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Loss, Damage, and Climate Migration in Alaska

By Lou Del Bello

Tikigaq is one of the longest continuously inhabited communities on the North American continent. Its people are so ancient that their local language has a word for the woolly mammoth, which shared their small peninsula in northwestern Alaska before it went extinct over 11,000 years ago. In the not-so-distant future, some of these communities may be forced to move, as a result of a warming climate that is destroying their habitat.

Othniel Art Oomittuk Jr., a whale hunter and artist from Tikigaq, tells me about how life is changing for the Inuit of Tikigaq: “Since I was little I have always known there to be ice on the ocean throughout the year. When I was young, there still was some ice, though broken up and only visible from a distance. And now, we don't see ice at all for at least three months, because the main ice pack is 300 to 400 miles away.”

Coastal communities, where the local way of life and economy are deeply connected with the sea, are regarded as a barometer for the impact of climate change on humans. Native people across the world are particularly vulnerable because of their economies of subsistence that rely heavily on fisheries for food and local materials for shelter.

Whale hunting is the main activity in Tikigaq, and marks the seasonal cycle of every year. “Everything we do is based on the whale,” Oomittuk says. “In July, we hunt the bearded seals and prepare their skin to coat the umiaq, the wood-framed boat we use for whale hunting. The skin is buried until the fur comes off.”

In February, the skin is prepared and in March, it’s stretched on to the frame. In April, when the ice starts to crack and whales pass through the pack on their journey north, the umiaq are ready for the hunters to paddle after their prey. A single bowhead whale, which can be up to 78 feet long, will provide meat for a whole year.

From the Small Island Developing States in the Pacific Ocean to the Bering Strait region in northwestern Alaska, Native communities face a common threat. They often lack the financial resources to plan long-term adaptation measures in areas where climate change hits the hardest. In some cases, the impact is so profound that it’s impossible to adapt to the new conditions, and that's when people face climate change-related loss and damage. In Alaska, this would force indigenous communities to move away from the coast, made inhospitable by soil erosion and loss of ice cap.

Human rights attorney Robin Bronen is working to protect Alaska's Native people from the impacts of a warming Arctic. “Climate change is happening in Alaska twice as fast as the lower latitudes,” she says. “And there have been profound changes to ecosystems in the northern part of the country.”

Over the past 50 years, mean temperatures in Alaska have risen by 3.4 degrees Fahrenheit, and the country is projected to become 3.5 to 7 F warmer by 2050. What does this mean for the native tribes of Alaska?

“Arctic sea ice works as a seawall barrier, just like mangroves protect the coasts of the Pacific region,” Bronen says. The ice barrier is a natural defense against storms and as it melts, coastal settlements are left exposed to extreme weather.

“Global warming is changing the shape of our land,” Oomittuk says. “The waves are getting larger and more powerful because the ice that protects the land is disappearing. And we can't store food in the ground like we used to, because the permafrost thaws and our food rots.”

Of the 200 indigenous communities living in the Arctic, dozens are already severely threatened by extreme weather, flooding, and soil erosion. At this stage, risk preparedness and adaptation won't protect them for long. The only definitive solution is what Bronen calls ‘climigration,’ or climate induced migration.

According to recent studies, the villages of Shishmaref, Kivalina, Shaktoolik, and Newtok, located on the west coast of the country, could be submerged within the next 15 years. Migration is the only option for these communities, but no funding has been specifically allocated to help them.

Climigration is just one example of what policymakers identify as loss and damage from climate change. The debate around the issue is polarized, mainly because the original concept presented by Vanuatu to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change in 1991 involved financial compensation for the people whose habitat had been irreparably affected by climate change. Developed countries, responsible for a big part of the greenhouse gases currently driving global warming, fiercely fought the introduction of such a mechanism, which was eventually dropped even by its supporters for fear of undermining the negotiation process.

Vulnerable communities are left with nebulous promises at the U.N. level that hardly translate into practical actions.

“People who least contributed to the current global carbon unbalance now face this horrific loss of place,” Bronen says. For native people who have inhabited the coasts of Alaska for millennia, relocation comes with huge cultural losses.

Should the people of Tikigaq relocate, “I would have no home, this is where my ancestors come from,” says Oomittuk. “Should we have to move, our identity would be destroyed and we would exist only in history books. It's a scary thought, because I know it's possible, but I wouldn’t want to move more than five miles away from here.”

After more than two decades of discussion at the U.N. level, incorporating non-monetary impacts in the framework of loss and damage remains a dilemma for both scientists and policymakers.

“When thinking of loss and damage in the context of relocation, the question I would ask is at what point would a community or government seek loss and damage,” Bronen says. “I am assuming it would be a one time possibility which is problematic, because climate change is a dynamic process.” In her works, she explains that climigration does not apply to those who are hit by a single extreme weather event, but to people whose land is made inhospitable by changing environmental conditions.

Progressive changes are already tangible in Northern Alaska, with ice retreating and becoming thinner by the year. People are adapting as much as they can but, according to Oomittuk, the Inuit do not feel represented by policymakers and have no faith in international negotiations.

“We've been here since time immemorial, we inhabited this land before Christ was born,” he says. “And now we are being regulated as to where we can live, how we can live with treaties ratified by people who don't understand what life is about here in Tikigaq.”

Making space for the indigenous people of Alaska within the international decision making process will be one of the biggest challenges for the global climate change response. Currently, the debate on climate-related loss and damage is mostly shaped by international politics, while the problem is inherently site-specific. But a looming migration crisis, in Alaska as well as in other parts of the world, is drawing the public attention back to the local dimension and to the lives of the most vulnerable. In their tragedy, those who one day could be displaced may become the most powerful, unwilling ambassadors for the battle against climate change.

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Lou Del Bello is a multimedia producer at SciDev.net. As a journalist she focuses on science, development, and climate change.

[Photos courtesy of Wikimedia Commons]

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