Since 2016, Rachel Laut ‘99 has been researching a topic she has long been interested in, a topic that gains importance with each passing year: the intersection of climate change, human mobility and human rights. In December 2021, she and co-author Grant Dawson published their book, Humans on the Move.
The book looks at the legal, rights-based methods that may be used as more populations affected by climate change seek relocation, which are less pre-emptive in nature but can provide protections after people have moved. There’s another method, too, an adaptive approach involving interaction at local, national and international levels with states, affected communities, organizations, scientists and scholars.
They point out that neither approach is sufficient alone, as advance planning and human rights laws will be important.
“I hope that what people will take away is that climate change mobility is a human issue of exceptional magnitude, not an ideological or political issue,” Laut said.
Both she and Dawson are international lawyers — Laut currently lives in Paris. They both hold a special interest for how law and legal frameworks can address human rights issues.
In fact, the first article they published together came from their experiences working on the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY), addressing genocide and jurisprudence during the ICTY and the International Criminal Tribunal of Rwanda. Dawson also co-authored a book about forcible displacement — the migration of people from their communities and even countries due to persecution, conflict, violence and human rights violations — and predicted that climate change would surpass all other causes of displacement.
They co-wrote a second article titled “Human Mobility and Climate Change,” published in 2017 in the Journal of International Humanitarian Legal Studies. But both Laut and Dawson felt that there was more ground yet to cover, given the, well, literal global scale of the topic and the rapid evolution of climate change.
“I’ve often considered climate change to be an issue that will impact us all, as humans, in one way or another,” Laut said. “So when Grant approached me with the project, I was very excited to examine the issue of climate change through a human rights-based lens, and to really look into the very large impact that climate change can have on some peoples’ lives.”
It’s an understatement to say the issue is pretty big. But let’s step back to a pivotal moment in Laut’s life that led to this passion, her senior year at Doane.
She was a double major in French and International Studies, and, like many students facing graduation, having doubts about her career path. Her adviser, Dr. Maureen Franklin, mentioned Laut would probably do well in law school.
“That really stuck with me, probably because I admired her and valued her opinion so much,” Laut said.
After graduating from Doane, Laut joined AmeriCorps’ NCCC program to spend ten months completing national service projects in five different states. Then she joined the Peace Corps and taught English as a second language in Russia for two years, before returning to the United States in 2002, “to think about a more long-term career at that point,” she said.
Franklin’s words came back to her, and she spent several years as a legal assistant to gain experience and determine if law was the right path.
Turns out, it really was. Laut completed her JD at Harvard in 2008 and began working in Paris as part of the international arbitration team at Shearman & Sterling. Later, she continued working in international arbitration at Bredin Prat, a French law firm.
“I have always had a strong interest in human rights. In law school I focused a lot of my coursework on human rights,” she said. “My work experience, although often not specific to human rights law, also allowed me to develop in the area of public international law.”
It’s a surreal experience, she said, to publish a book. But she hopes that ultimately, it will become a resource and raise awareness of the role that climate change will continue to play in human migration.
“I learned so much in the process of working on this book,” she said. “The numbers surprised me. I knew that it was a serious issue with a large human impact. But reading the more recent predictions, as well as data on past movements relating to climate change, it’s a lot.”
Take for example, a 2018 report from the World Bank, titled “Groundswell,” which estimated that by 2050, up to 143 million persons could be forced to migrate internally due to climate change impacts in just three regions: Sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia and Latin America. This prediction didn’t even touch on cross-border movement or the impact on other regions.
Or, this 2019 count from the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre: that 24.9 million people had been internally displaced within their country of residence due to natural disasters.
Remember the extreme flooding in 2019 in South Dakota, Nebraska, Iowa and Missouri? It’s included in the IDMC’s count — more than 9,000 people were displaced.
And extreme events like these, whether massive flash floods, record numbers of hurricanes, intense droughts or out-of-season wildfires, will only increase in frequency and intensity as climate change continues, Laut said.
“I hope that others will also conclude, as we did, that there is no simplistic or singular solution — climate change mobility needs to be addressed with pragmatism at multiple levels in society — through lawmakers, policy makers, advocates, and with the input of those most affected,” she said.