Inupiat Fight for Land Being Lost to Climate Change

An Interview with Christine Shearer

Christine Shearer is a postdoctoral scholar in science, technology, and society studies at UC Santa Barbara, and a researcher for CoalSwarm, part of SourceWatch. She is managing editor of Conducive, and author of Kivalina: A Climate Change Story (Haymarket Books, 2011).

Recently I interviewed Christine about her new book, which details the plight of an Alaska Eskimo community struggling to save their land that is disappearing as a result of climate change.

Joshua Frank: Christine, what prompted you to investigate what is happening to the people of Kivalina?

Christine Shearer:  A few things. In 2007, I was part of this interdisciplinary research project at UC Santa Barbara, assessing the biggest “human impacts” to marine ecosystems. To do this we collected data from over a hundred scientists. And it really started to hit me how severe climate change is, particularly how quickly it is happening.

Also, I recently remembered this: we also went to get data from indigenous fishers, to include their traditional knowledge. So I went to a Native American reservation in the state of Washington and handed one of the fishers there this really complicated survey tool we had developed, and he was just kind of like, ‘What is this?’ And rather than fill it out, he walked me to the shoreline and showed me how the water was lapping at one of their buildings and said, ‘This is the biggest problem.’ He was talking about sea level rise.

And so one night I was in an environmental law class, and the teacher read a news headline about this lawsuit, this tiny Alaska Native village suing fossil fuel companies for damaging their homeland and creating a false debate about climate change, and I just knew I had to write about it.

JF: So you traveled up to visit these people? Can you tell us a little about their culture and history?

CS: They are Inupiat, tracing their ancestry to the northwest Arctic back thousands of years. They are fishers and whalers and live mainly off subsistence, and are pretty cued into the land and its rhythms, because they rely on it for their needs. So the changes in the Arctic have been pretty hard on them – making traveling and hunting more dangerous because the ice is thinning – let alone now that the small barrier island they are located on is eroding away.

I did not know much about the area before going, so I did a lot of reading in the Kivalina school library of their oral histories while there, and also asked questions. I was probably annoying, but they were always incredibly open and friendly, inviting me into their homes, happy to talk and share. When you think about how they live and have lived, it’s pretty amazing, and you can see how the strong social and community bonds would help them survive. The Arctic is not for wimps.

JF: You write about Kivalina’s grievances against ExxonMobil. What prompted it and where does the fight currently stand?

CS: Yeah, the reason the island is eroding is because of warming Arctic temperatures — sea ice now forms later and later in the year, leaving the shoreline vulnerable to erosion from storms. In 1992, Kivalina residents voted to move, and in 2003 and 2006, U.S. government reports said Kivalina had to be relocated within the next ten to fifteen years, due to erosion from warming temperatures.

Around the time of the government reports an environmental justice lawyer – Luke Cole – was working with Kivalina residents because their water was being polluted by a nearby mine. And that began the conversation about filing the climate change lawsuit, because Luke saw that the island was eroding, and the people had been trying to relocate for over a decade with little success or public attention.

So in 2008, Kivalina filed a public nuisance claim against ExxonMobil and 23 other large fossil fuel companies for their relocation costs. They also charged a smaller subset with conspiracy and concert of action for creating a false debate around climate change — Kivalina’s representation includes some lawyers that had been involved in both sides of the tobacco lawsuits.

In 2009 a judge dismissed Kivalina’s claim as a “political question” for the executive and legislative branches, and unsuitable for the judicial branch. The judge also denied Kivalina legal standing to bring the lawsuit. This meant that the secondary claims — which had to do with the climate change misinformation campaign — were thrown out without being commented on. The decision is being appealed, and Kivalina is waiting on that. In the meantime, they are still trying to relocate themselves.

JF: So who is actually to blame for what’s transpired in Kivalina? With the lawsuit against ExxonMobil, will you explain why are they being targeted here?

CS: Under public nuisance law, you can hold people or companies accountable that make a “meaningful” or “substantial” contribution to a harm. The 24 fossil fuel companies were chosen for being among the world’s top greenhouse gas emitters, while a smaller subset face claims of conspiracy and concert of action for going — in Luke Cole’s words — “above and beyond” in their efforts to try and mislead people about the science on climate change.

So, following the logic of the lawsuit: the companies are substantial contributors to the harm now facing Kivalina, and many of the companies knew of the harm they were creating, and tried to deal with it not by cutting back on emissions, but by misleading people to protect their business. Kivalina is therefore seeking damages – the cost of their needed relocation.

JF: Who is helping Kivalina relocate? What options do they have at this time to preserve their culture and integrity?

CS: There is no formal relocation policy in the U.S., and no U.S. government agency specifically tasked with helping communities relocate. So a lot of the efforts involved in trying to relocate have fallen on the people of Kivalina themselves, and they are working with different agencies at the federal, state, borough, and tribal levels to try and coordinate a relocation. Many government workers are doing what they can for Kivalina, like building a seawall, but they can only act within their prescribed roles and boundaries, which are becoming outdated with climate change.

The Government Accountability Office has recommended that a U.S. government agency be tasked with relocation — I think that would help Kivalina out immensely. But now you have Congressional representatives who don’t “believe” in climate change and are trying to cut funding for adaptation and even disaster management, which is incredibly dangerous.

JF: Is the Kivalina situation an anomaly, or is this something that is happening in other locations of the world as well, where people may also be displaced as a consequence of global warming?

CS: I think Kivalina is an anomaly in the sense that most of the discussion around the biggest impacts of climate change are usually focused on the Global South. Kivalina offers an example of how Alaska Natives in the U.S. are being heavily impacted as well, and also face inadequate resources and assistance.

But, yes, people around the world face displacement. There seems to be two types of impacts from climate change. One is the steady threat of displacement, like the people of Kivalina and other Alaska Natives facing erosion and flooding, and the small island states — although I used to think of the threat of erosion as slow, but now realize it can be quick and sudden, putting people in danger. The other type of impact is the increase in the number and severity of “extreme” weather events, like increased droughts, fires, and flooding, which may also make previously inhabited places unlivable, and cause migrations.

JF: What would you tell those who want to get involved in the issue? How can people reach out to the folks in Kivalina?

CS: Yeah, a reduction on greenhouse gas emissions — mitigation — is still very important, but communities like Kivalina show we also need to focus on adaptation policies.

I think the most important thing for Kivalina is that a government agency is tasked with relocation, and a relocation policy is put into place. This will give the people of Kivalina a blueprint for what to do and what they can do. The groups Native American Rights Fund and Three Degrees Warmer are trying to streamline the process of relocation, while human rights lawyer Robin Bronen is trying to institute a relocation policy at the international level grounded in human rights law – climigration. There might be more efforts out there. These groups could use help and support.

Also, we need to communicate to our political representatives that cuts in disaster management and adaptation — which are currently being debated — are unacceptable. The answer is smart policy, not none at all. Climate change is here, and we have to deal with it.

Joshua Frank is co-editor of Dissident Voice and author of Left Out! How Liberals Helped Reelect George W. Bush (Common Courage Press, 2005), and along with Jeffrey St. Clair, the editor of Red State Rebels: Tales of Grassroots Resistance in the Heartland, published by AK Press in June 2008. Check out the Red State Rebels site. Read other articles by Joshua.