Guest Columnists

Climate refugees in our midst

Volunteers with boats return after looking for victims stuck in Tropical Storm Harvey floodwaters in western Houston, Texas August 30, 2017. (Rick Wilking/REUTERS)
Volunteers with boats return after looking for victims stuck in Tropical Storm Harvey floodwaters in western Houston, Texas August 30, 2017. (Rick Wilking/REUTERS)

In the devastating aftermath of Hurricane Harvey, many people now are talking openly about the impact of climate change on severe weather events. While climate change may not, by itself, cause hurricanes, the World Meteorological Organization, has made this sobering assessment: “Climate change means that when we do have an event like Harvey, the rainfall amounts are likely to be higher than they would have been otherwise.”

The report went on to add that, in some locations, Harvey’s 50 inches of rainfall have caused the National Weather Service to create a whole new category of rainfall.

The United States has been insulated, by sheer distance, from Asia, Europe and Africa. Refugees seeking sanctuary from flood, famine or war have had limited access to the U.S. because of long distances, so we haven’t faced the full financial burden for resettlement. But what happens when those seeking safe haven are our own citizens? Sadly, because of climate change’s intensification of Hurricane Harvey, we are about to find out.

Yes, America has its first climate refugees, and their resettlement is going to be very, very costly.

According to Federal Emergency Management Agency chief Brock Long, 450,000 people, victims of Hurricane Harvey, are expected to file disaster claims, while 30,000 have homes that have suffered irreparable damage. Where will these families go? How will we, as a nation, bear the estimated $190 billion cost of rebuilding, repairs, and resettlement?

And while Harvey has created America’s first large-scale experience of climate refugees, these are not the first of our citizens to suffer the effects of climate change.

One village in Louisiana is sinking under the ocean as sea levels rise. The cost of resettlement of its inhabitants: $48 million.


In Alaska, where temperatures are rising twice as fast as the rest of the planet, sea ice is melting. Without this protective buffer, villages are beginning to wash away into the sea. The government has identified 31 such endangered Alaskan villages. Shaktoolik, one of the most vulnerable of these, would cost up to $200 million to relocate.

What will be the cost when Atlantic and Pacific coastal populations need to be relocated? Where will these Americans go? How will we find housing and jobs for all of them? And how will we address the heartbreaking loss, devastation and displacement?

“This (Harvey) is the kind of thing we are going to get more of,” said Princeton University climate scientist Michael Oppenheimer. “This storm should serve as warning.”

We no longer can sit by arguing about the details of climate change. No country, not even a prosperous one such as ours, can continue to absorb this kind of devastation and financial loss. The time to act is now.

Call the president and your senators and representatives. Tell them to stop the partisan bickering and enact legislation that will speed our transition from fossil fuels to cheap, climate-friendly energy sources.

But right now, the victims of Hurricane Harvey need our help. Please consider donating whatever you can to a trusted charity for their needs.

• Mary Tarnoff chairs the Legislative Action Committee for the Southeast Iowa Sierra Club and is a retired science educator



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