When Benetick Kabua Maddison moved to the United States from the Marshall Islands at the age of six, it was partly because of the effects of global warming: floods had damaged his low Pacific island home, and his family wanted better opportunities abroad.
Two decades later, after settling in Springdale in northwest Arkansas — a haven for Marshallese immigrants — Maddison is once again part of a community rocked by increasingly severe savage weather as that the planet is warming up.
The city of about 87,000 people is dealing with extreme cold and heat, flash flooding and fallout from a rare and devastating tornado that swept through the area in March.
“The community was unprepared when the tornado hit,” the 27-year-old said, recalling families struggling to cope with the devastation of collapsed roofs and shattered car windows. “Climate change is something that won’t happen tomorrow, next week, next month – it’s already here,” he says.
From California to New York, parts of the United States experiencing an influx of climate migrants have begun to look to newly displaced people to learn how to become resilient to more frequent disasters fueled by rising temperatures.
Maddison is executive director of the Marshallese educational initiative (MEI), a non-profit organization that seeks to improve emergency response and communication on climate-related issues, among other cultural awareness efforts.
“Part of what we have done at the MEI is to educate the community, especially young people, about climate change. This is already impacting our country, our islands,” Maddison says.
More than a billion people worldwide are at risk of being uprooted by 2050 due to natural disasters, which could fuel more migration to developed countries
Such lessons are being taught across the country, including in Buffalo, New York, where Asian and African immigrants have brought vertical farming techniques that can better withstand high levels of heat and other climate-related impacts. climate.
“It’s really our immigrants and refugees who are able to grow an incredible amount of food in a 10 x 10 plot,” says Rahwa Ghirmatzion, executive director of Push Buffalo, a social justice advocacy group.
“They are able to harvest three to four times per season and do so using a lot of repurposed materials; it’s a sight to behold,” says Ghirmatzion, who was born in Eritrea in 1976 and whose family fled during the civil war.
While many cite political instability as a reason for leaving their home country, Ghirmatzion says climatic stresses like heat waves and drought – and the ripple effects on food supply and civil strife – are another major factor.
Further south along the U.S. Gulf Coast, the nonprofit Resilience Force has an immigrant-led workforce that responds to extreme weather and disasters by rebuilding homes. for people displaced inside the country by hurricanes or floods. Many of its workers are migrants from Honduras who fled after the impacts of climate change such as worsening hurricanes and drought also hurt the local economy, says the group’s founder, Saket Soni, from New Delhi. .
He says their efforts have even succeeded in changing attitudes among skeptical immigrant residents in the southern United States.
This has led to “unlikely” connections between Honduran migrants and people who may have never spoken to an immigrant before, or seen them as a threat or “undesirable in the community”, adds Soni.
These organizations operate amid growing pressures exacerbating climate-related displacement that will only worsen in the future as global temperatures rise.
More than a billion people worldwide are at risk of being uprooted by 2050 due to natural disasters, which could fuel more migration to developed countries such as the United States, found a 2020 report of the Institute for Economics and Peace.
The Climate Justice Collaborative, an initiative of the National Partnership for New Americans (NPNA), is among the groups ensuring that immigrant voices are at the forefront of preparations to mitigate this kind of upheaval. Member organizations work to ensure, for example, that early warning systems are disseminated in multiple languages and that there is a ‘just transition’ for immigrant workers in the fossil fuel industry, says Stephanie Teatro of the NPNA.
“We have seen what is possible when governments and communities see migration as a solution and we can do extraordinary things to welcome people,” she says, referring to goodwill towards people fleeing war. from Russia to Ukraine.
Meanwhile, on the West Coast, California activists are urging governments to increase funding for so-called “resilience centers,” which could help prepare localities for climate-related impacts through immigrant-led initiatives. .
The approach strengthens respected local organizations, such as a church or community center, to help neighborhoods prepare for, respond to and cope with crises – hurricanes, heat waves, pandemics or unrest. to put back.
The state recently allocated at least $100 million to resilience centers, with strong input from immigrants from Asia and climate justice groups like the Asian Pacific Environmental Network (Apen). This funding could support the development of 10 to 20 projects across the state to provide, for example, new solar panels and battery storage or emergency response services, developers say.
It’s vital for immigrant and refugee communities “to feel like these places are safe places…that they’re the visionaries behind the design of what these facilities look like,” says Amee Raval , director of policy and research at Apen. “And that it is for them.”
In Arkansas, Marshallese immigrants have settled for decades due to a variety of factors, including climate change, but gaps still exist in terms of health equity, housing options and warning systems. emergency during weather-related disasters.
For his part, Maddison plans to eventually return to the Marshall Islands — after finishing college — to pursue a political career in a place where he thinks officials are less likely to look away from climate change preparedness.
In the meantime, he intends to continue to raise awareness of the issues affecting his community in Arkansas – whether on a “local or national – even international” level.
“Because these problems happen to us,” he added. —Thomson Reuters Foundation