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Meet the Alaskans poised to become ‘America’s first climate refugees’

A remarkable series published this week in Britain’s Guardian documents climate-driven havoc in nearly 200 native villages across Alaska.

Villagers along Alaska's coastline are likely to be some of the first American victims of climate change.

If we think of them at all, Americans still tend to think of “climate refugees” as remote —far away and off in the future somewhere, driven by rising sea levels to flee Pacific islands or the plains of south Asia, places of which we know next to nothing.

The 100,000 people of Kiribati, say, who are imploring Australia and New Zealand (so far without success) to accept them as displaced persons before the ocean erases the 10 feet now separating their homes from sea level. 

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A crisis much closer to home, in both time and territory, is documented in a remarkable series published this week in Britain’s Guardian: Climate-driven havoc in nearly 200 native villages across Alaska, whose residents are positioned to become, probably within the decade, “America’s First Climate Refugees.”

Richly illustrated and highly interactive, the project portrays the communities’ approaching doom with an intimacy that may border on unbearable for some. But it’s a story we need to know.

Suzanne Goldenberg, the paper’s U.S. environment correspondent, centers her reporting on the Yup’ik Eskimo village of Newtok, on Alaska’s western coast, 100 miles past the end of paved roads and very slightly above the Bering Sea.

Traditional life in an untraditional place

There are 350 people in Newtok and 63 homes; also a school, a mothballed water-treatment plant, a few other buildings and little paid work. Household incomes average $16,000. Access is by sea or via single-engine planes setting down on a short runway that in winter is created with a snowplow and traffic cones.

Much of life in Newtok is traditional and dependent on subsistence hunting and fishing. Since the failing water-treatment plant was closed, people have returned to life without flush toilets or running water.

But nothing about the village’s location is traditional, and you could say that the people of Newtok have been refugees in a way since 1959. That’s when Alaska’s new state government ordered them to abandon their semi-nomadic ways and upriver settlements, and move to this new place on the coast for the convenience of barge deliveries and compulsory education.

Most of us have read something about climate change’s impacts on Alaska seasonal cycles and wildlife; Goldenberg presents concise summaries drawn from statistics and the experiences of Newtok residents. A few excerpts:

The state has warmed twice as fast as the rest of the country over the past 60 years. Freeze-up occurs later, snow is wetter and heavier. Wildfires erupt on the tundra in the summer. Rivers rush out to the sea. Moose migrate north into caribou country. Grizzlies mate with polar bear as their ranges overlap.

Even people in their 20s, like Sabrina Warner and her partner Nathan Tom, can track the changes in their own lifetimes. Tom said the seasons have changed. “The snow comes in a different timing now. The snow disappears way late. That is making the geese come at the wrong time. Now they are starting to lay their eggs when there is still snow and ice and we can’t go and pick them.”

[Alaska has seen] a nearly 4F increase in average statewide temperatures since 1949, according to the U.S. National Climate Assessment draft released last January. Temperatures could rise by up to 22F by the end of the century unless there is bold action on climate change, the report said.

On land, the glaciers are melting, and at a faster rate than ever recorded. Land that had been shored up by frozen layers of permafrost has softened and sunk. … Rivers swollen by heavier rain and snow flood more often. At sea, the summer sea ice has melted and thinned, leaving open waters. Last year saw the biggest loss of summer sea ice in the Arctic since satellite tracking began in the 1970s. At the height of summer, less than a quarter of the Arctic was under ice.

As the ice gives way, scientists have steadily been revising their estimates of when the Arctic would be entirely ice-free. Only a few years ago, most scientists put that date off until mid-century or beyond. Not any more – scientists are now converging around a date of 2030 for an entirely ice-free Arctic in the summer. A few outliers have even suggested an almost ice-free Arctic in the summer as early as 2020.

Cutting the land away

These changes are literally cutting the land out from under Newtok as the permafrost melts, the river’s flow increases, and protection from storm surges in the Bering recede with the ice.

The land is too soft to support seawalls or levees, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has concluded that  nothing can be built to save the village from rising water and shrinking land. It says the school — built on pilings at the highest point in town — could be underwater as early as 2017.

The only solution is to resettle the villagers again, this time on a rise of volcanic rock about nine miles away. And the people have accepted that, reluctantly, as necessary to preserving their community. Now all they have to do is find $130 million to pay for it.

Actually, it’s only $118 million now because $12 million in state assistance has been lined up already. But there appears to be zero likelihood that the state or federal governments will provide the rest.

And, Goldenberg reports, the U.S. Government Accountability Office has concluded that 185 other native villages in Alaska — homes to 86 percent of the native population — are in approximately the same fix as Newtok.

Events like Hurricane Katrina or Superstorm Sandy have already taught us something about the limits of U.S. disaster response in huge weather events — events that are becoming more frequent and more severe in changing climate regimes.

Redefining ‘refugee’

But, as I’ve written before, the definition of “climate refugees” — people more or less permanently displaced by new climate conditions — is a matter of some controversy for a couple of reasons.

First, well-established humanitarian groups resist the broadening of “refugee” beyond the traditional meaning of people made homeless by war or political repression, or even economic collapse.

Second, governments committed as a matter of policy to refugee relief are reluctant to see their obligations multiplied by climate-driven displacements.

Some have argued that Americans made homeless by events on the order of last year’s Colorado wildfires, intensified by the warmer, drier regimes of recent climate trends, could be considered climate refugees of a kind.

But refugees with homeowner’s insurance, and jobs, and social webs of support services and affluence — and federal disaster assistance.

If a flash flood or tsunami were to wash Newtok away, federal help might be available. But not for destruction that is visited over a period of years rather than days:

“We weren’t thinking of climate change when federal disaster relief legislation was passed,” said Robin Bronen, a human rights lawyer in Anchorage who has made a dozen visits to Newtok. “Our legal system is not set up. The institutions that we have created to respond to disasters are not up to the task of responding to climate change.”

In Bronen’s view, Congress needed to rewrite existing disaster legislation to take account of climate change. Communities needed to be able to access those disaster funds — if not to rebuild in place, which is not feasible in Newtok’s case, then to move.

The authorities also had responsibility under the treaty agreements with indigenous Alaskan tribes to guarantee the safety and wellbeing of indigenous communities, she argued.

“This is completely a human rights issue,” Bronen said. “When you are talking about a people who have done the least to contribute to our climate crisis facing such dramatic consequences as a result of climate change, we have a moral and legal responsibility to respond and provide the funding needed so that these communities are not in danger.”