This is a guest post from our friend Christine Shearer, a wonderful researcher and writer who has published a new book on the climate crisis, Kivalina: A Climate Change Story (Haymarket Books, 2011).

The communities we are already losing to climate change in Alaska

By Christine Shearer


Although many of us know island nations like Tuvalu and the Maldives face the threat of becoming uninhabitable from climate change, less discussed is that such communities exist in the U.S. They are the growing number of Alaska Native villages facing the loss of their homeland from erosion, flooding, and thawing permafrost brought on by warming Arctic temperatures.

And while we may imagine the loss of homeland to be gradual and predictable, for the northwest Alaska community of Kivalina, it is actually often sudden, severe, and erratic, such as increasingly strong storms that can eat up the coastline, threatening peoples’ safety.

As the continental U.S. shifts between weather extremes – from strong storms fueled by increased precipitation to prolonged droughts aggravated by heat – the changes in the Arctic have been much less ambiguous: steady warming. The warming is melting glaciers, thawing permafrost, and transforming entire ecosystems.

These changes are not just impacting polar bears, but also the people of the Arctic, particularly indigenous communities that depend on the land for their daily needs, and are finding that land changing around them. Some communities are also facing permanent displacement. This includes Kivalina, an Inupiaq village of about 427 people perched on a thin strip of land between the Chukchi Sea and the Kivalina Lagoon.

Settling on the barrier reef island in 1905—due in part to an order by the Bureau of Indian Affairs to enroll children in school—the people traditionally depended on the formation of sea ice in the early fall, hardening the island and buffering it against fall storms. That ice now forms as late as November or even December, leaving the shoreline exposed and vulnerable for longer periods of time. Less ice means the storms are stronger as well, as winds travel over the open sea for longer periods, building up more energy that is transferred to the water.

In 2003, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) released a 2003 report stating the village needed to be relocated immediately due to storm erosion from climate change, a finding backed by a 2006 Army Corps of Engineers report, which stated that Kivalina would be lost to erosion in 10 to 15 years.


Kivalina had already voted to relocate in 1992. The problem? There is no formal relocation policy in place in the U.S., and no government agency tasked with relocation. Policies around disaster management are primarily structured around helping people strengthen their existing settlements, not move to new ones.

The gaps in existing policies toward ensuring Alaska Native safety was laid out in a 2009 GAO report: "Alaska Native villages: Limited progress has been made on relocating villages threatened by flooding and erosion." The report recommended the creation of a designated government agency to assist the communities, who are right now largely trying to coordinate their relocation themselves.


As storms continued to threaten the island, Kivalina linked up with environmental justice, tribal rights, and public rights lawyers in 2008 to file suit against 24 fossil fuel companies for federal public nuisance and their relocation costs. They argued that Kivalina has an identifiable and discrete harm, traceable to greenhouse gas emissions, of which the defendant companies are among the world’s largest contributors, with a smaller subset like ExxonMobil having actively tried to downplay and deny the severity of climate change and the need for regulations, including both mitigation and adaptation policies. Some of the lawyers were part of the tobacco lawsuits, and see legal parallels in the misinformation campaigns between the two industries.

In 2009, a Northern California court dismissed Kivalina’s claim. It is being appealed. 

While the people of Kivalina struggle to be relocated, their situation shows it is time to adapt our disaster management policies to changing times. We need mitigation policies in the U.S., and we need to get back to 350 ppm and a stable climate. But, along the way, we also need adaptation policies, particularly for those for whom the only safe adaptation possible is relocation. 


Christine Shearer is a postdoctoral scholar in science, technology, and society studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and a researcher for CoalSwarm, part of SourceWatch. Her work has appeared in Conservation Letters, the Huffington Post, and Truthout, and she is author of Kivalina: A Climate Change Story (Haymarket Books, 2011).

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