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Climate Refugees and Emergency Management


The Paris Climate Talks wrapped up this week with an agreement between the attending 196 nations to set and achieve ambitious greenhouse gas emission reductions in order to keep the climate of the earth from rising more than two degrees centigrade. The ability of the nations to reach this accord is in itself remarkable, given the history of failure in prior efforts over the last few decades.

The Agreement itself is of course a highly complex document that will be analyzed extensively over the next months and years. Many of the features of the agreement will have significant impact for emergency managers--even those working at the local level.

One example is that the Agreement gives official international legal status to the term 'Climate Migrants'. Although we may think that this is an international phenomenon, the US has a long history of dealing with climate migrants. My own parents were climate migrants, having fled Nebraska during the Dust Bowl of the 1930s and resettling in Oregon. When New Orleans residents fled Hurricane Katrina--those that did not return became climate migrants. It can be argued that Mexican immigrants to the US who came looking for economic opportunity were to some degree influenced by climate and water depletion in their homeland.

We--mostly Europe, but to some degree the US--are now dealing with those families leaving the Middle East in search of their own economic opportunity and freedom from war. The conflict they are fleeing has been characterized in many ways--most commonly as religion vs. religion--but most likely the root cause of the conflict that they're fleeing is climate change-driven lack of water. And make no mistake, depletion of groundwater is a problem that's not going to get better. It's not a problem that's going to get worse before it gets better--it's just not going to get better.

So how does this far-away international agreement that recognizes climate refugees impact us as Emergency Managers? Several ways, actually--here are a couple of them.

First, efforts to reject Middle Eastern refugees by the xenophobes among us is going to fail. Rejecting Syrian refugees is already a violation of US law; now it's a violation of international law as well. As much and as long as the hysterical fight goes on won't make any difference--the outcome is now determined.

Second, we are on the verge of seeing unprecedented climate migration within our own borders. Recent rainfall and snowpack in California will provide a welcome respite, but only a temporary one. Most years will NOT be El Niño years, and the fact that sea level rise is pushing brackish water into the agricultural heartland of the state combined with the Colorado River drainage being overtaxed will still prevail. People will soon be leaving California. Same with Miami. Some of these people will be wanting to relocate outside of the US, and now have legal status to do so.

So for emergency managers, it's important to note that your served public is going to change. There will be fewer familiar-looking faces, and more faces with the haunted look of displaced people. Different languages may become the norm. This migration will not bring prosperity--it will be more likely that the newcomers will be MUCH worse off than current residents. That will impact the type of services required, and maybe even the tax base you depend on to run your operation.

So hang on. Find those with the skills to view the future accurately and to plan strategically and have them help you. It will be well worth the effort. And above all, make new friends with your new neighbors. That's the one greatest affirmation of our humanity. Don't miss the opportunity.

Randall Cuthbert Dr. Randall Cuthbert is a retired APUS Professor of Emergency & Disaster Management. He has also worked as a Red Cross Shelter Supervisor, and spent a 20-year career as a US Air Force Civil Engineer Officer. His blogging interests include: protecting & enhancing the EDM profession in the areas of integrity, honorable public service, and social justice; education regarding the 'big picture' role of EDM in our society; educating our professionals and neighbors with regard to the greatest threat to our civilization--climate change; and in general terms, creating a better world for our children and grandchildren.