Fault LinesSunday 9pm ET/ 6pm PT
Víctor Tadashi Suárez for Al Jazeera America

Rights advocate: ‘With climate change, there’s no going back’

Alaska Institute for Justice director says funding needed before catastrophe strikes for threatened communities

In "When the Water Took the Land," "Fault Lines" travels to Alaska to examine the costs of climate change, as rising temperatures fuel the erosion of people's lands and lives. The film airs on Sunday, Dec. 20, at 9 p.m. Eastern time/6 p.m. Pacific on Al Jazeera America. | Click here to find Al Jazeera in your area.


Temperatures in the Arctic are rising twice as fast as those in the rest of the world, according to a report released by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) this week. Among those affected are dozens of small coastal Alaska Native villages, where for decades, residents have watched the waters around them consume the land they live on.

A few villages, like Kivalina, Newtok and Shishmaref made the painful decision to relocate, realizing their traditional homes were no longer habitable. But that decision was just the beginning of a long, possibly decades-long process of scouting potential sites to move to, and figuring how to raise enough money to shift an entire community to a new place.

Robin Bronen, the executive director and cofounder of the Alaska Institute for Justice says the problem of population displacement is one of the most severe consequences of climate change. Further, she adds, a big issue facing these Alaskan villages is that the U.S. doesn’t have any governmental capacity to relocate populations within the country because of environmental change.

"Fault Lines" spoke to Bronen about what needs to be done at various governmental levels to help threatened Alaskan villages relocate. An edited version of the conversation follows.

Fault Lines: Your organization started out as a human rights nonprofit offering legal services to immigrants. But now you’re involved with the impact of climate change on these small Alaskan communities. What’s the human rights perspective of what climate change is bringing on these people?

Bronen: The human rights implications are huge because people are going to permanently lose their homes. I think of all the folks that I’ve worked with who have lost the place that they’ve lived because of persecution, but they can maybe go back. But with climate change, there’s no going back.

The other piece is what we know from the way relocations have happened in the past and are currently happening. Those have been mostly government-mandated. So a government makes the decision, for instance, to build a dam, and then populations are forcibly relocated from where they are living to build the dam.

In my mind, the human rights about relocations is that it’s about self-determination. We need to have governance mechanisms put into place so communities can decide when it’s no longer possible for them to live where they are currently living. That means that they are provided with all of the technology and resources necessary to be protected in place. And then if protection in place is not possible, then they are making the decision of where to relocate and how to relocate. We don’t have any institutional mechanisms set up to make those decisions, either at a community level or at a government level, anywhere in the world. And so that’s why I always talk about human rights being really the basis of whatever government structure we need to create.

When we’re talking about the communities of Kivalina, Shishmaref and Newtok, those communities have made the decision that they want to relocate. And therefore, state and federal government have a responsibility to figure out how to make those relocations happen in a way that protects the human rights of those communities, so having their cultural values be forefront.

Why do state and federal government have responsibilities to help facilitate moves if the community wants to go?

The way that I think about it is in the context of disasters. So the government now, state and federal government, has responsibilities to communities to protect them from disasters and to respond to disasters. The challenge is that relocation is not part of our disaster framework. So our disaster framework right now is pretty much based on the concept of repairing and rebuilding in the place where that disaster occurs, which with climate change is completely unrealistic.

Our disaster framework right now is pretty much based on the concept of repairing and rebuilding in the place where that disaster occurs, which with climate change is completely unrealistic.

Robin Bronen

executive director, Alaska Institute for Justice

But where’s the money supposed to come from for those relocations?

The federal government expends huge sums of money to respond to disasters, I mean billions of dollars after Hurricane Sandy. The challenge is because all that money is there for repairing and rebuilding in the place where the disaster occurred, it makes it really difficult to use those funds for a relocation initiative like what’s happening in Newtok.

When I’ve been trying to conceive of what a relocation institutional framework would look like, the term that I always use is “adaptive governance,” which means it’s multilevel governments—from the tribe, the state, federal level—need to be way more dynamic in the way that we respond to disasters. So you always start with protection in place, but then when it’s no longer possible to protect a community in place, you start moving towards a relocation process so that when a disaster, an extreme weather event, affects a community that’s already made the decision that they cannot be protected in place, that funding would be released and used for a relocation process. And right now there’s no mechanism in place to make that possible, to use those type of funds that are readily available to communities for the relocation process.

