Government watchdog recommends creation of federal program to help Americans migrate from climate change-stricken areas

August 6, 2020

A government watchdog said the federal government should create a pilot program to help communities that will need to relocate because of climate change effects.

The U.S. Government Accountability Office found rising sea levels due to climate change would make relocation unavoidable in some coastal areas, according to most projections.

With that threat in mind, the GAO said establishing a pilot program to help plan the relocation, known as climate migration, could enhance the nation’s climate resilience and reduce federal fiscal exposure.

In a report published in July and released a month later, the GAO concluded that no federal agency has the authority to lead federal assistance for climate migration, should it be required.

When communities in Alaska and Louisiana began losing land due to climate-induced erosion, relocation took decades.

Newtok, Alaska, a native Yup’ik village with 400 residents, discovered in 1983 that erosion would endanger structures within 25 to 30 years. Village leaders chose a new area to relocate affected residents in 1994, but were unable to make progress on the move until 2015, due to the fact that slow-moving disasters, like erosion, do not qualify for federal disaster relief funds.

The GAO concluded that the difficulty of accessing funds to invest in climate migration and lack of clarity in leadership for the response slowed efforts to complete the move.

Some residents still have not had help to relocate and will not be able to complete the move before coastal erosion and flooding make the village uninhabitable, the GAO said.

A native community in Louisiana faces similar challenges.

Isle de Jean Charles, a narrow bayou island about 80 miles southwest of New Orleans, has lost about 98% of its land since 1955.

The population of Biloxi-Chitimach-Choctaw residents has fallen from 400 to 85 over the decades. Sea level rise and coastal erosion will make relocation inevitable for the remaining residents. The rapid land loss has led to the loss of sacred places, cultural sites and traditional food sources for the tribes there.

After two decades of trying to get funding for climate migration, island leaders received more than $48 million to resettle, but strict federal funding requirements that do not consider climate change effects have limited progress, and by June 2020 residents had not completed the move.

The GAO found that establishing a pilot program focused on climate migration could solve federal leadership and funding issues.

Government watchdog recommends creation of federal program to help Americans migrate from climate change-stricken areas