been developing the framework of a governance structure that has as its guiding principles the involvement of climigrants in deciding where and how they should move and commitments to assisting whole communities—not just individuals or households—to relocate. "If not," she said, "people will be dispersed."
For several years Bronen participated as an observer with the Newtok Planning Group, which she credits with "creating the road-map" for other Alaskan communities and beyond, globally. "People get focused on the funding piece," she told me, "but we don't know the true cost. Newtok has primarily been using existing funding streams," directing them to the new site. One thing was clear to Bronen: The sooner communities and government agencies recognize that relocation must occur, the sooner funding can go to relocation instead of to disaster relief.
Alaska, according to Bronen, is the logical place to develop cli-migration principles and guidelines that can then be transferred to the rest of the world. In her work she's identified what should be governmental responsibilities: allow affected communities to be key players in relocation processes, ensure that families and tribes can remain together, protect subsistence use and customary communal rights to resources, safeguard rights to basic needs like housing and potable water, and implement sustainable development opportunities as part of the relocation process. This last point deserves emphasis. If a variety of socioeconomic problems can be addressed in the relocation process, the benefits will be multiplied, for the health of the communities and—to the degree they use less fossil fuel and create less waste—for the world.
Get the relocation piece right in Alaska and perhaps the trauma and expense can be lessened elsewhere. As Bronen warned, "I really think what's happening in coastal Alaska is going to be the story in much of the rest of the coastal United States."
Newtok's organized effort at staging a relocation might be the model for one kind of response. The village of Kivalina, home to four hundred Inupiaq Eskimos on a narrow barrier island in the Chukchi Sea north of Shishmaref, has taken a different route. As another of the six Alaska villages most at risk from climate-induced thawing and flooding, it is within a decade or less of becoming uninhabitable. In 2006 a new $3 million seawall built of metal cages and sandbags was built, and the day after its dedication ceremony, a storm took out a critical section. The next year the entire community had to be evacuated from the low island, six hundred feet across at its widest point, when another fall storm threatened. This is a clear case where building and rebuilding erosion control structures and evacuating and then returning residents to the vulnerable place don't make sense. Permanent relocation is required, and the questions to be answered are when and how—and who will pay. The cost of moving the community to the mainland has been estimated at between $95 million and $400 million.
For Kivalina, compared to Newtok and Shishmaref, there's been less cohesion in the planning process, and the community has undertaken a unique strategy. The village sued the energy companies residents claim are responsible for greenhouse gas emissions and, especially, for the industry campaign to distort the truth about global warming.18 The lawsuit for unspecified monetary damages was filed in federal court in early 2008 against twenty-four energy companies—ExxonMobil and eight other oil companies, one coal company, and fourteen electric utilities. The complaint says, "Each of the defendants knew or should have known of the impacts of their emissions on global warming and on particularly vulnerable communities such as coastal Alaskan villages." The complaint also alleges a conspiracy by some of the companies, especially ExxonMobil, to "suppress the awareness of the link" between emissions and climate change "through front groups, fake citizens organizations, and bogus scientific bodies." (This strategy is similar to that used successfully against the tobacco companies in the 1990s, when it was established that cigarette manufacturers had lied about the consequences of smoking.) The law firms spearheading the suit are human rights ones—the San Francisco-based Center on Race, Poverty, and the Environment and the Native American Rights Fund.
As reported in The New York Times, the American Justice Partnership, a business-oriented group, has argued that the conspiracy accusations make the Kivalina case "the most dangerous litigation in America."19
In a 2009 ruling, a U.S. District Court judge dismissed the lawsuit on the grounds that it dealt with a political question properly reserved for the legislative, not judicial, branch of government. Kivalina has since appealed. The field of legal responsibility for global warming is a developing one, sure to reach the U.S. Supreme Court before we're done. No one seemed to think there'd be a definitive answer anytime soon, certainly not in time to save Kivalina.
One alternative the people of Shishmaref had turned down unambiguously was "colocation"—that is, moving the community to another, established one. The likely places analyzed by the Corps of Engineers were Nome and Kotzebue, both regional centers near Shishmaref, both with much larger and mixed populations. "That's not something we want to do," Brice Eningowuk had told me, emphatically. "Everyone here is family."
Shishmaref residents are certainly aware of the example of the King Islanders. King Island, a steep volcanic island in the Bering Sea, about eighty-five miles northwest of Nome, was inhabited by Inupiaq Eskimos for at least a thousand years.20 As a winter home built along cliffs, it was surrounded by the biological richness of the Bering Sea—seals, walrus, fish, crabs, seabirds. In summer, the people typically migrated by boat to the mainland for different hunting, fishing, and gathering opportunities, and to trade. In 1959 the Bureau of Indian Affairs closed down the school, and the people were forced to move to Nome full-time. There, they lived on the south end of town in substandard housing and suffered economic and social ills along with outright discrimination. Some reversed the old migration pattern—for years, when school was out, spending some of the summer on the island.
Non-Native friends in Nome have told me that when they were growing up there the worst thing a person could be called was "a K-I-er" and that young people today still used the expression in derogatory name-calling. The community, described by outsiders as "clannish," struggles to maintain an identity that lives, in its heritage and heart, elsewhere.
We would not, in America in this day and age, either mandate moves or leave migrants and refugees entirely to their own devices, but the King Island experience lingers in people's memories and adds to their fears.
What do I think will happen to Shishmaref? Many people I spoke with, including some in Shishmaref, told me that, despite all the best intentions and all the desire and effort, they don't expect that the community will actually move. The cost is too great, the impediments too many. The most likely scenario, I believe, is that planning and studies will continue, but that the residents of Shishmaref will get tired of waiting, the anxiety that comes with every storm, and doing without water and sewer and an adequate clinic—infrastructure they would have if they knew they were staying, or if they were building in a new place. I expect that they'll gradually move away— the young people who might make a start elsewhere, and family by family—scattering to other villages, to Nome and Kotzebue, to Anchorage, as they already have begun to do, until only the most determined remain. Some—the most committed to a traditional life—might well move to the mainland and "live out," as some people always have, and others might still return seasonally, as the King Islanders did to their island for years after their move to Nome. But the village itself will eventually be gone, dropped into the sea, and the community bonds and culture that flourished in its unique fashion for so very long will be gone with it.
When I was first beginning to think about the consequences of global warming and climate change for Alaska's villages, a friend said to me, "For these communities that are already stressed, climate change will either be the glue that will help hold them together, or it will be the straw that finally breaks them."
The same thing could be said for the rest of us, all of us who will, individually and collectively, either find new ways of living that sustain ourselves and the earth as we know it, or who will not.
In Shishmaref, so many people I'd met had looked me directly in the eyes and asked, "How do you like it here?" or "What do you think of Shishmaref?" or "What do you think of us?" I had thought at the time it was a way of trying to assess me, but also an expression of pride in who they were, and also, perhaps, a small show of insecurity. Do we matter? Are we important enough to save? Is anyone going to help?
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