The World’s First “Climate Refugees”

As one of the lucky winners of the US Department of Housing and Urban Development’s (HUD) $1 billion National Disaster Resilience Competition, some 60 Native American residents of the Isle de Jean Charles in the Mississippi Delta will shortly be relocated to a place safe from the relentlessly rising seas that have supposedly destroyed most of their island. This will make the island’s residents the US’s – and arguably the world’s – first certified, card-carrying climate change refugees. This post addresses the questions of a) whether they really are victims of climate change and b) whether we might now see a rapid increase in their numbers. The conclusions are a) no they aren’t and b) no we won’t – moving people is far too expensive.

“Climate change is real and we must think more seriously about how to plan for it,” said HUD Secretary Julián Castro. “The grants we award today, and the other sources of capital these grants will leverage, will make communities stronger, more resilient and better prepared for future natural disasters such as floods and wildfires.”

Clearly HUD, like the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), has caught the Obama climate change fever, or more likely was instructed to catch it.

But what’s going on with HUD at Isle de Jean Charles? First we will establish that it is indeed disappearing:

Figure 1: Part of the Isle de Jean Charles; land lost between 1963 and 2008. Image credit Washington Post

Next we will look at a couple of tide gauge records. Figure 2 plots annual averages for the longest record in the Mississippi Delta – Eugene Island, about 50 miles west of Jean Charles (data from PSMSL). The trend line gives a gradient of almost nine mm/year since the 1940s, a very high rate of sea level rise (the global average is less than 2mm/year). At this rate sea level on Jean Charles will rise about thirty inches by 2100.

Figure 2: Eugene Island tide gauge record.

Figure 3 now superimposes the annual average of five stations covering the Florida coastline to the east (Pensacola, St, Petersburg, Key West, Miami and Mayport). Either sea levels in the Mississippi Delta have risen by 500 mm more than sea levels around Florida over the last eighty years and have somehow maintained themselves at a level 500 mm higher than sea levels around Florida, or the Isle de Jean Charles is sinking. The second possibility seems more likely. In fact we can calculate that with an average eustatic global SLR rise of 180mm/century Florida is sinking at about 0.5 mm/year relative to mean global sea level but that the Mississippi Delta is sinking at more than 7mm/year.

Figure 3: Eugene Island tide gauge record compared with the average of four Florida records.

So what has been causing the Isle de Jean Charles to disappear? HUD has few doubts about it. It was climate change:

The funding to help the Isle de Jean Charles Indians is part of a larger move by the White House to help increase climate resilience nationally. The HUD and Rockefeller Foundation’s National Disaster Resilience Competition is offering close to $1 billion in disaster recovery funds to 13 states and local communities that have suffered from climate change-exacerbated natural disasters.


According to a HUD official “this is the first time the department has ever funded a community’s relocation due specifically to climate change.”

Those familiar with local conditions, however, offer quite different reasons for the island’s disappearance:

Beginning in the 1920’s, large-scale river-control structures, such as levees and water diversion systems, were built to ease flooding along the banks of the Mississippi. These structures led to a dramatic decrease in the sedimentary load, which formed the basis of new coastal land and regeneration of existing marshes. River water from flooding also helped to reduce marsh salinity and provide nutrients, and its loss has resulted in the breakup and dispersal of large amounts of nutrient-starved marshlands. Canal dredging has had one of the most dramatic effects on wetland growth and regeneration, especially around Isle de Jean Charles. These canals bring in saltwater from the Gulf of Mexico, which kills the surrounding freshwater marsh. Once a canal is dredged and saltwater is introduced, the canal will continue to expand, converting marshland into open water. The widening canals allow more water to rush in during hurricanes and storms, which pull more land away as the tide rushes back out, resulting in increased land loss.

