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The Twisted Fate of Northern Communities: Home of the First North American Climate Refugees

Source: Jan Van Der Woning/TCS/Zuma Press

Sandbags lining the Kivalina coastline. Source: Jan Van Der Woning/TCS/Zuma Press

Third in a series of blogs on climate change and population displacement.

By Claire Havens, ACT population displacement researcher.

We’ve all heard about polar bears starving, stranded on ice flows and unable to hunt effectively due to global warming. Photos flash around the world of emaciated bears struggling to survive in a rapidly changing environment, a symbol of our collective failure to halt climate change.

But there are people in the polar regions of Canada and the US too. And how they are experiencing climate change, the implications of this stark reality, and what our various levels of governments should be doing about it, is a less well-explored topic.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has highlighted the risk for remote Inuit communities of coastal erosion, a phenomenon that is already occurring due to the combined effects of melting permafrost and sea ice, storm surges and stronger waves.

In Alaska, the rate of erosion is already astonishing. The coastline has been disappearing exponentially over the last 50 years, reaching an average loss of 25 metres per year by 2008[1]. Communities such as Kivalina, located at sea level on a small spit of sand on the unforgiving Bering Sea, are expected to disappear over the next decade. Coastal erosion, melting of the protective ice that used to line the community’s shores, and strong winter storms have made it a risky home.

The US Army Corps of Engineers, which built a defensive wall for the community seven years ago, now predicts the 400 inhabitants of Kivalina will be America’s first climate change refugees. They project that there are another 26 Alaskan villages in immediate danger of significant erosion.

The response of the State government has been baffling. Estimated costs of relocating Kivalina’s inhabitants to higher ground and rebuilding houses, and a school, could be as high as $400 million. Alaska Governor Bill Walker recognizes that coping with the effects of climate change on remote communities is expensive. A state with no income or sales tax, Alaska has been hit hard by the dramatic fall in oil price and related revenues.

His response? In order to fund the relocation programs, Walker wants to drill for more oil in the protected lands of the Arctic National Wilderness Refuge.

Understandably, there is anger from the Inuit community. Kivalina council leader, Colleen Swan, says, “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?”

In Canada, things are not much different. We are already seeing the effects of permafrost thaw on remote northern Canadian communities such as Pangnirtung or sea level rise in Tuktoyaktuk.

Despite mitigation efforts to protect the shorelines of these small communities, it is anticipated that they will have to eventually be evacuated.

How will our government respond? Internal population displacement is already occurring, and while the world laments the loss of an iconic Arctic species, we are also losing unique cultures and ways of life.



[1] Source: Encyclopedia of Global Warming and Climate Change, Second Edition

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