Colette Pichon Battle
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It was about two years after Hurricane Katrina that I first saw the Louisiana flood maps. These flood maps are used to show land loss in the past and land loss that is to come. On this particular day, at a community meeting, these maps were used to explain how a 30-foot tidal surge that accompanied Hurricane Katrina could flood communities like mine in south Louisiana and communities across the Mississippi and Alabama coast. It turns out that the land we were losing was our buffer from the sea. I volunteered to interact with the graphics on the wall, and in an instant my life changed for the second time in two years. The graphic showed massive land loss in south Louisiana and an encroaching sea, but more specifically, the graphic showed the disappearance of my community and many other communities before the end of the century.

I wasn't alone at the front of the room. I was standing there with other members of south Louisiana's communities — black, Native, poor. We thought we were just bound by temporary disaster recovery, but we found that we were now bound by the impossible task of ensuring that our communities would not be erased by sea level rise due to climate change. Friends, neighbors, family, my community: I just assumed it would always be there. Land, trees, marsh, bayous: I just assumed that it would be there as it had been for thousands of years. I was wrong.

To understand what was happening to my community, I had to talk to other communities around the globe. I started in south Louisiana with the United Houma Nation. I talked to youth advocates in Shishmaref, Alaska. I talked to fisherwomen in coastal Vietnam, justice fighters in Fiji, new generations of leaders in the ancient cultures of the Torres Straits. Communities that had been here for thousands of years were suffering the same fate, and we were all contemplating how we would survive the next 50.

By the end of the next century, it's predicted that more than 180 million people will be displaced due to climate change, and in south Louisiana, those who can afford to do so are already moving. They're moving because south Louisiana is losing land at one of the fastest rates on the planet. Disappearance is what my bayou community has in common with other coastal communities. Erasure is what communities around the globe are fighting as we get real about the impacts of climate change.

I've spent the last 14 years advocating on behalf of communities that have been directly impacted by the climate crisis. These communities are fighting discrimination within climate disaster recovery, and they're also trying to balance mass displacement of people with an influx of others who see opportunity in starting anew. Since 2005, people have been called "refugees" when they leave when they're displaced by climate disaster, even when they don't cross international borders. These terms, these misused terms, that are meant to identify the other, the victim, the person who is not supposed to be here, these terms are barriers to economic recovery, to social integration and to the healing required from the climate crisis and climate trauma. Words matter. It also matters how we treat people who are crossing borders. We should care about how people who are crossing borders today to seek refuge and safety are being treated, if for no other reason than it might be you or someone you love who needs to exercise their human right to migrate in the nearby future.

We must start preparing for global migration today. It's a reality now. Our cities and our communities are not prepared. In fact, our economic system and our social systems are only prepared to make profit off of people who migrate. This will cause rounds of climate gentrification, and it will also penalize the movement of people, usually through exploited labor and usually through criminalization. Climate gentrification that happens in anticipation of sea level rise is what we're seeing in places like Miami, where communities that were kept from the waterfront are now being priced out of the high ground where they were placed originally as people move away from the coast. These folks are being moved, forced to relocate away from the social and economic systems that they need to survive.

Climate gentrification also happens in the aftermath of climate disaster. When massive amounts of people leave a location for an indefinite amount of time, we see others come in. We also see climate gentrification happen when damaged homes are now "green built," but now have a higher value, generally outside of the reach of black and brown and poor people who want to return home. The price difference in rents or the ownership of a house is the difference between being able to practice your right, your human right to return home as a community, or be forced to resettle somewhere else less climate resilient, less expensive and alone.

The climate crisis is a much larger conversation than reducing CO2 emissions, and it is a much different conversation than just extreme weather. We're facing a shift in every aspect of our global reality. And climate migration is just one small part, but it's going to have ripple effects in both coastal cities and cities in the interior.

So what do we do? I have a few ideas.

(Laughter)

First, we must reframe our understanding of the problem. Climate change is not the problem. Climate change is the most horrible symptom of an economic system that has been built for a few to extract every precious value out of this planet and its people, from our natural resources to the fruits of our human labor. This system has created this crisis.

(Applause)

We must have the courage to admit we've taken too much. We cannot close our eyes to the fact that the entire world is paying a price for the privilege and comfort of just a few people on the planet. It's time for us to make society-wide changes to a system that incentivizes consumption to the point of global imbalance. Our social, political and economic systems of extraction must be transformed into systems that regenerate the earth and advance human liberty globally. It is arrogance to think that technology will save us. It is ego to think that we can continue this unjust and extractive approach to living on this planet and survive.

(Applause)

To survive this next phase of our human existence, we will need to restructure our social and economic systems to develop our collective resilience. The social restructuring must be towards restoration and repair of the earth and the communities that have been extracted from, criminalized and targeted for generations. These are the frontlines. This is where we start.

We must establish a new social attitude to see migration as a benefit, a necessity for our global survival, not as a threat to our individual privilege. Collective resilience means developing cities that can receive people and provide housing, food, water, health care and the freedom from overpolicing for everyone, no matter who they are, no matter where they're from.

What would it mean if we started to plan for climate migration now? Sprawling cities or declining cities could see this as an opportunity to rebuild a social infrastructure rooted in justice and fairness. We could actually put money into public hospitals and help them prepare for what is to come through climate migration, including the trauma that comes with loss and relocation. We can invest more of our time in justice, but it cannot be for temporary gain, it cannot be to help budget shortfalls, it has to be for long-term change and it has to be to advance justice. It's already possible, y'all.

After Hurricane Katrina, universities and high schools around the US took in students to help them finish their semester or their year without missing a beat. Those students are now productive assets in our community, and this is what our communities, our businesses and our institutions need to get ready for now. The time is now.

So as we reframe the problem in a more truthful way and we restructure our social systems in a more just way, all that will be left is for us to reindigenize ourselves and to conjure a power of the most ancient kind. This necessarily means that we must learn to follow — not tokenize, not exotify, not dismiss — the leadership and the traditional knowledge of a particular local place. It means that we must commit to standards of ecological equity and climate justice and human rights as the basis, a base standard, a starting point, for where our new society is to go.

All of this requires us to recognize a power greater than ourselves and a life longer than the ones we will live. It requires us to believe in the things that we are privileged enough not to have to see. We must honor the rights of nature. We must advance human rights for all. We must transform from a disposable, individual society into one that sees our collective, long-term humanity, or else we will not make it. We must see that even the best of us are entangled in an unjust system, and we must acknowledge that the only way you're going to survive is for us to figure out how to reach a shared liberation together.

The good news is we come from powerful people. We come from those who have, in one way or another, survived so far to be us here today. This is reason enough to fight. And take it from your south Louisiana friend, those hardest fights are the ones to celebrate. Let's choose to make this next phase of our planetary existence beautiful, and while we're at it, let's make it just and fair for everyone.

We can do this, y'all. We can do this, because we must. We must, or else we lose our planet and we lose ourselves. The work starts here. The work starts together. This is my offering.

Thank you for receiving it. Merci.

(Applause)