We can also add sediment compaction. From Tornqvist et al (2008):

We find that millennial-scale compaction rates primarily associated with peat can reach 5mm per year. Locally and on timescales of decades to centuries, rates are likely to be 10mm or more per year. We conclude that compaction of Holocene strata contributes significantly to the exceptionally high rates of relative sea-level rise and coastal wetland loss in the Mississippi Delta …

In short, Isle de Jean Charles’ disappearance is in part human-induced and in part natural but has nothing to do with climate change. The most man-made sea level rise we can squeeze out of Figures 2 and 3 is maybe four inches since 1950, and clearly that wasn’t what washed away most of the island. Nor is there any evidence that human CO2 emissions caused any of the rise. There’s also no evidence for an  acceleration in either tide gauge record (if sea levels were directly related to atmospheric CO2 an acceleration after 1950 should be visible in Figure 3). Both records in fact give the impression that sea level rise and subsidence in the area has been going on at about the same rate for a long time.

So here we have HUD implementing a billion-dollar program to improve the resilience to climate change of at least one area that isn’t presently threatened by climate change. And since there are no climate-induced sea-level-rise emergencies on the global threat board at the moment – and won’t be for some time – we can assume that the other areas HUD has patronized aren’t presently threatened by climate change either. It certainly seems that not much useful infrastructure, such as sea walls and drainage canals, is likely to emerge from the program. According to HUD the $1 billion will in fact be used primarily to fund state and local climate change programs that don’t necessarily involve constructing anything. Here’s a summary of the HUD awards showing where the funding is going. It reads like the Green Policymaker’s Full Employment Act:

  • California: $70,359,459 to pilot its Community and Watershed Resilience Program in Tuolumne County.
  • Connecticut: $54,277,359 to support a pilot program in Bridgeport that is part of the State’s broader Connecticut Connections Coastal Resilience Plan.
  • Iowa: $96,887,177 to support the “holistic” Iowa Watershed Approach.
  • Louisiana: $92,629,249 to support its Louisiana Strategic Adaptations for Future Environments Program.
  • Minot, ND: $74,340,770 to support (the city’s) integrated approach to addressing climate change.
  • New Jersey: $15,000,000 to support the creation of a Regional Resiliency Planning Grant Program.
  • New Orleans: $141,260,569 to enable the establishment of its first-ever Resilience District in the Gentilly neighborhood.
  • New York City: $176,000,000 to support development of the Lower Manhattan Project and Connect Project which will construct a coastal protection system.
  • New York State: $35,800,000 to support public housing resiliency pilots throughout the State.
  • Shelby County, TN: $60,445,163 to support the Greenprint for Resilience Project.
  • Springfield, MA: $17,056,880 to support the creation of an Urban Watershed Resilience Zone.
  • Tennessee: $44,502,374 to support the Rural by Nature Initiative.
  • Virginia: $120,549,000 funding to support the Ohio Creek Watershed and the Coastal Resilience Laboratory and Accelerator Center.

More complete details are here.

And how much difference will the fact that someone has finally found 60 “real” climate refugees make? Probably none. Eleven years ago UNEP found 70 of them, but no one took much notice:

Pacific Island Villagers First Climate Change “Refugees”

A small community living in the Pacific island chain of Vanuatu has become one of, if not the first, to be formally moved out of harms way as a result of climate change. The villagers have been relocated higher into the interior of Tegua, one of the chains’ northern most provinces, after their coastal homes were repeatedly swamped by storm surges and aggressive waves linked with climate change.

The storm surges and “aggressive waves” of course had nothing to do with climate change. The problem was again land subsidence, this time caused by tectonic activity. According to Ballu et al (2011):

“vertical motions of the Torres Islands themselves dominate the apparent sea-level rise observed on the islands. From 1997 to 2009, the absolute sea level rose by 150 + /-20 mm. But GPS data reveal that the islands subsided by 117 + /-30 mm over the same time period.”)

Moreover, the “refugees” were moved only a couple of hundred meters up the hill.

But now that the road to relocation is being pioneered officially by HUD might we expect floods of climate refugees to be relocated in the short-term? No, because we don’t have the money. The relocation cost for the Jean Charles islanders works out to $800,000 per person and estimates for relocating the Eskimo villagers perched on rapidly-eroding barrier islands in Alaska (where they never should have been to begin with) come out to between $200,000 and $1 million per person. If we assume $500,000 per person and multiply it by the number of climate refugees the US is predicted to have by 2100 (quite possibly more than 13 million according to Hauer et al) we get a total relocation cost of upwards of $6.5 trillion. That much spare cash just isn’t in Uncle Sam’s piggy bank and probably never will be.

