Post-disaster displacement and Pope Francis’ call for action on climate change

Released on the cusp of World Refugee Day, Pope Francis’ much-anticipated encyclical draws attention to the costs of climate change for the poor, and reminds us that alongside the record numbers of people around the world uprooted by war, there are also countless more forced from their homes by disasters linked to the effects of climate change. The Pope’s reflections on the risks posed by forced migration, the sense of dignity that comes with having a home, the complexities of relocation processes, and the intertwining of “natural” and economic disasters resonated strongly with me, and what I have learned conducting research in recent years on the struggle to resolve displacement crises caused by natural disasters, which we’ll present at Brookings on June 24, 2015.

In 2014, in cooperation with the International Organization for Migration, I had the opportunity to participate in a major study on the displacement crisis that erupted in Port-au-Prince as a result of Haiti’s January 2010 earthquake. While the earthquake itself was of course unrelated to climate change, efforts to resolve the displacement of more than 1.5 million Haitians were undoubtedly complicated by Haiti’s ongoing exposure to hurricanes, floods and landslides. Even when these events were not severe enough to make the international news, they could wipe away painstakingly rebuilt homes, and undercut survivors’ tenuous progress towards overcoming the massive losses sustained in the earthquake. In 2015, we continued our investigation of “durable solutions” to post-disaster displacement crises by exploring the case of Typhoon Haiyan, the strongest storm ever recorded at landfall. When Typhoon Haiyan (known locally as Yolanda) hit the Philippines in November 2013, it uprooted more than four million people, and severely damaged or destroyed more than 1.1 million homes. A year and a half later, while the recovery process is well underway, we found that less than 18% of families in heavily affected communities feel that life has returned to “normal.” As in Haiti, we found that exposure to displacement in this disaster context was closely connected to longstanding patterns of poverty and marginalization: poorer families were more likely to live in insecure areas, and in buildings that did not meet safe construction standards. At the same time, the experience of displacement further entrenched their impoverishment. The continued struggle in Haiti, the Philippines and other countries grappling with natural disasters to restore livelihoods, repair homes and deal with the continued threat of future disasters attests directly to the matter at the heart of Laudato Si’ – the human costs faced by poor people on the “front lines” of climate change.

Relationship between climate change and resolution of displacement crises

As a researcher concerned with the relationship between climate change and the resolution of displacement crises, I was particularly struck by the encyclical’s discussion of the tensions between our efforts to find specific, technological fixes to problems raised by climate change, and the broader challenge of achieving a holistic understanding of the dynamics surrounding this issue. The Pope writes, “The fragmentation of knowledge proves helpful for concrete applications, and yet it often leads to a loss of appreciation for the whole, for the relationship between things, and for the broader horizon…This very fact makes it hard to find adequate ways of solving the more complex problems of today’s world, particularly those regarding the environment and the poor; these problems cannot be dealt with from a single perspective or from a single set of interests.” In our studies, we found that for a range of actors, it was sometimes tempting to reduce the challenge of resolving post-disaster displacement to rebuilding homes or completing relocation processes, overlooking the complex consequences of displacement not only for adequate shelter, but also for a wider range of rights, from access to livelihoods to enjoyment of physical security in communities facing continued exposure to hazards. As socially-engaged researchers, our challenge in undertaking these studies was to understand the nuances of particular issues facing displacement-affected communities such as shelter and livelihoods, as well as their relationship to broader questions of policy and political economy given that, as the encyclical stresses, such problems “cannot be analyzed or explained in isolation.”

Achieving this kind of holistic appreciation of the complex interconnections that shape post-disaster contexts is very much a work in progress, but we found that this is impossible without hearing directly from displacement-affected community members who are struggling on a daily basis to overcome their past losses and create better circumstances for their families – another theme raised in the new encyclical. Laudato Si’ approaches this issue in theological terms, exhorting readers to “hear both the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor,” but it also employs terminology familiar to policymakers and practitioners involved in efforts to address displacement and urban development issues. For example, it emphasizes that in many contexts, it is preferable to work to develop informal urban communities or slums, “rather than razing or displacing them,” but that when relocations are necessary in order to address critical safety concerns, “adequate information needs to be given beforehand, with choices of decent housing offered, and the people directly involved must be part of the process.” In our work, we used a range of qualitative and quantitative tools to attempt to hear the perspectives of “the people directly involved” in these processes, and found that certainly in Haiti and the Philippines (and likely in most other post-disaster displacement situations), there is an incredibly long way to go to make sure that the perspectives of the poorest are heard and accounted for in these processes. In the Philippines, for instance, where relocation figures centrally in post-disaster recovery plans, only slightly more than fifty percent of the population in the heavily-affected areas that we surveyed feel that the government’s plans reflect their preferences and needs. Less than half had the chance to help shape the aid programs provided by international actors. When the purported “beneficiaries” of assistance efforts are excluded from their design and management, these initiatives are much less likely to meet community needs. Yet many of those we spoke with in the Philippines felt they couldn’t protest this exclusion, due to the perceived risk that troublemakers would have reduced access to help in the future.

While displacement associated with disasters and the effects of climate change is a growing challenge world-wide, research, policy and practice to support durable solutions for those forced from their homes is still at a relatively early stage. Beyond the technical lessons we learned in undertaking these projects in Haiti and the Philippines, the Vatican’s new encyclical reminds me of the central aim driving this work: to understand and address the challenges climate change poses for poor and marginalized communities (including those who have been or risk being displaced), and in Francis’ words, to confront the “widespread indifference to such suffering, which is even now taking place throughout our world.”