When climate change threatens coastal villages: How to relocate a community?
On Friday, May 19, Robin Bronen, Executive Director of the Alaska Institute for Justice and Senior Research Scientist at UAF Institute of Arctic Biology, gave a lunchtime talk at the UAA Institute of Social and Economic Research, ISER for short, in Anchorage highlighting her current work with fifteen coastal Alaska Native villages, attempting to create and implement a community-led relocation policy.
In the face of climate change, many coastal Alaskan villages are being threatened by serious erosion, flooding and other problems. According to Bronen, who has been working on this project for the past decade, there were 184 threatened coastal communities in 2003, of which only three were seeking to relocate.
By 2009, that number increased to twelve villages interested in relocation, and as of today, she is working with fifteen villages who are actively working to establish a policy for if, when and how a community-led relocation would happen. Of those fifteen villages, only two – Kivalina and Shismaref – have already chosen relocation sites.
“The tragedy of this,” said Bronen, “is none of the communities have yet relocated.”
As of now, there is and has never been any federal framework in place to take on the relocation of an entire community. There is no federal funding allocated to this type of relocation, and no policy is in place to guide communities on how to handle their unique situations.
“This is an extraordinary decision for communities to make,” said Bronen, who stressed that all the villages she is working with want to remain a whole community, but must decide when, how and where to relocate as climate change erodes their shorelines and pushes closer to destroying the infrastructure of their villages.
While there is much policy and framework in place on the federal level that covers emergency evacuations in the case of natural disasters and the relocation of people due to extreme weather events, there is no policy in place that covers a “planned relocation.”
“I’m really concerned,” said Bronen. “I know that we now don’t have the tools to adapt; Alaska tribes are at the forefront.”
In a planned relocation, Bronen explained that every decision would have to be led by the community, and able to move not only people but infrastructure as well. As shown by past relocation efforts, Bronen stressed how important it is to keep these moves completely voluntary – not government-forced moves, which have proven in the past to have harmful consequences for everyone involved.
Through her work in the justice system as a human rights attorney, Bronen is familiar with federal policies, laws, and the language used within these documents. She explained that while there are some policies or acts that could be amended or adapted to include planned relocation, each climate change situation for each village is so unique that the policy would end up being too broad in terms to be accepted.
You could include sea level rise, or erosion, but she said these would be too broad of terms for policy. For example, the law would want to know what type of erosion, when it would happen, and how.
When it comes to climate change, things are not so easy to define. Also hard to define, in terms of policy, is a “community.” While Bronen and her team are focusing on Alaska Native villages, when writing a policy document for the federal level, the terms need to apply to more than rural, coastal areas.
The policy would have to be adaptable even for a metropolis like New York City or Miami, where some communities might choose a planned relocation to avoid future hurricanes or a rising sea level caused by climate change.
According to Bronen, there are too few people working on this problem. While scientists may agree that, yes, the land is absolutely going to disappear from these communities due to climate change, it is harder to say when and how much.
“We need to figure this out before these events happen,” said Bronen. “We just need one good example of how this works to scale it up.”
Her current efforts with the fifteen villages in Alaska include bi-monthly teleconferences encouraging ongoing community engagement, adaptation workshops and traveling to the villages.
This year, Bronen will travel to five communities, including Golovin and Shishmaref.
Scientists from the Alaska Department of Natural Resources, Division of Geological & Geophysical Surveys will be joining Bronen in her travels to the villages this summer.
The DGSS Coastal Hazards Program will lead erosion-monitoring surveys that will help add more information and research to back up the need for a planned relocation policy for coastal communities experiencing the effects of climate change.