Where do you go when your ancestral home is fast becoming uninhabitable?
That is the real life question facing the residents of Isle De Jean Charles, an island just off the coast of Louisiana and home to 60 Native Americans. The real life answer isn’t easy, but is already providing a glimpse into the difficulty global climate change poses to the world at large.
Since 1955, over 90 percent of the island’s land mass has been washed away by erosion caused by loggers and oil companies, flood control measures that have shored up once free flowing rivers that resupplied wetland sediments, and damage resulting from hurricanes. Many of the homes have been ravaged by an increasing incidence of floods. The intrusion of salt water into the soil has killed nearly all of the fruit trees on the island, and the farms that once dotted the landscape are no longer able to produce enough food to meet the needs of the people. The number of animals once trapped and hunted for food has dramatically decreased. The bridge connecting the island to the mainland floods frequently, blocking access to jobs, schools and much needed services like healthcare to the island’s inhabitants.
Rapid global climate change is in progress, whether deniers wish to admit it or not. It has given rise to a new class of people with a new designation: climate refugees.
In January, the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) announced $1 billion in grants that will be allocated to 13 states for the purpose of fighting the effects of climate change. The money will go to constructing stronger levees, dams and drainage systems. But the rising waters resulting from climate change have made Isle De Jean Charles a lost cause, and so $48 million has been set aside to relocate the people on the island. It is stipulated that all of the funds must be spent by 2022.
Moving that small number of people has proven to be a difficult task. There have been three previous resettlement efforts since 2000, and all have failed after becoming bogged down in political and logistical complications.
Many of the residents on the island don’t want to leave, citing the fact that this has been their home for generations. Parents and grandparents grew up on the land, and there is a cemetery that no one wants to abandon.
Hilton Chaisson raised his 10 sons on the island. He’s grandfather to 26 grandchildren and wants them to have the experience of living off the land. “I’ve lived my whole life here, and I’m going to die here,” he said. He admits that flooding has worsened, but says, “we always find a way.”
66 year-old Edison Dardar, a lifelong resident said, “Ain’t nobody I talk to that wants to leave. I don’t know who’s in charge of all of this.”
Others, like Violet Handon Parfait, who suffers from lupus and worries she could become sick and not be able to get to a doctor if the connecting bridge is flooded, are ready to leave.
Mistrust of the government, understandable due to past betrayals of Native Americans, runs deep. Disputes between the two tribes of Native Americans on the island have hindered attempts to unite behind a plan. Add to that the questions of where to go, who will be allowed to join them, what claim do they have to whatever is left behind, what kind of work will be available in the new location, and will their new neighbors welcome them?
The larger question looms. Mark Davis, director of the Tulane Institute on Water Resources Law and Policy said, “This is not just a simple matter of writing a check and moving happily to a place where they are embraced by their new neighbors. If you have a hard time moving dozens of people, it becomes impossible in any kind of organized or fair way to move thousands, or hundreds of thousands, or, if you look at the forecast for South Florida, maybe even millions.”
This is a microcosm of what we face on a worldwide scale. The United Nations University Institute for Environment and Human Security and the International Organization for Migration estimate that by 2050 between 50 million and 200 million people, predominantly subsistence farmers and fisherman, will be displaced by climate change.
Marion McFadden, who is overseeing the program at HUD said of the Isle de Jean Charles resettlement effort, “We see this as setting a precedent for the rest of the country, the rest of the world.”
Time will tell if the efforts will be enough to stem the tide of the disastrous effects of rapid global climate change.