Melting ice and rising seas will make Alaskan villagers America's first climate refugees

kivalina alaska climate change refugees
CC BY 2.0 USCG Press

Adapting to climate change is going to affect the lives of every human on Earth. But for some those impacts are hitting sooner and harder than they are for others. For Americans, the first to feel the brunt of the changing climate are Alaskans, in particular the indigenous tribes that live off the sea ice.

In May, The Guardian published an excellent feature on Newtok, Alaska and why residents there may become "America's first climate refugees."

In August, the BBC reported on the tiny village of Kivalina, Alaska, and warned that villagers there could see their entire village undersea within a decade.

Almost no one in America has heard of the Alaskan village of Kivalina. It clings to a narrow spit of sand on the edge of the Bering Sea, far too small to feature on maps of Alaska, never mind the United States.

Which is perhaps just as well, because within a decade Kivalina is likely to be under water. Gone, forever. Remembered - if at all - as the birthplace of America's first climate change refugees.

Four hundred indigenous Inuit people currently live in Kivalina's collection of single-storey cabins. Their livelihoods depend on hunting and fishing.

The sea has sustained them for countless generations but in the last two decades the dramatic retreat of the Arctic ice has left them desperately vulnerable to coastal erosion. No longer does thick ice protect their shoreline from the destructive power of autumn and winter storms. Kivalina's spit of sand has been dramatically narrowed.

The images of Kivalina are striking and disconcerting. The BBC report has a great shot that shows just how precarious the small village is without the frozen sea ice as a shield. And The Daily Mail have compiled even more.

This video from The Episcopal Church tells the story of the village and the challenge of fighting back a warming, rising sea.

The threat of coastal erosion is something Americans all along both coasts and the Gulf of Mexico are having to face, but for these small Alaskan villages, as the BBC reports, the solution is not as easy as simply moving further inland.

Retreating ice, slowly rising sea levels and increased coastal erosion have left three Inuit settlements facing imminent destruction, and at least eight more at serious risk.

The problem comes with a significant price tag. The US Government believes it could cost up to $400m (£265m) to relocate Kivalina's inhabitants to higher ground - building a road, houses, and a school does not come cheap in such an inaccessible place. And there is no sign the money will be forthcoming from public funds.

Kivalina council leader, Colleen Swan, says Alaska's indigenous tribes are paying the price for a problem they did nothing to create.

"If we're still here in 10 years time we either wait for the flood and die, or just walk away and go someplace else.

"The US government imposed this Western lifestyle on us, gave us their burdens and now they expect us to pick everything up and move it ourselves. What kind of government does that?"

For most Americans in the continental US, adapting to rising seas will mean redesigning cities or putting homes on stilts, for example, which are not insignificant or inexpensive challenges, but I don't think they create the same sort of existential issues facing these indigenous tribes.

For an extreme example of this sort of existential crisis created by climate change, consider the case of the small, low-lying islands in the Pacific. reports:

Rising seas, disappearing glaciers, melting ice, storm surges: The threat of climate change still feels distant to many people.

Not for residents of small, low-lying islands in the Pacific. Global warming has arrived, and it’s turned their nations — Micronesia, the Marshall Islands, Palau, Kiribati and others — into slowly sinking ships. In some regions, the freshwater has turned salty, farmlands are barren and officials say rising waters will submerge entire nations by century’s end unless concerted action is taken.

Concerted action has most definitely not been taken.

As a result, many of these countries have resorted to extreme measures. They’ve engaged global legal experts to figure out whether a drowned nation still exists, have threatened legal action against coal plants a hemisphere away and have tried to drum up support for a case at the International Court of Justice. Quixotic as these tactics may sound, they risk alienating wealthy countries — the very ones they’ll rely on for humanitarian aid to help refugees from droughts and floods.

“There’s a real existential question for these islands,” says Earthjustice attorney Erika Rosenthal, who works with small island states to stem the volatile tides of global warming. For these tiny nations, climate change raises the “most urgent questions of national sovereignty.”

In 2009, the Marshall Islands’ ambassador to the U.S. asked Gerrard to look into that very question, as well as other queries that sound surreal: Is a country underwater still a nation-state? Does it retain its seat at the United Nations? What happens to national assets like fishing rights? And where should its citizens go?

[My emphasis]

Our actions impact others, as does our inaction. The United States and the rest of the global community via the United Nations needs to create a comprehensive plan for how to attempt to right the wrongs being done to these Alaskan tribes and Pacific islanders and everyone displaced by climate change. We should work to make their transition to a new location and way of life as easy as possible.

Melting ice and rising seas will make Alaskan villagers America's first climate refugees
Adapting to climate change is going to affect the lives of every human on Earth. But for some those impacts are hitting a little sooner and a little harder than they are for others.

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