The Role of Science and Assessment in Addressing Climate-Forced Displacement in the U.S:
Supporting a Just and Equitable Response
The climate crisis is ravaging communities nationwide. Disproportionate impacts fall on Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) communities which are losing their homes and livelihoods. These impacts exacerbate histories of unethical treatment and ongoing inadequate and inequitable public policy responses.
Given this context and recognizing that a diversity of knowledge systems must be brought to bear to develop innovative adaptation, the Rising Voices Center for Indigenous and Earth Sciences was formed nearly a decade ago. Rising Voices facilitates intercultural, relational-based approaches for understanding and adapting to extreme weather and climate events, climate variability, and climate change.
In 2020, Rising Voices convened a series of online, thematic dialogues over several months. One of these, led by the Rising Voices Community Relocation and Site Expansion Working Group, was motivated by the growing reality of climate-forced displacement to develop recommendations for immediate policy actions. The group worked with the Legal Justice Coalition—co-facilitated by the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee and the Lowlander Center—and recently issued policy guidelines to advance community-led solutions to climate-forced displacement in the United States, building on the wisdom, knowledge, and expertise shared over the past decade.
The process of developing the recommendations was part of a broader commitment to collaborative coalition-building and weaving together a variety of knowledge sources to reach informed and actionable recommendations. The point being of course, that in order for adaptation solutions to be actionable in a given community, they have to be readily adoptable within the cultural, economic, and environmental context of that community. Often, large-scale climate policy shifts have been informed by scientific assessment that relies on ‘peer-reviewed’ information. In the colonial context, the type of knowledge and expertise typically used to influence policy reflects the idea of what has been formally ‘quality-assured’, as narrowly defined by Western science. This concept of ‘peer-review’ does not take into account expertise spanning generations, based on long-standing – over centuries and millennia – observations, lived experiences, and adaptations, the ‘peer-review’ that comes from your family, ancestors, and future generations. With the third US National Climate Assessment, for example, while technical input was sought from a variety of sources, including Indigenous knowledge-holders, it required specific guidance for the non-Indigenous authors on how to use that knowledge to support or develop conclusions in a policy-relevant scientific assessment, and in a way that honored and recognized the value and expertise of local and Indigenous knowledges.
So, this effort is explicitly recognizing and integrating a wider variety of knowledges in a way that credibly and collectively yields recommendations. At the heart of these policy recommendations is the need to center the agency, leadership, and self-determination of frontline communities when addressing climate-forced displacement. The policy recommendations for both congressional and executive action include the need to:
Increase resources for frontline communities;
Grant funds directly to these communities;
Make FEMA more equitable;
Establish a just response to support adaptation-in-place and/or relocation; and
Create a human rights governance framework
As detailed in the full policy brief, while the need for dedicated funding for adaptation in place as well as relocation is clear, it is critical that the approach go beyond financial support for material upgrades to homes and infrastructure. It needs to consider the disruptions to culture, sense of autonomy, and community values that can occur when people must move in a piecemeal manner.
The process to inform relocation calls for a better partnership between science and governance grounded in the principles of justice, a partnership that centers the agency, leadership, sovereignty, rights, and self-determination of Indigenous leadership and frontline communities in addressing climate-forced displacement. That partnership should jointly explore pathways that put relocation in the context of a larger set of adaptation measures to better understand the tradeoffs across these options over time.
When powerful forces such as Western scientific institutions determine what they consider to be “‘the best solution for the greatest number of people,’ they run the risk of unintentionally continuing and expanding the historical oppression of rural, minoritized, Indigenous, and undocumented communities” (Reframing the language of retreat). The “best solution” in this context—much like cost-benefit analysis—is generally based on economic measures that discount the non-material components, histories, practices, and lifeways that enable communities to function and thrive. Instead, the entire process must account for the true costs to a community, including the loss of sacred and burial sites, cultural values, health and social wellbeing, and other intrinsic values—which frontline communities, and in particular Indigenous Peoples, experience when separated from their ancestral lands and subsistence way of life. This is why it is even more imperative that Tribes and community representatives are at the center of disaster planning at the state and federal levels.
Our coalition of community leaders, legal advocates, researchers, and allies call on the Science for Climate Action Network’s organizations and members to play a direct role in creating a justice-and-equity-centered process for community-driven climate relocation. To do this, you can support the governance framework with culturally appropriate and community-informed and -engaged science and information. Your support in community-led resettlement necessitates:
“including the communities’ voices and input in all decisions. It is imperative that the Tribal and other community leaders and organizers who have spent a generation and more working on such efforts are the ones guiding their process to hold community’s rights and sovereignty intact. Tribes and Indigenous Peoples, regardless of federal recognition status, have a unique position at the decision-making table as collective rights-holders. The ‘table’ is actually theirs, with outside scientists, agencies, and policymakers being the invitees, through established relationships following protocol of the people and place with respect, reciprocity, and responsibility” (Addressing the challenges of climate-driven community-led resettlement and site expansion: Knowledge sharing, storytelling, healing, and collaborative coalition building).
Please refer to the initiative webpage to read the recommended policy solutions and to sign on to urge our elected officials in the Biden Administration and in U.S. Congress to center equity, justice, and human rights in addressing climate-forced displacements in the United States. We look forward to working with you to #SupportClimateJustice.
 Rising Voices is co-administered by the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR), which is managed by the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research (UCAR), and the Livelihoods Knowledge Exchange Network (LiKEN), in partnership with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Office for Coastal Management (NOAA-OCM) and Haskell Indian Nations University, among many more partners.
 To achieve a response to climate-forced displacement in the United States that centers justice and equity, the UUSC and Rising Voices Working Group coalition offers a summary and topline recommendations, and a one-pager, along with the full policy brief.