GUEST ARTICLE — Creating Resilient Receiving Communities: How Will We Relocate the Climate-Displaced within North America?

This Guest Article for REVITALIZATION was written by Ira Feldman.

As climate change continues unabated, the discourse shifts toward the well-being of climate migrants – those affected populations that will likely have to relocate to more livable regions. While the media tends to examine the plight of international refugees, we have a home-grown challenge relating to climate-induced displacement as well.

American communities will be increasingly battered by floods, hurricanes, droughts, wildfires, extreme temperatures, and other adverse events. Many U.S. communities have already been affected – mostly on a low-level or nuisance scale – but the science tells us to expect displacement within the U.S. at orders of magnitude greater than what has occurred.

For these communities, “managed retreat” or planned relocation is likely to figure heavily in an adaptation program. Certainly, managed retreat is an extreme adaptation option and, at present, resistance to mass relocation is strong. People prefer to stay put. But as the impact of climate change on vulnerable locations in the U.S. escalates, we must begin to focus on identifying and preparing the “receiving communities” where displaced Americans will end up.

Thus far, discussions of managed retreat center on the climate-impacted communities, but now we must understand the in-migration to receiving communities as the flip side or back end of the managed retreat process.

Where will U.S. residents go?

There is no existing game plan or strategy to guide the inevitable coming wave of relocation – so far, the decision to move has been taken largely at an individual or household level resulting in a trickle of movement to perceived “climate havens.”

When the trickle becomes a flood, and Americans in groups of hundreds, thousands, or even tens of thousands must uproot themselves when their communities become ill-suited for living and thriving, the projected receiving communities must be prepared. The time to begin serious planning is now.

Adaptation Leader launched its Receiving Community Initiative in 2022 to anticipate the inevitable magnitudes greater internal displacement within the US. An interdisciplinary working group of over 20 interested participants has, over the past year, identified core conceptual themes and potentially-relevant implementation approaches for receiving communities. These preliminary results were presented this year at the Columbia University conference on Managed Retreat and in a feature article in the Environmental Law Institute’s Environmental Forum.

The current phase of the initiative is a “call to action” and also includes external outreach to build a network of collaborating organizations and initiatives to support our process. Several such organizations and initiatives, such as PLACE Initiative and GUD (as discussed below) have joined in the last few months; more will follow as we proceed and secure funding for the project. The members of the interdisciplinary working group are now drafting a series of short articles and policy briefs to draw more attention to the issue. These articles will be placed in publications geared to climate, planning, community and policy concerns. The outcome of this phase will be the co-creation of a draft document – a “Research & Policy Agenda for Receiving Communities in the US.”

PLACE Initiative is a nonprofit volunteer organization comprised of individuals from a wide range of backgrounds and professions, most falling under the banner of urbanism, with expertise in land use policy, codes and zoning and urban design and planning. Participants in PLACE have a deep understanding of how the built environment relates to climate and equity issues.

Urbanism offers a unique and useful lens through which to approach this issue. It provides an understanding of many components and systems that govern and contribute to successful places. These include not only the physical but also the environmental, social, and economic dimensions.

The organization launched the Climate Receiver Places Project, producing tools to help identify potential receiver places, enumerate and explain important principles, and help receiver places assess current conditions and progress made. This initiative has identified geographical locations within the U.S. that may be suitable as receiving communities, as illustrated in the map in figure 1 below.

The need for a policy & governance framework

Addressing logistical and material concerns for receiving communities (sufficiency and use of natural resources, housing, transportation, etc.) is only part of the problem. Some communities have set up task forces to plan by governmental department function (see figure at left). We discuss many of these considerations elsewhere.

Here, in this piece, we assert that answering these questions will require much more – it will be contingent on a robust policy and governance framework that integrates a diverse set of stakeholders with varying and sometimes divergent interests.

As a starting point for addressing policy and governance for receiving communities, it will be helpful to move towards consensus on “typologies,” i.e., the various types of prospective receiving communities, since it is clear that one size will not fit all. A few initial efforts to date point us in the right direction.

For example, Anna Marandi and Kelly Leilani Main (2021) have identified three distinct locales that will make up climate migration “pathways”: vulnerable cities, “recipient cities” (receiving communities which accept refugees on an emergency or ad hoc basis), and “climate destinations” (cities that planned and prepared for, and even welcomed, the influx of displaced populations.

Hannah Teicher and Patrick Marchman (2023) foresee the need to reconcile various facets—such as social inclusion vs. economic development, and serving the interests of both newcomers and settled residents — with a long-term, multi-scalar cohesive plan.

The challenge of creating a policy and governance framework for receiving communities in the U.S. is one of multi-level governance at the local, regional, county, state, and national levels. Pinpointed action of local and state governments that understand the particular demands of their jurisdictions, empowered by the broad authority, national perspective, and vast resources of the federal government, will be required to implement different mechanisms at different levels of scale.

