Native Eskimos Fight for Land Lost to Climate Change

Christine Shearer is a post-doctoral scholar in science, technology, and society studies at UC Santa Barbara and a researcher for Coal Swarm, part of SourceWatch. She is also managing editor of Conducive Magazine, and author of Kivalina: A Climate Change Story (Haymarket Books), which details the plight of an Alaska Native Eskimo community struggling to save their land that is disappearing as a result of climate change.


Frank: What prompted you to investigate what’s happening in Kivalina?


SHEARER: In 2007, I was part of an interdisciplinary research project at UC Santa Barbara, assessing the biggest “human impacts” to marine ecosystems. To do this we collected data from over 100 scientists. It really started to hit me how severe climate change is, particularly how quickly it is happening.


Also, we 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. He was 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.


So one night I was attending an environmental law class and the teacher read a news headline about this tiny Alaskan native village suing fossil fuel companies for damaging their homeland and creating a false debate about climate change. I knew I had to write about it.


Can you tell us a little about their culture and history?


They are Inupiat, tracing their ancestry to the northwest Arctic back thousands of years. They are fishers and whalers, living mainly off subsistence. They 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 and 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. You can see how the strong social and community bonds would help them survive.


You wrote about Kivalina’s grievances against ExxonMobil. What prompted them and where does the fight currently stand?


The reason the island is eroding is because of warming Arctic temperature—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 10 to 15 years due to erosion from warming temperatures. Around the time of the government reports, environmental justice lawyer Luke Cole was working with Kivalina residents because their water was being polluted by a nearby mine. That began the conversation about filing the climate change lawsuit because Cole saw that the island was eroding and the people had been trying to relocate for over a decade with little success or public attention.


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.


Who is to blame for what’s transpired?


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 Cole’s words—“above and beyond” in their efforts to try and mislead people about the science on climate change.


Following the logic of the lawsuit, the companies are substantial contributors to the harm now facing Kivalina. 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 businesses. Kivalina is therefore seeking damages for the cost of their needed relocation.


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


There is no formal U.S. relocation policy and no 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. They are working with different agencies at the federal, state, borough, and tribal levels. Many government workers are doing what they can, 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 that would help Kivalina out immensely. But Congressional representatives who don’t “believe” in climate change are trying to cut funding for adaptation and even disaster management, which is incredibly dangerous.


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?


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. 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, such as increased droughts, fires, and flooding, which may also make previously inhabited places unlivable and cause migrations.


How can people reach out to the folks in Kivalina?


A reduction on greenhouse gas emissions—mitigation—is still 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 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 Native American Rights Fund and the group Three Degrees Warmer are trying to streamline the process, while human rights lawyer Robin Bronen is trying to institute a relocation policy at the international level grounded in human rights law—climigration. These groups could use support.


Also, we need to communicate to our political representatives that cuts in disaster management and adaptation, which are currently being debated, are unacceptable. Climate change is here and we have to deal with it.  


Joshua Frank is a journalist and author covering political and environmental topics. His articles and essays have appeared in Counterpunch, Z Magazine, Truthout, and Alternet, among other publications. Photo credits: Kivaline, Alaska. Photo from; Shoring up the coastline.