Finally the rest of the world. With some estimates predicting more than 600 million climate refugees by 2100 – well, obviously relocation is not a viable financial option there either. (I checked to see how much relocation money the UN presently has in the bank. According to Climate Funds Update combined mitigation and adaptation funding is a little over $7 billion – enough to relocate only 14,000 people. So if you live close to the sea and believe all the things people tell you about global warming you’d better get your name in quick.)

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21 Responses to The World’s First “Climate Refugees”

  1. Proposal for a future post: gather all the first-climate-refugees claims and million-climate-refugees forecasts. Can be a bit depressing though, like the guy at compiling all the scares. Last I read he’d given up because he felt a bit like a garbageman.

    Isn’t it funny that the claims invariably involve mini-hamlets of something like 50 people, while the forecasts always talk about millions and millions?

  2. Willem Post says:


    “moving people is far too expensive.”

    Yup, like Turkey getting $6.6 billion to baby sit refugees from the EU kitty, so they do not roil shaky Europe

    • I think the contributions to the UNFCCC funds may tell the story. The $7 billion for adaptation and mitigation contributed by the 200 or so nations who have ratified the UNFCCC is a piddling amount of money. Could it be that governments are looking at the same numbers I am and hoping that the problem will go away?

      And while on the subject it might interest readers to know who’s contributed the most to the UNFCC’s adaptation and mitigation funds. (CERS represents the money that is allocated to the funds from sales of UNFCCC Certified Emission Reduction certificates.)

      At last we have found an area in which the UK really does lead the world in the fight against climate change. 😉

    • You want expensive? Try this:

      Australia’s $55m plan to resettle refugees from Nauru to Cambodia appears finished, with just four refugees moved to the south-east Asian country at a cost of more than $13m per refugee. Four refugees – an Iranian couple, Iranian man and a Rohingyan man from Burma – were transferred from Nauru to the Cambodian capital Phnom Penh in June. Since then, they’ve lived in relative luxury in an Australian-funded villa, and will remain there indefinitely. However, Cambodia expects it will take no more from Australia’s resettlement plan. “We don’t have any plans to import more refugees from Nauru to Cambodia,” interior ministry spokesman Khieu Sopheak told the Cambodia Daily. “I think the less we receive the better.”

  3. John F. Hultquist says:

    In addition to structures along the rivers for flood control and other things mentioned there was a carving up of the delta region as oil and gas drilling took place. You can see this by using Google Earth, here:
    29.430651, -91.085303
    There were documentaries and magazine articles about these issues in the 1970s, and likely before that. The canals allowed salt water and storm surges farther inland and the higher salt content killed or weakened plants.

    The sediments in this region are ~50,000 feet deep. Lots of natural compaction happening.

  4. john Pitman says:

    Simple: isostasy versus eustasty.

  5. Pingback: The World’s First Climate Refugees | SMIPP Ltd.

  6. Thinkstoomuch says:

    Good article Roger. I am going to respectful decline to comment. Other to say than I agree.


  7. Andrew Hurst says:

    Having read the story of the Isle de Jean Charles in the Mississippi Delta in the NY Times a few days ago I am a little surprised to see this being referred to as a consequence of climate change. Have we forgotten that the this area of the Mississippi has been gradually subsiding for 1000’s yrs, naturally receiving less sediment input throughout that period and more recently (~100 yrs), having been starved of sediment input because of anthromorphic modification of delta drainage (shipping channels). This is a record of relative sea-level rise caused largely by natural processes but accentuated recently by human activities. The inundation would have occurred independent of climate change.

    • Think of it as rewriting history to further political goals. We can’t use climate change as a basis for relocating people unless the sea level rise that mandated the relocation was caused by climate change. All government pronouncements on the subject must now therefore state that climate change was the cause, and to hell with the facts.

  8. Owen says:

    Climate change is the biggest misdiagnosis of a problem in history, possibly.

    Perhaps its more convenient for the white house to blame a bogeyman, rather than its own policies down through the years.

  9. mbe11 says:

    When Trump is elected this BS will come to a halt. This is pure political theatre by the administration which does not care about reality only that queen Hilary get elected so the party can continue for another 8 years.

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