Volume 93, No. 4, Summer 2021
By Robert R.M. Verchick [PDF]

According to best estimates, millions of U.S. residents are in danger of being displaced by sea level rise and other climate disruptions before the end of the century. Several coastal communities around the country have either considered or are considering relocation on account of sea level rise and erosion; a few are actively planning their exit strategy.

How will the nation decide which households or communities get priority? Who will manage and pay for their resettlement? What steps should be taken now? As the Biden administration labors to tame the climate crisis, the challenge of domestic migration looms large. The United States remains woefully unprepared to help domestic migrants, lacking leadership, geographic and policy assessments, and legal authorities built to scale. This Essay recommends four steps that would set the federal government on track for tackling the migration challenge: (1) establish a specific and accountable leadership structure, (2) assess the geophysical and socioeconomic vulnerabilities of communities at risk, (3) inventory and assess the existing policy frameworks and laws that can be put into service to help them, and (4) enact federal legislation that organizes a unified response, fills the gaps in existing authority, and provides perpetual and reliable revenue streams to address the issue at scale.

The discussion unfolds against the contrasting stories of two tribal communities struggling to relocate from sinking lands—members of the Biloxi‑Chitimacha‑Choctaw in southern Louisiana and the Yup’ik village of Newtok, Alaska.