On October 17, 2019, Congresswoman Nydia M. Velázquez of New York’s 7th Congressional District in the U.S. House of Representatives introduced H.R. 4732, the United States’ first bill to address persons displaced by climate change. Titled “Climate Displaced Person’s Act of 2019,” the bill was created “to establish a Global Climate Change Resilience Strategy, to authorize the admission of climate-displaced persons, and for other purposes.” The bill draws attention to the forced displacement of persons whose homes have been rendered inhabitable by the environmental changes and climate-induced disruptions, such as natural disasters, drought, famine, and rising sea levels.
Velázquez’s legislation would create a humanitarian program separate from the U.S. refugee admissions program. A “refugee” is defined as a person who has crossed an international border “owing to well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion.” Persons who are displaced in the context of disasters and climate change do not traditionally fit into the framework of refugee law. While there can be overlap between weather-related disasters and a rise in conflict and violence, the nexus requirement of refugee law is generally unlikely to provide adequate protection.
The new program would admit a minimum of 50,000 individuals who have been displaced by climate change, beginning with Fiscal Year 2020. According to the UNHCR, most disaster displacement linked to natural hazards and the impacts of climate change is internal, with those affected remaining within their national borders. Congresswoman Velázquez includes internally displaced persons in H.R. 4732, defining the term ‘climate-displaced persons to include “any person who, for the reasons of sudden or progressive change in the environment that adversely affects his or her life or living conditions — (A) is obligated to leave his or her habitual home, either within his or her country of nationality or in another country” (emphasis added).
Although the bill comes at a time when the Trump Administration is severely curtailing admissions of individuals fleeing their home countries, Velázquez remains hopeful that this legislation provides a framework for the future. “Despite this Administration’s efforts to strip the world’s most vulnerable populations of refuge, America will continue to stand tall as a safe haven for immigrants,” said Velázquez. “This legislation will not only reaffirm our nation’s longstanding role as a home to those fleeing conflict and disasters, but it will also update it to reflect changes to our world brought on by a changing climate.”