U.S. Climate Report: For Some Native Groups, There’s Literally Nowhere To Run

CREDIT: AP Photo/Al Grillo

This picture shows Newtok, Alaska, where the eroding bank along the Ninglick River has long been a problem for the village 480 miles west of Anchorage. As erosion creeps ever closer, residents of a tiny southwest Alaska village continue their slow but steady work to relocate to higher ground.

They can hide, but they can’t run.

Some indigenous groups living in remote areas of Alaska and the Pacific Islands will have “overwhelming” difficulty adapting to sea level rise, coastal erosion, and other harmful effects of climate change, in part because they will have no sovereign land to go to if they have to leave, according to a landmark federal report released Tuesday by the White House.

“Some climate change adaptation opportunities exist on Native lands, and traditional knowledge can enhance adaptation and sustainability strategies,” the report, called the National Climate Assessment (NCA), read. “In many cases, however, adaptation options are limited by poverty, lack of resources, or — for some Native communities, such as those along the northern coast of Alaska constrained by public lands or on certain low-lying Pacific Islands — because there may be no land left to call their own.”

Written by 300 leading climate scientists and experts, the wide-ranging NCA report laid out some pretty bleak predictions about what climate change could do to the U.S. and its territories. But the report also offered some hope, laying out different response strategies that could improve life in a warming world.

Among those strategies were methods of adaptation — in other words, how to prepare for and adjust to, for instance, unavoidable increases in coastal erosion, ice melt in the Arctic, and drought in the west. One of those methods was, unfortunately, migration, which the report said would be especially likely to happen in low-lying Pacific Islands that are starting to shrink with sea-level rise, and Northern Alaskan communities increasingly flooded by dramatic glacial ice melt.

“Not that long ago the water was far from our village and could not be easily seen from our homes,” Moses Carl, a member of the Yup’ik Eskimo community who lives in the Northern Alaskan village of Newtok, said in the report. “Today the weather is changing and is slowly taking away our village. Our boardwalks are warped, some of our buildings tilt, the land is sinking and falling away, and the water is close to our homes. The infrastructure that supports our village is compromised and affecting the health and well-being of our community members, especially our children.”

The problem with adapting in vulnerable areas like Newtok solely comes down to the fact that their populations are native. Though those groups generally benefit from what the report called “indigenuity” — a combination of indigenous knowledge of the land plus ingenuity — they can face greater challenges than regular Americans when it comes to adaptation, the report said.

For one, there is increased poverty in Native communities — a 28.4 percent poverty rate on reservations and 36 percent for families with children, compared with 15.3 percent nationally — making it harder for them to get up and leave. In addition, the U.S. government lacks the legal authority to help native communities relocate, the report said, meaning tribes generally must pay for relocation themselves.

In Newtok, this has made relocation currently impossible. Indeed, Newtok and three other Alaska Native villages — Kivalina, Shishmaref and Shaktoolik — have all attempted to relocate their communities in the past 10 years, but have not been able to because of difficulty of obtaining government approval and funding.

Even if they did have the funds to move, however, the Yup’ik Eskimo community in Newtok faces a different problem — that they may eventually have no more usable sovereign land to go to. This concern is especially pronounced in native Pacific Island communities, who not only lack the funds to relocate, but face destruction of their entire islands if sea level rise reaches a certain point. At least in Alaska, indigenous groups have something to stand on if they are forced to move. In some Pacific Island nations, entire land masses could disappear.

“The traditional lifestyles and cultures of indigenous communities in all Pacific Islands will be seriously affected by climate change,” the report said. “Sea level rise and associated flooding is expected to destroy coastal artifacts and structures, or even the entire land base associated with cultural traditions.”

With islands particularly at risk, the report said Native Pacific Island communities, including those in Hawaii, are currently being forced to consider relocation plans due to increasing sea level rise and storm surges. Where they’ll go and how, though, remains to be seen.