Faith Leaders Converge at ‘Ground Zero’ of America’s First Climate Refugees

By now, most Americans have seen the images of Syrian refugees fleeing their homes by boat, children in tow, to brave the choppy Mediterranean waters that claim the lives of thousands each year. Just as refugees in regions like Syria and Bangladesh are fleeing crises hastened by climate change, U.S. citizens are beginning to face the reality of domestic climate refugees.

In 2005, Hurricane Katrina blasted the state of Louisiana, devastating millions of lives. Sixteen years later, climate-related disasters are impacting the region again with rising sea levels displacing indigenous communities whose lands now sit just below the surface of a rising tide.

Louisiana’s Isle de Jean Charles, and communities like it, are heavily impacted by “storm surges exacerbated by climate change, coastal oil and gas development, and wetland degradation” pushing “the island under water,” according to Ensia publisher and director Todd Reubold in his review of the new film, “Can’t Stop the Water,” a documentary on the migration of climate refugees in the Gulf’s wetlands.

Earlier this year, The New York Times reported how the impact of burning of fossil fuels was forcing the region into adaptation through relocation. After which, the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) issued grants totaling $1 billion in 13 states impacted by climate change, including $48 million dollars for Isle de Jean Charles – and that’s just the tip of the iceberg (literally). Impact projections for the region are expected to multiply dramatically, costing taxpayers exponentially more in the future. Luckily, people of faith are meeting that challenge head-on.

Roughly eighty miles north of Isle de Jean Charles in New Orleans, our partner organization Greenfaith convened young leaders to “raise faith” around the issue of climate change in a diverse body of religious communities. Organizers of the event specifically chose New Orleans because it is “ground zero for the impact of climate change” in the United States. Meyaard-Schaap, creation care coordinator for the Christian Reformed Church, shared, “I have heard stories of islanders whose entire culture and heritage are disappearing beneath the rising tides,” during her involvement with “young leaders of all the major faiths (Muslim, Christian, Jewish, Buddhist, Hindu, Baha’i, and people who say they are spiritual but not religious).”

Since 1955, 90% of the landmass of Isle de Jean Charles has disappeared.

Rev. Fletcher Harper, executive director of Greenfaith and Blessed Tomorrow leader, explained, “We are at a critical point in history. The window for action to protect our world from climate change is closing fast.” Harper’s interfaith coalition, which has been addressing climate change for decades, is “turning to the next generation of leaders” and training them to communicate the urgency of climate change effectively. Rev. Harper continued, “They are the last generation who can do anything about this crisis, and they will be the first to truly see its impacts if we fail.”


Apart from the Gulf Coast being “ground zero” of domestic climate impacts, it is a rich tapestry of religious traditions, comprised of a myriad of fluid faiths that include enclaves of Islam, Judaism, Christianity and indigenous traditions dating back centuries. Twenty percent of the Louisiana population identifies with historically black churches such as Blessed Tomorrow's newest partner, African Methodist Episcopal Church (AMEC), a faith community founded on principles of social justice, rendering their expertise in mobilizing people of faith invaluable.

While the work and dedication of leaders like Greenfaith and the AME Church are inspiring, they can not quell the rising tides alone, making the empowerment of young faith leaders across the U.S. more important than ever. Without strong leadership from people of faith, regions like Florida and New York are next on the list of states impacted by the encroaching salt water. But impacts in the U.S. are not limited to rising sea levels, as some communities are large enough to suffer from floods and droughts simultaneously.

The nearby state of Texas is enduring one its most severe droughts in centuries and floods that have devastated farmlands, coupled with wildfires sweeping across the second largest state in the union, forcing many people of faith to urge Lone Star legislators to act on climate. Among them is Katharine Hayhoe, a climate scientist and Evangelical Christian who has been actively taking measures to educate state officials to recognize and acton climate with her.

Meanwhile on the West Coast, record heat waves and wildfires (one of which nearly leveled my hometown two weeksago) in the state of California have caused many faith leaders to speak up on the issue of climate – and not simply those that reside in the Golden State. In June, His Holiness, the Fourteenth Dalai Lama traveled from his home of India to California to urge state legislators to wield their legislative powers to enact stronger restrictions on oil fracking (yes, it’s still legal in California).

Let us know in the comments below how faith leaders are addressing climate impacts in your state!

Ryan Smith received his master's degree in Religious Studies with an emphasis on faith and climate change from the University of California, Riverside before becoming a staff writer at Blessed Tomorrow. Click here to email Ryan.



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