking requires people to look at things in multiple dimensions. That way they’re able to situate their own challenges (their own fears, their own worries) appropriately. It’s not that they will minimize those fears or challenges, but they are able to situate it.
When you have the opportunity to relocate or to even think about it before it happens, you’re already better off. You’re already better off meaning that you’re not dead because of flood because people do die in floods, right? People do die as a result of hurricane. They die in fire. You are alive, so that’s something to celebrate. And the other thing I would then tell people is that the fact that you have the opportunity to also then move (I don’t know, I cannot guarantee whether where you’ve been moving will be ultimately safe) but that you still can do it still puts you in another category of people who are privileged as well. Seeing that opportunity for relocation as a privilege that you do have . . . I would also encourage people to negotiate when you had the opportunity to negotiate what would work for your family, what would work through what you want for your life before you move.
And then I’ll tell people don’t be fearful, right? We are facing multiple challenges. It is a period of crisis in our world but we must meet these challenges with a sense of defiance — with a sense of courage — because that’s what this period requires. It requires us to be courageous, requires us to be very visionary in terms of what we are able to do. It requires us to realize that as humans we’ve often overcome multiple challenges going back hundreds of years. While these challenges that we’re facing right now is daunting, if we work together as communities (as people would share to humanity, people who shares respect for one another), we can overcome the struggles together.
I tell people, “Don’t be fearful,” just be open-minded and be willing to work with the communities that you’re planning to go to. Accept them as you hope that they will accept you.
One of the key things I want people to be mindful of when you’re making their decision on is also the think about your children and the next generation. What can we do now that might help delight of the next generations to be better, that might help them to leave a relatively stable world; an environment that is free from pollution, that is free from high emissions, that allows for good health and wellbeing of people; and certainly policies and certainly changing our structures to allow for better education, better life conditions for people; all of the good things that everybody wants, those basic things.
Let’s find a way to work together to make them happen, and let’s make them happen in a way that we’re mindful of the next generation.
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