We are grappling with an issue unprecedented in size and scope with very few analogous examples to learn from. Indeed, mass relocations in 20th century America were in many ways disastrous, in large part because there was no coordination, regulation, or oversight by affected stakeholders (e.g., the Dust Bowl migrations of the 1930s, the Japanese-American internment during WWII, and the post-WWII migration of Southern blacks.). In the climate-impacted “new normal” in the decades to come, a successful strategy for domestic displacement will depend on engagement from all levels of government, the private sector, and civil society. The only suitable answer to this complexity is a multi-stakeholder governance approach that unifies a panoply of actors.

Options for implementation approaches

Fortunately, we have a range of existing mechanisms to deploy. One is so-called “local innovation zones,” in which residents, state actors, private businesses, and community groups share ideas and commit to collectively applying climate best practices to the curated needs of their own community. This may be achieved by reducing waste, encouraging the use of renewable energy, investing in green infrastructure, research, job training, and protecting the natural environment and existing green zones from further development. These measures are not novel; what makes them innovative is that they are done under the umbrella of an initiative to prepare receiving communities for climate catastrophe: ensuring the continued well-being of current residents while making space for new arrivals, and rethinking the notion of community along ecological lines.

Sustainable Innovation Zones are one such mechanism where real world experience to date can inform receiving communities. Global Urban Development (GUD), founded in 2001, is a nonprofit international policy organization and professional network that collaborates with the UN, World Bank, and other international organizations to help achieve the Sustainable Development Goals, Paris Climate Agreement, and New Urban Agenda by 2030. GUD has pioneered Sustainable Innovation Zones as a tool. Such local economic development zones can provide incentives for the revitalization of specified areas that can serve as receiving communities.

Current GUD initiatives include the transit-oriented sustainable development of NoMa in Washington, DC, recognized by the OECD as an international best practice for local economic and employment development; the economic strategy of Sarasota County, Florida, which strives to become a center of innovation in energy and sustainability, funded by the U.S. Department of Energy; to the World Bank-funded Leapfrog Economic Strategy for Brazil’s State of Rio Grande do Sul to become the most sustainable and innovative place in Latin America by 2030. For additional detail on GUD’s approach to sustainable innovation zones, see, Marc Weiss, “GUD’s Sustainable Innovation Zones Global Initiative,” GUD working paper, March 2023.

At another level of scale, city-to-city arrangements may represent another strategy for receiving communities, and this approach can give new meaning to more familiar “sister city” relationships. Specifically, residents in locales adversely impacted by climate change and experiencing a population exodus are partnered with receiving communities that might absorb those who leave the affected areas. Similarly, as we consider other levels of scale for relocation, the use of regional compacts and/or interstate agreements might further bolster such targeted destination frameworks.

Moving up to the cross-border level of scale, given that climate change is indifferent to international borders, a bi-national treaty between the U.S. and Canada may also be prudent, since it is quite likely that U.S. populations will head northward and overflow into Canada as limited receiving community or “climate haven” options are identified in the U.S. For now, we do not address the relationship between the U.S. and Mexico since the displacement of U.S. residents (the subject of this article) is unlikely to flow across the southern border, but we recognize the already real immigration and humanitarian dimensions for those seeking to head northward from Latin America and the cumulative impact on the capacity of receiving communities in the U.S.

Novel questions of law and policy

We may need a new regulatory framework to manage mass internal migration. Novel questions of law and policy will also enter into the picture, posing challenges for drafting new legislation and for judicial determinations applying existing law in the changed circumstances of the new normal. These climate-induced changes will require flexibility and creativity in law and policy.

Some difficult questions of first impression may arise. Does the possibility exist that the state might compel Americans to travel to one place or another (or forbid them from doing so), impinging on the constitutional freedom of movement? Is government-mandated relocation in the cards? Will the government declare non-habitation zones where climate has made ordinary living untenable? Will the Fifth Amendment’s takings clause, which stipulates that “private property [shall not] be taken for public use, without just compensation,” come into play if a worsening situation requires that the government seize property to accommodate displaced people?

In part, we might understand the growth of receiving communities, as a kind of massive public works project, akin to the federal interstate highway system, which would not have been possible without invoking the eminent domain clause to allow the government to seize massive swaths of land coast to coast.

Fortunately, federalism grants us a governing architecture to work with in developing our strategy for domestic displacement, given that it separates powers and government action between federal, state, and local entities.

Any approach must be both top-down and bottom-up, ensuring that receiving communities maintain agency and are not merely asked to execute orders that may or may not be suited to their particular needs.

A governance framework therefore must be coherent and cohesive enough to cover vast terrain (in the literal as well as figurative sense) while remaining flexible and customizable to particular sets of circumstances (avoiding a hierarchical, cookie-cutter approach). An ad hoc, decentralized/localized approach to legal and regulatory issues will not work; the problem is too complex and geographically diffuse.

Role of the private sector

Consequently, the problem also cannot be addressed by the state alone. Multi-level, multi-scalar governance means exactly that: the collaboration of various stakeholders, each possessing particular interests and limitations, all unified by a common goal of preparing receiving communities. We cannot ignore the role of the private sector in our game plan for relocation because we are not simply moving people, we are also moving their livelihoods. Industry policy and economic development expertise becomes critical to generating workable solutions in receiving communities.

