“Our level of ambition toward climate adaptation is woefully inadequate.”

That assessment was just one part of a lively discussion with Dr. AR Siders, a professor at University of Delaware specializing in climate migration and climate adaptation issues, during a conversation with news organizations in the LMA Covering Climate Collaborative. 

Siders began by stressing the importance of using the terminology related to climate migration accurately, noting that “climate refugee” is a very specific term with legal implications, and is almost never the right term. Another misstep in climate migration reporting, Siders noted, was to suggest that people are “forced” from their homes; for example, through government buyout programs. She said the essence of these programs is choice — people must voluntarily accept buyout offers.

Climate migration is not new! That was the second key point Siders shared. She noted examples from across decades and centuries of past “migrations” caused by extreme weather events. 

She recommended reporters avoid treating climate migration as “new,” and look back at these past migration events, report on both the lessons learned and, in her view, the lack of learning from experience. 

For reporting on current and future migration threats, Siders noted that large scale migrations exacerbated by climate change will be spread over very long time horizons; therefore, significant disruption is unlikely in any particular area at any particular time. She also noted that climate remains a “third-order” reason to move, behind considerations like job and family. 

More relevant to local reporters, said Siders, is the issue of climate disaster relocation — sudden events that force people out of some communities, and into nearby communities, for a few years. These extreme events disrupt both the community experiencing the outmigration and the community that received the influx. Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans is a signature example of climate disaster relocation. 

For reporters looking to dig deeper into migration and adaptation issues, Siders encouraged a deeper look at the interconnection between the push for “development,” the effort to protect/preserve property values, and how those priorities compete with and often come at the expense of effective mitigation and adaptation policies. 

“What is the goal of a mitigation or adaptation policy?” is a question she encouraged reporters to ask local policymakers. Too often, she said, policymaking prioritizes the preservation of current property values, which defers and delays accounting for future climate impacts. 

“Most U.S. adaptation policy is about ‘resisting’,” Siders noted, citing the frequent strategy of building walls, barriers, raising homes and the like. 

She pointed out that the number of annual “billion-dollar disasters” has soared in recent decades. 

Too much of the burden of recovery has been left to the Federal Emergency Management Agency, said Siders, and far too often rebuilding occurs directly in areas of risk, leading to second- and third-disaster recovery in some cases. 

She urged reporters to press policymakers for more forward-looking responses, like a proposal that would use the “insurance deductible” model to provide incentives and rewards to states that were proactive in climate adaptation policies. 

Siders called on policymakers to show greater imagination, for example coming up with solutions that allow communities to “get value from land now, that is usable now … while understanding that some of that land will not be usable in the future,” and having a plan to prepare for that. 

She also said many states lack adequately funded state-level emergency management offices, relying almost entirely on the federal government — another area where local journalists could follow up to report on their state’s level of climate adaptation readiness.