The concept of having to relocate because of climate change may be relatively new, but Newtok and Kivalina have been discussing moving for a long time. How has the process not caught up yet?

I think at the state and national level, you’re right. The challenge has been that we have no relocation institutional framework, meaning that there is no government agency currently in the United States that has the responsibility to relocate communities and has funding available for the relocation effort. Nor do they have the technical or organizational capacity to do a relocation. This is something that in our times in the United States is unprecedented.

But some of these villages have been talking about moving longer than a decade?

So you have two different categories of villages: You have the villages like Kivalina, Shishmaref and Newtok that have made the decision to relocate, and their challenge is getting the government at the state and federal level to implement what their community has decided is their long term adaptation strategy. And then you have the dozens of other communities—and I say “dozens” because in 2003 a federal government report said that 184 communities were affected by erosion and flooding in Alaska, some imminently. And there’s no mechanism in place to decide, can a community stay here if they need to relocate? What’s the process to have that relocation happen? And where are people going to go, and who’s going to make that decision?

It’s really complex, and so in my office, we just receive funding from NOAA [National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration] to do research to try to figure this out because there are all these issues that need to be researched in regard to, at what point in time is it appropriate for a community to start a relocation process with government agencies supporting them? Nobody wants to leave their home, whether you’re in Newtok, Alaska; Rockaway Beach, Long Island; Charleston, South Carolina; Miami Beach, Florida. Nobody wants to leave their home.

Former Governor Sarah Palin put together a working group to try to hash out some of these issues. Has that made substantial progress? 

So the subcabinet on climate change that was created by Governor Palin was an incredible initiative, and I was privileged to follow the work of the Immediate Action Work Group. Honestly, I don’t know if I’ve ever seen government representatives work as hard as this group of people did to try to sort through this complexity of issues. The Newtok planning group is similarly working so hard without any roadmap to how to relocate Newtok.

The challenge with the Immediate Action Work Group is when Governor Palin resigned, the work of that Work Group ended. They were engaged in some of the most important work related to this issue and had the expertise, from emergency management to community planning to the Corps of Engineers to NOAA, in this multidisciplinary effort to try to figure out how to go about relocating communities and prioritizing the needs of communities that are imminently threatened by flooding and erosion.

In 2008, the Alaskan village of Kivalina built a rock wall along the ocean shore to combat the erosion of its land.
Víctor Tadashi Suárez for Al Jazeera America

What can be done to change the government’s response to these catastrophes harming communities from less reactive to more preventative?

It’s reframing the way that we think about disasters. When we talk about the federal legislation created to respond to disasters, that legislation was passed before climate change was on the radar screen of Congress. And so when you’re talking about preventive responses to disasters and having the resources, I think of the slow, ongoing environmental change that is really going to be one of the hallmarks of climate change, which is erosion and sea level rise. So what would need to happen is the amendment of our federal legislation to include those sorts of environmental events as being a catalyst to releasing funding. There is funding for hazard mitigation at the federal level, but most of that funding is after a disaster has been declared and so we really need again to reconceive of how we are thinking about disasters and incorporating the way that climate change impacts are going to be happening in communities, so that we can be more proactive.

How important is it to be working on parallel tracks of relocating but also making sure in the short term that communities are protected from storm surges or what could happen next fall, next year?

For the communities of Shishmaref, Newtok and Kivalina, because they made the decision to relocate, they have not been able to get access to state or federal government funding to maintain the infrastructure they have in the communities where they are. Government has said, kind of understandably, this is an inefficient use of our resources to repair or maintain infrastructure in these communities when they’re going to relocate. But obviously the outrageousness of that is there’s no timeframe for these communities to relocate, and Newtok was supposed to have been relocated by 2012. 

And so there is no timeframe for the communities that have made the decision to relocate and that are living in places with seriously damaged infrastructure or infrastructure that is in serious need of maintenance. And they’re not being given the resources to live in hygienic, habitable communities. I mean, that’s a human rights issue, right?

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