Entire industries may need to be geographically reconstituted. As a hypothetical example for discussion purposes, suppose California’s Central Valley, where drought threatens the vital agriculture industry, is no longer suited for growing cash crops, and the need arises to find a receiving community for that industry. That challenge would involve all aspects of the sector — its labor supply, capital investments, and expertise and institutional know-how, etc., where the right meteorological conditions and adequate natural resources exist.

Of course, the Central Valley is not in imminent danger, but we might identify a number of “what if” scenarios that seem plausible. To avoid a frantic scramble when meteorological patterns become so extreme that people, and their livelihoods, can no longer thrive, these scenarios require long-range planning. Hence, we need incentives to attract people in communities already highly vulnerable to climate risks but have not yet been forcibly removed from a shock or stress.

The use of public-private partnerships (PPPs) between various levels of government, civil society, private business, and affected stakeholders will also play an essential role. PPPs are a proven mechanism of multi-stakeholder governance that allows flexibility and creativity to engage with a complex, long-term problem. The practical and theoretical groundwork has already been laid, since PPPs are frequently used for large capital projects, allowing private and public actors to pool resources and expertise and apportion the risks involved.

Implementation by experimentation

As we move from theory to policy to implementation, launching small-scale pilot projects that serve as “templates” for larger receiving community projects will be key. We should anticipate a lengthy period of experimentation. One promising approach is looking at experiences with intentional communities and transition towns—particularly those with an ecological outlook or focus on sustainability, such as eco-villages—for models we can adopt at a larger scale. Eco-villages have been recognized as a bulwark of climate mitigation, but they will also prove invaluable as loci of adaptation, since residents of these communities have perfected the art of living together in a way that is both economically and ecologically sustainable.

An intentional community has been defined as five or more unrelated people deliberately and voluntarily coming together within a specific geographic location “to improve their lives and the broader society through conscious social design” and achieve economic, social, and cultural cooperation. These community-led initiatives (CLIs) serve as “miniature social laboratories,” showing us what is—and isn’t—possible in terms of community collaboration and living more sustainably.

Because CLIs “are locally appropriate, they result in more relevant and effective actions and more enduring outcomes.” Intentional communities collectively define “the rules of the game to enable a lifestyle that is more in line with ecological boundaries.” Their founders commit themselves to a common purpose, focusing on changing community rules and systems to make their shared pursuit more attainable. Different types of intentional communities exist in various locations worldwide, from Colombia to Spain and California to Thailand.

The Transition Town movement that began in the UK follows a similar ethos. In such transition towns, residents attempt to live more sustainably, wean themselves off dependence on fossil fuels, pursue means of economic self-sufficiency and local (versus globalized) consumption, … Eco-villages might also exercise a degree of political autonomy, setting up a “parallel” local government that exists alongside the formal oversight of the state.

Coordination & alignment

Neutral “boundary organizations,” such as Adaptation Leader, may play a key role as self-described “climate brokers” coordinating at various levels of scale, across regions, etc. on both the front end of managed retreat and the back end of receiving communities. As objective arbiters, such boundary organizations can serve as expert go-betweens to help craft policy and procedure and ensure they are carried out according to plan.

The climate adaptation field will need to structure the “rules of the game” for receiving communities. We will need processes and procedures that are realistic and equitable. We will need the metrics and tools to anticipate the many economic, social, and environmental challenges and opportunities that will be faced by both the displaced population and the receiving community.

Large-scale infrastructure projects that bolster the livability of receiving communities, or even constructing new communities from scratch, will be more effectively handled by a cooperative body of public and private stakeholders than the government or industry going it alone. The problem is simply too multifaceted, and affects too many entities, to be approached ad hoc.

The regulatory authority, mandate, and public funding of governments; the innovation, entrepreneurship, and resources of private industry; and the engagement of on-the-ground stakeholders in receiving communities can cross-pollinate to build a durable, equitable, and effective solution.

In conclusion, local, state, and national governments must recognize that an overarching strategy for climate adaptation, including managed retreat, will fail without support for the communities that will host the coming climate diaspora. It is not too early to recognize that the future of our nation’s well-being depends on it.

About the Author:

Ira Feldman is a visionary U.S.-based sustainability leader with an interdisciplinary skill set and a global reach. He is a ReCOLLEGE Senior Advisor, with more than 30 years of experience as an environmental attorney, management consultant, policymaker, regulator, standards developer, and political advisor. He is uniquely positioned to drive innovative climate adaptation and resilience solutions. He founded the not-for-profit Adaptation Leader in 2022 to raise climate adaptation literacy and address critical gaps in the regulatory response to climate change.

Ira has led various environmental and climate initiatives throughout his career. His work has explored the role of ESG factors in the financial sector, the implications of “soft law,” such as international voluntary standards, on businesses and governments, leveraging public-private partnerships for sustainable development and resilience, and the emergence of blockchain governance. His holistic, multi-stakeholder approach encompasses environmental regulatory and policy innovation, strategic environmental management, sustainable business practices, and corporate social responsibility to tackle complex climate change challenges.

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