Lack of climate justice for remote Indigenous communities: the Alaskan villages Newtok, Shishmaref and Kivalina

Kivalina, Alaska. Source: The Atlantic.

Climate change does not equally affect all regions and communities; instead, it tends to exacerbate existing inequalities by disproportionately affecting low-income communities and communities of color. Therefore, it is necessary to consider fairness and justice when thinking about strategies to respond to the effects of climate change. Environmental and climate justice are useful frameworks for doing so. Schlosberg and Collins define environmental justice as a framework aimed at “remedying existing and imminent injustice in the distribution of environmental costs, benefits, and conditions on the grounds that all are equal and have equal rights”. Climate justice, then, is environmental justice applied to the dangers and risks posed by climate change.

Alaskan coastal villages are an example of communities that are disproportionately affected by climate change, which there mostly takes the form of increased coastal erosion and flooding. According to the US Government Accountability Office, 184 villages experience erosion and flooding, of which 31 are considered ‘imminently threatened’. Climate change affects these villages through several processes. Warmer air and water temperatures cause coastal permafrost and arctic sea ice to melt, which destroys the barrier of ice that previously protected the villages from waves during extreme weather events. Additionally, rising sea levels mean an increased risk of flooding. Finally, the decreasing sea ice cover leads to a longer fetch and taller waves, which exacerbates both erosion and flood risk. Between 1971 and 2013, the summer sea ice cover in the Bering and Chukchi Sea decreased by as much as 39-41%.

Projections for coastal erosion in Shishmaref, Alaska. Source: US Army Corps of Engineers.

Since flooding has and will continue to destroy homes and essential infrastructure (such as schools, barge landings, water sources and waste containment facilities), many communities want to relocate to a safer area as a means of managed retreat. Newtok, Shishmaref and Kivalina are three such communities, which have made concrete plans for a move. Community members and government agencies agree that relocation is necessary to protect the health and safety of residents.

However, relocating is easier said than done. The main obstacle is a financial one. Governments tend to be reluctant to allocate funding to help small, isolated communities such as those in Newtok, Shishmaref and Kivalina move, since the benefit-cost ratio is low. It is important to note that this disproportionately affects Indigenous communities, which tend to be relatively small and remote.

Furthermore, the legal framework for financial aid for responding to environmental hazard in the U.S. is not inclusive of hazards posed by gradual biophysical processes such as erosion. The U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) can only fund hazard mitigation projects in the case of events that receive a presidential disaster declaration. While, for example, hurricanes, tornadoes and droughts can receive such a declaration, coastal erosion cannot. This demonstrates that legislation in the U.S. is not sufficiently adapted to effectively respond to climate change’s more gradual, but nevertheless highly impactful effects.

It is also important to consider how these communities came to be situated in unsustainable environments in the first place. As Wilson has pointed out, climate justice is “not solely about responding to the directly observable impacts of climate change . . . it is also about understanding and addressing the manner in which the broader political context can make communities more or less vulnerable to the impacts of climate change.” In the case of Newtok, Shishmaref and Kivalina, this broader context includes a history of colonization.

These communities, like most communities in northern Alaska, used to migrate seasonally between hunting and fishing grounds. This changed when the U.S., at the beginning of the twentieth century, made it obligatory for Alaska Native children to attend state schools, which were constructed along the western coast. This effectively forced these communities to transition to a stationary lifestyle built around the schools. In other words, the legislation not only bound them to locations that would soon become unsafe, but they also lost much of their capacity to adapt to environmental change, as their lifestyles became less flexible and they were forced to become more dependent on government support. Since the U.S. government is directly responsible for tying Newtok, Shishmaref, Kivalina and other communities to dangerous locations as well as decimating their adaptive capacity, justice should involve helping them escape these situations regardless of benefit-cost ratio.

House in Shishmaref, Alaska. Source: NPR.

So far, only Newtok has been able to start the process of relocating (in 2018, 24 years after deciding retreat was necessary). This was made possible by a one-time allocation of an additional $15 million to the Denali Commission, a federal agency for the provision of critical utilities and infrastructure in Alaska. Unfortunately, the singular allocation of funding that makes Newtok’s move possible does nothing to help any of the other Alaskan villages in need. Instead, a more structural solution is needed.

The case of these three villages demonstrates how a variety of obstacles stand in the way of climate justice for remote Indigenous communities in Alaska. The low benefit-cost ratio of relocation makes it hard to secure funding for small and remote communities everywhere. Additionally, there is an insufficient legal framework for addressing the main climate-related problem that they are dealing with, namely erosion. This is in spite of the fact that the state is directly responsible for the dangerous situation these communities find themselves in. No structural solution has been found yet. These cases fit into a global pattern of already marginalized communities being hit hardest by climate change, worsening existing inequalities. They demonstrate that for climate justice to be served, at the very least, drastic changes to governmental structures of aid are needed.

3 thoughts on “Lack of climate justice for remote Indigenous communities: the Alaskan villages Newtok, Shishmaref and Kivalina

  1. Thanks for shedding light on an issue that is often ignored by the general public, particularly when approaching climate change from a cost/benefit perspective. I personally had a lot of difficulty during Marc’s lecture on the ethics of climate change, from which we examined climate change from a purely cost/benefit perspective and largely ignored the cultural intricacies of the situation. A difficult aspect of many of the current global discussions on climate change is that they focus on the global system as a whole, even though those who will likely be most affected by forced migration are those in poorer countries who have done nothing to contribute to the current situation. I hope that for next year’s ECS they would consider a more thorough investigation of this side of the ethical equation rather than focusing on a purely cost-benefit analysis, which ignores the inherent inequalities of the climate crisis.

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  2. Thank you so much for this blog, i think it was really insightful! I also wonder about the aspect of the Cost Benefit Analysis you mention. I wonder who made this calculation and how they did it. CBAs are not a physical number, but a truly man-made one and highly reflective of a government’s and individuals’ priorities. What your text is telling me is that we need to spend a lot more time understanding how colonial and other opressive structures are shaping livelihoods and communities’ realities now, so that leaders and the general discourse will experience a shift toward supporting communities like the ones in Alaska.

    At the same time I also think that we’ll have to make a lot of difficult decisions about indigenous and isolated communities that are now heavily or even solely reliant and dependent on supply through air, as some communities in Canada and Alaska are. Again, the Climate Justice is key here. In a way, colonial structures limited or destroyed indigenous ways of life so we must be very careful in for example taxing air traffic or fossil fuels more and draining those communities again. On the other hand, this way of consumption is simply not sustainable…

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  3. Thank you for shining light on this case study. I think that bringing more awareness to this issue is a positive contribution to the this problem because it looks like not so many people know about this problem specifically. Furthermore, media and NGOs have to play an important role in highlighting this issue to the public in order to put pressure on the government, which will be forced to take action faster (because this issue is quite urgent, from what I read). Otherwise the change might be unfortunately too slow in order to save these populations on time. What do you think ?

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