Research and data

Disaster strikes. Who returns home? Understanding the plight of climate refugees.


Hurricane Katrina, the most destructive hurricane to hit the United States, displaced more than one million people. Many of those people never returned home. In the 15 years since Hurricane Katrina, the frequency of displacement continues to grow. In 2019, 916,000 people were displaced in the United States due to natural disasters. This includes evacuations from Hurricane Dorian, wildfires, and floods. The United States has the ability to relocate people or return home after the disaster. By the end of 2019, only 37,000 people were still displaced. This is a luxury not found in most of the world.

There are currently 80 million forcibly displaced climate refugees worldwide, more than half are internally displaced (IDPs), and one-third are refugees. Displacement due to natural disasters far outnumbers displacement from conflict. It’s estimated that 25.3 million people are displaced a year due to disasters, and by 2050, there could be up to 1 billion climate migrants. To address the increased and compound burden of population displacement and climate change, President Biden released another climate-focused executive order. The “Executive Order on Rebuilding and Enhancing Programs to Resettle Refugees and Planning for the Impact of Climate Change on Migration” prioritizes expanding the United States Refugee Admissions Program (USRAP) and increasing transparency. Additionally, it requires a report on the impact of climate change on migration, including international security, legal protection, resettlement, and a call to respond appropriately and collaboratively.

Although any resources for climate refugees is a good thing, Biden’s plan is nowhere near enough. First, less than 0.25% of refugees are resettled every year. In 2020, this was just over 17,000 people. Therefore, expanding the capacity of USRAP will do little for the global burden of refugees and IDPs. Instead, 86% of the world’s refugees are hosted in developing countries. The majority of these countries are neighboring borders and face similar climate threats to the locations being fled. Therefore, a much greater emphasis has to be placed on supporting resiliency measures in regions at risk for climate displacement.

Second, forcibly displaced climate refugees are among the most vulnerable in the world. They are completely dependent on others for resources. This is also true for climate vulnerability. Climate displacement is not just about the increased frequency and scale of natural disasters. It’s also heat burdens, widespread drought and famine, water scarcity, decreased food nutrition, and the spread of vector-borne disease. Displaced populations have little ability to adapt. In camps, it’s common to live in tents with little protection from heat. Urban refugees also face challenges when accessing services or getting jobs. Frankly speaking, expanding USRAP will do nothing to help the vulnerabilities facing the lives of refugees and IDPs. It’s necessary to expand resources for refugee camps to better adapt and be resilient to threats from climate change. This includes research and innovation, as well as increased funding. In 2019, the United States contributed 34% of all humanitarian funding. The United States could set the precedent going forward by taking the initiative on resiliency measures in camp settings.

President Biden has received widespread praise for his executive order on climate migrants from those working in refugee resettlement. Under the Trump administration, USRAP was almost completely disintegrated. In comparison to the last four years, anything looks good. It’s important to analyze Biden’s refugee policies off current and future needs and not past practices. Granting refugees legal protection for climate displacement is an important step in the right direction. However, the majority of displaced climate refugees never cross an international border and therefore cannot claim refugee status. It’s imperative that climate-oriented programs also are initiated for IDPs. We must go beyond legal protection to support people on the ground.

Biden’s call to help climate refugees is an acknowledgment of the issue with an insufficient solution. I believe that population displacement and increased conflict is going to be the biggest challenge within the climate crises. It’s one that the world is completely unprepared to handle. Action is needed. Beyond providing direct help to climate migrants, developed countries need to accelerate decarbonization practices in order to reduce the effects of climate change on vulnerable populations. One billion climate migrants by 2050 is the estimate if nothing is changed. By acting with urgency now, we can prevent climate displacement in the future. As requested by the executive order, I hope that the report due will propel the administration and humanitarian organizations to plan for the future and prioritize the well-being of individuals. Will the Biden-Harris administration rise to the challenge?


Devin O’Donnell is an MPH candidate at Boston University School of Public Health, focusing on community health and human rights. She is interested in the intersection of climate change and health, more specifically, how community mobilization and cohesion are necessary for mitigation and adaptation efforts. Devin is working with the BUSPH Program on Climate and Health and the American Red Cross in these realms. In her free time, you can find Devin reliving her bakery days or exploring the nearby trails.

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