As their island disappears, a tribe becomes the United States’s first climate change migrants

Isle De Jean Charles in 2007 (Karen Apricot)

Isle De Jean Charles in 2007 (Photo: Karen Apricot)

“The whole world is going to be affected by [climate] displaced people,” says environmental scientist Sandra Maina at TEDxSaintThomas. Researchers predict that over 13 million people in the U.S. alone will be displaced by climate change by 2100 — and Maina wants us to learn from the first of them — the Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw tribe in Louisiana.

Maina traveled to Isle De Jean Charles, Louisiana in 2013 to talk with the Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw tribe about the looming threat of climate change.

“What I found is that most of the residents [had] a very strong bond with their ancestral lands and [were] very aware of their disappearing coastline,” Maina says, “but only 14% of residents actually had a plan to relocate.”

That changed relatively quickly, though. By 2015, Isle De Jean Charles had lost 98% of its land — and only a meager 320 acres remained. In 2016, the residents of Isle De Jean Charles became the first people to receive — as the New York Times puts it — “federal tax dollars to move an entire community struggling with the impacts of climate change.”

Isle De Jean Charles in 2007 (Photo: Karen Apricot)

Isle De Jean Charles in 2007 (Photo: Karen Apricot)

And though the Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw are the United States’s first climate change migrants, millions of other Americans are at risk of becoming the second (and third), and it is imperative that the U.S. addresses this, Maina says.

“Surely purchasing resettlement sites and rebuilding thousands of communities will be ineffective and unsustainable,” Maina says. “Already in our own backyard, we have communities that have been fighting and struggling with this issue of relocation, yet the U.S. has no agency dedicated to the issue of internal migration.”

Maina encourages all citizens — no matter their country — to educate themselves on climate change and contribute to climate-related action plans. “Climate change migration is complex because it requires the coordination and collaboration of [many] sectors — as well as collaboration with the vulnerable communities themselves … It’s going to take a village,” she says.

To learn more, watch her whole talk below:

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