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Climate change is a major cause of migration, even in the US

Church World Service migration conference focuses on climate change’s role in migration

by Rich Copley | Presbyterian News Service

Shirell Parfait-Dardar is chief of the Grand Caillou/Dulac Band of Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw Tribe in coastal Louisiana. (Photo via Cultural Survival Quarterly)

LEXINGTON, Kentucky — Given recent headlines related to migration, it is easy to presume the major factors prompting people to move are war, violence and poverty.

But climate change is a driver of movement as well as global warming raises sea levels, creates stronger storms, impacts agricultural patterns and manifests itself in other ways. That is why climate was one of four tracks available to attendees at this past weekend’s Together We Welcome Conference, presented by Church World Service with the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) as a major sponsor.

Sessions included climate impacts around the world, policies to protect people impacted by climate change, how to address needs created by climate change, and a session addressing the fact that climate change is forcing migration right here in the United States.

“At one time, our community didn’t flood randomly, but now it does,” said Chief Shirell Parfait-Dardar, Traditional Tribal Chief of Grand Caillou/Dulac Band, Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw in Southern Louisiana. “That’s the signal that things are changing, and now we have to face resettlement.”

Parfait-Dardar and other participants in the Saturday afternoon session frequently wiped away tears discussing the situations faced by people in places such as Louisiana and Alaska where impacts of climate change are making the homes of long-established communities uninhabitable.

Robin Bronen, executive director of the Alaska Institute for Justice, said she is “heartbroken and angry” dealing with the situations facing people, particularly Indigenous Americans, as the Arctic warms three times as fast as lower latitudes. In February it now rains more than it snows, she said, and the loss of permafrost, a permanently frozen subsurface layer of soil, is causing land collapse. She also said the loss of Arctic Sea ice is impacting coastal communities, as it leads to stronger storms in the fall.

Bronen and others lamented that despite the federal government being aware of the situations faced by many communities, it has been slow to act. She noted the Newtok village, which was told in 2005 it needed to be relocated by 2012 to avoid humanitarian disaster. Ten years later, she said only one-third of the community has been moved, and there is currently no timeline, funding, or plan to move the remaining community of more than 300 people.

People assume that FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency), HUD (Housing and Urban Development) or other agencies of the federal government can take care of these issues, but they are not there,” the Rev. Dr. Kristina J. Peterson, Co-founder of the Lowlander Center in Gray, Louisiana, said. “There is nothing for creative problem-solving in these.”

Peterson said that advocates need to challenge presumptions about the ways these situations are addressed and center the desires and wisdom of the communities in their relocation.  She said two things in particular are necessary at the federal level: a cabinet-level position for climate resettlement and adaptation and a dedicated land trust for climate resettlement.

“What we know is the water is rising, and it’s staying for days,” Parfait-Dardar said. “So we need safe ground for people to stay. We have been trying to address those challenges, and it has been the support of faith groups, grassroots organizations, nonprofits, groups like UUSC (Unitarian Universalist Service Committee), Lowlander center, First Peoples Conservation Council, that have come together to address these challenges with traditional ecological knowledge and just a whole lot of big hearts.”

The loss of Arctic ice is having a devastating impact on communities in Alaska and creating a need for them to migrate to higher ground. (Photo for illustration by Markus Kammermann via Pixabay)

An opening session Friday night focused on the need for people of faith to be part of addressing the impact of climate on migration.

Rev. Dr. David Vásquez-Levy, President of the Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley, California, pointed out that most of the stories in the Bible — and in fact in most faith traditions —are about people on the move, about people coming into new lands and new communities. Stories we are seeing in the news today are not so different from biblical stories of migration, he said.

Now is “a time when we as people of faith can be attentive to what else is being revealed in this time,” Vásquez -Levy said. “What is the Holy Spirit after? What is God up to in the people who are on the move calling for Black lives to matter, calling for our lives to be respected for the environment to be transformed? What are we seeing in young people taking to the streets, in people crossing borders against the law because they know that they deserve better than what they have been given and that they deserve a place at the table in the way that the woman said to Jesus himself when Jesus said to the woman that … ‘the food is not to be given to the dogs but only to the children.’”

Vasquez-Levy acknowledged the story of Jesus and the Syrophoenician woman in Mark 7:26-28 can be problematic for many, but “if we can pass that, what we recognize is that people on the move around the world, like that woman, are saying that they too deserve at least the crumbs of the global table we have set for ourselves.”

Dr. Emily Askew, Associate Professor of Theology at Lexington Theological Seminary, said that supporting people on the move requires Christians to shed the individualism of secular Western society and remember that we depend on one another, God and nature.

“Interdependence is part of the very nature of God and part of the value we need to hold onto as well — not just between people, but between ourselves and the natural world,” Askew said.

Both Askew and Vásquez-Levy said we can learn lessons of resilience and hope from people on the move, rather than judging them or viewing them as a threat. After all, as people in both sessions said, recent news is showing how close many of us could be to being on the move.

“We are actually learning what needs to happen, and so adopting a posture of learning and humility and co-creation rather than imposition I think is an important way to start,” Askew said.

And, as Saturday’s session emphasized, climate migration is happening in the United States and people are in desperate need of support.

“When my people noticed that there was an issue in our community, and we began losing lands, and fisheries started changing, and things were declining, we started trying to figure out ways to adapt and heal,” Parfait-Dardar said. “We were heard by faith communities who wanted to do their part, to work with us and address the challenges.

“But it’s going to take a lot more than that. You know, many of the barriers that stand in the way of my people is that we’re not federally acknowledged. And it’s not that we don’t respect that there needs to be processes and systems. But this current process and system is highly unjust and very genocidal. And that’s just one barrier. You know, for our community to be able to heal, and not just our tribe, but everyone, including our planet, it’s just so much bigger than that. That’s what I ask of all of you. It’s going to take a lot of love to achieve what we’re trying to achieve.”

Read about the opening address to the 300 people who attended the Together We Welcome conference here.

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