Even as the Trump administration struggles to determine how fully to lean into its climate denial — Should the US remain in the Paris Agreement? Should it sign an international declaration that mentions climate change? — Americans in the Arctic are facing the disruptive effects of three record-breakingly warm years following decades of rising temperatures, rising seas and melting permafrost.
The planet’s poles are warming at roughly twice the rate of everywhere else, and in the Arctic, over the past few months, the evidence was especially clear; an area roughly twice the size of France that usually ices over in the winter never froze.
For years, residents of coastal villages in Alaska have watched as their towns are gradually swallowed by the sea, or as they sink into the ground when the permafrost beneath their foundations turns from solid ice into swampland.
Ground zero for these problems is Newtok, an Alaska Native village in the Yukon River Delta that has been trying to relocate for decades as the permafrost erodes beneath it and the nearby Ninglick River eats away at its banks at a rate of 70 feet per year. “We just need to get out of there,” Romy Cadiente, the village relocation coordinator, told NPR in January. “For the safety of the 450 people there.”
— Victoria Herrmann, president and managing director of the Arctic Institute
Newtok’s residents have started building a new village further inland, but don’t have the money needed to finish the project and move. Much of the sinking village’s infrastructure will be inundated by 2020.
Newtok needs about $60 million to relocate, says Sally Russell Cox, a community planner overseeing climate adaptation for the Alaska state government. “We have a plan for doing it, we know all the different components that have to be done and the sequencing for how it has to happen. If there was designated funding for Newtok they’d be done within two years — they’d be completely moved over.”
But that designated source of funding doesn’t exist. Over the past decade, the Alaskan government has made some funds available to help villages like Newtok, but they’ve largely dried up in recent years; Alaska’s government is heavily reliant on revenue from oil, and plunging prices and falling production have thrown the state’s budget into disarray.
During the Obama administration, Cox was able to cobble together funds from federal departments and agencies including the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Department of Commerce. The Department of Defense sent soldiers-in-training to help Newtok begin constructing its new village. The Denali Commission, charged by Obama with helping Alaska adapt to climate change, also chipped in some funds.
Obama himself proposed providing some $400 million in funding for relocating Arctic villages, but Congress holds the power of the purse, and that money never arrived.
Now, with Trump in the White House, there’s a pretty good chance it won’t be coming anytime soon.
The Trump administration has been dismissive of the threats posed to the world by climate change, and has been at best cagey about whether the US Arctic, which faces unique problems, can expect any extra attention.
At a meeting of the Arctic Council in Fairbanks earlier this month, foreign ministers from eight countries with land in the far north struggled to agree to some commitments relating to climate change. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson argued that his hands were tied because the US was “reviewing several important policies, including how the Trump administration will approach the issue of climate change.”
Ultimately, Tillerson avoided making all but the most basic commitments. He signed on to a statement acknowledging the existence of the Paris Agreement to confront global warming — but said nothing about the US’ future role in it — and a promise to cooperate with the other seven Arctic nations on climate research. InsideClimate News reports that US diplomats worked behind the scenes to weaken the statement that Tillerson ultimately signed. One of Alaska’s senators, Lisa Murkowski, told reporters that it was impressive that Tillerson signed on to a statement that acknowledged climate change at all.
This doesn’t bode well for the Americans whose lives are already being upended by the warming Arctic. “There is no real reason to believe that infrastructure assistance for adaptation or relocation for Alaskan communities — or otherwise — will be made available under an administration that is skeptical of climate change and actively trying to backtrack on any progress made on greenhouse gas mitigation and adaptation efforts,” says Victoria Herrmann, the president and managing director of the Arctic Institute.
Many Alaskan villages don’t have time to wait for a more science-based administration. Some, the Army Corps of Engineers predicts, only have years left. For others, it’s already too late. A 2009 Government Accountability Office report identified 31 Alaskan Native villages “that face imminent threats.” Some of the smaller villages on that list have already been abandoned, Cox says.
Alaska’s melt is hitting Alaska’s Native peoples particularly hard. Many lived a migratory existence until the middle of the 20th century, when the Bureau of Indian Affairs set up schools and demanded that Native parents enroll their children. Towns cropped up around the schools, even though the BIA chose many of the locations not because they were ideal for small communities, but because they were easily accessible by the boats that were dropping off building materials. In the years that followed, many communities struggled to build infrastructure in these remote, sea-side locations. Climate change has made the hazards these communities face worse.
Many have decided to relocate — the 2009 Government Accountability Office report found that at least 12 of the 31 most highly threatened villages hoped to move — but only Newtok has been able to find a suitable location to rebuild. “We feel very strongly that decisions about whether to move and where to move to really need to be left up to the community,” says Cox. “They really need to have the self initiative to make these kinds of decisions. It’s not the government’s job. Our country’s had a very bad record of resettlement of indigenous people.”
One such community is Kivalina, a village on a barrier island some 500 miles north of Newtok, within the Arctic circle. The residents of Kivalina found a new site to move to, but the Army Corps of Engineers found that climate change also made this location unsafe. Within 10 years, Kivalina is expected to be underwater, but the community has yet to find a safe new home.
“These communities are incredibly strong, resilient and empowered with centuries of adaptation experience,” says the Arctic Institute’s Herrmann. “What they don’t have is an infinite amount of local resources to expend on searching for funding sources, applying for grants and advocating for slow-onset disaster assistance from our federal government. All of that takes an enormous amount of time and energy that small communities don’t have.”
— Sally Cox, community planner with the state of Alaska
The federal government has only ever paid in full to relocate one community threatened by climate change. In 2016, the Department of Housing and Urban Development awarded a community on Isle de Jean Charles, in Louisiana, about $50 million to move to safer ground. Alaska also applied for money for communities such as Newtok, but was not awarded any money. In January, Newtok asked the Obama administration for Federal Emergency Management Agency funding, arguing that the village was experiencing a disaster. But the Obama administration rejected the request, saying the community was not in the midst of the kind of disaster FEMA was meant to respond to.
Climate denier in the White House or no, the US lacks a system for dealing with the kind of slow-motion disaster that climate change will bring. Government funding is available to address disasters that slam a community over a few hours or days, but not one that creeps in over many years.
Robin Bronen, a senior research scientist with The Institute of Arctic Biology at the University of Alaska, has called for the US to develop a different framework for addressing about climate-related disasters, arguing that the government must be ready with “a continuum of responses, from protection in place to community relocation.”
“If we don’t figure out how to create this relocation institutional framework, we’re talking about humanitarian crises for millions of people living in the United States,” she told Yale Environment 360 last year.
Meanwhile, Cox — tasked by the Alaskan government with raising money and helping coordinate these villages’ relocation efforts — is frustrated by the administration’s reluctance to figure out a stance on climate change — the same reluctance that frustrated diplomats at the Arctic Council meeting earlier this month. “These agencies are really, really wanting to help, and right now, a lot of them, they’re not sure how to proceed, because of this administration,” she says of the federal agencies with whom she’s worked in the past. “They haven’t gotten clear direction from their leadership.”
She says she’s increasingly looking to philanthropists and foundations to help move Newtok. But she hasn’t given up on the Trump administration completely. “Maybe they’ll take a stance that they’re OK providing assistance to these communities because of erosion and flooding and permafrost degradation, but we don’t want to call it climate change.” What the administration decides to allot the funds for doesn’t matter to her, she says, and it doesn’t matter to the residents of Newtok. “The impacts are not going to go away, whether you think it’s climate change or not. The impacts are going to continue to happen and they’re going to continue to need help.”