Business in the time of climate displacement

Refugee Crisis in GreeceIf you are still having doubts that climate-caused, wholesale displacement of communities is now a fact of life, don’t share these doubts with the residents of Isle de Jean Charles in the US state of Louisiana. For decades, the ancestral land of this native American community has been sinking into the sea, causing extreme hardship to its 60 or so remaining members. Apparently, less than 10% of the island’s original land mass remains above sea-level, where the community is waging a losing battle for its survival. The New York Times reports, “the homes and trailers bear the mildewed, rusting scars of increasing floods. The fruit trees are mostly gone or dying thanks to saltwater in the soil. Few animals are left to hunt or trap.” The report provides a sobering look into the misfortunes of one of America’s most vulnerable communities.

In January 2016, the federal government responded to this unfolding human crisis with a HUD grant to resettle the entire community to drier lands by 2022. The estimated cost of this resettlement plan is a whopping $48 million, which breaks down to $800,000 per person! And as if the price tag is not bad enough, the New York Times reports that the plan is made more difficult by community infighting, moral complexity, and logistical concerns. Since 2002, three previous resettlement attempts in others communities have reportedly failed due to similar non-economic factors.

If you have not read the New York Times report yet, please do. It is a reminder of the difficult times ahead for hundreds of millions of people in developing nations. Will the governments of Africa and Asia be able to implement wholesale resettlement of climate-vulnerable communities when they still struggle to deliver basic services? What about regions and countries that may become largely uninhabitable during this century, as two recent studies have suggested will be the case in parts of the Middle East and North Africa (here and here)? Is the international system of sovereign governments prepared to coordinate the largest cross-border forced migration in human history?

No matter where we fall on the political spectrum, we can all agree that outside-the-box thinking is needed. Traditional silos must be challenged in order to break down false dichotomies. One dichotomy in particular that I seek to challenge is the public sector/private sector dichotomy. I will keep coming back to this theme in my articles as I explore the role of private companies in managing the resettlement of individuals, families, communities, and possibly entire nations. I will pay special attention to the policy and regulatory tools that governments can develop and use to ensure a fair and efficient outcome of the private sector’s participation in this undertaking. I will also explore the types of business models that could make it economically enticing for private companies, while ensuring respect for the human rights of affected populations.

I am sure many of you are thinking that it is distasteful to make profit off of other people’s suffering. I agree, yet one could envision many win-win scenarios where the displaced community and the corporation both benefit. The healthcare industry is built on the mutually beneficial relationship between patients and doctors. Perhaps if we pool our creative minds, we could build such mutually beneficial relationships in climate displacement management.

As the son of refugees, I experienced first-hand the trauma that comes with poorly managed displacement. It would be a shame for others to experience such trauma because we failed to leverage the vast resources of the private sector. Again, no silver-bullet here, but let’s not leave this huge stone unturned.

Thoughts? Please share in the comments section below or email me at

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