…by Meg White
The place Meg puts the stuff she wrote
As Alaskan Village Sinks Into the Sea, GAO Calls for a U.S. Office for Climate Change Refugee Assistance
Categories: Commentary, Environment

by Meg White

There are more of them than there are people who contract new cases of malaria each year. There are ten times more of them than people injured in traffic accidents each year.

They are climate change refugees: people forced to flee their homes due to environmental degradation — generally never to return. According to a recent report from the Global Humanitarian Forum, a worldwide organization headed by former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, there are hundreds of millions of climate change refugees already, and that number is rising rapidly.

The environmentally displaced aren’t just in Bangladesh, either. U.S. citizens are current being forced to relocate due to climate change, but the lack of federal leadership is emerging as an “impediment” to their plans to reach higher ground, according to a new government report.

In a little-noticed report released Wednesday, the Government Accountability Office suggested Congress create a lead government agency to direct the relief efforts now necessary due to global climate change.

The report (summary here, full text here) notes that because of the lack of recognition of unincorporated Alaskan Native villages as “eligible” by the federal government, the Native American communities there cannot receive affordable housing or relocation assistance from Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Block Grant program.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency also serves as a roadblock to assistance, as the communities do not have federally approved disaster mitigation plans in place. The report also recommends that the Army Corps of Engineers study flooding in the same way they looked at erosion problems in the area previously, noting that the government doesn’t have the information it needs to identify and combat climate-related problems in Alaska.

But just because these Alaskans don’t fit the government’s definition of a community in distress doesn’t mean they don’t urgently need help dealing with the climate change disaster that has come home to roost in their villages. The report identified 31 communities in “imminent” danger. But even the one that is furthest along in its relocation plans is years away from realizing them.

America’s first community of climate change refugees is a town occupied by more than 300¬†Yup’ik Eskimos called Newtok. Their houses are literally sinking into the softening ground or being swept into the eroding banks of the Ninglick River, which empties into the Bering Sea. This writer described how the “vague sense of things being out of kilter forms itself into a vision of imminent disaster” as the permafrost — which acts as a foundation for the entire village — melts.

The town of Newtok may be small, but some 90,000 other Alaskans also live on permafrost and may soon find themselves in a situation similar to that of the indigenous people in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta region. The residents of Newtok are merely closer to the water than other Alaskans; with seawater gobbling up their land at up to 90 feet a year, all of the village’s listing buildings will soon be swallowed up.

The Newtok Planning Group was formed as a public-private partnership in 2006 to help the town move from their current area to an island location to be named Mertarvik. But the Alaskan Native residents have seen this coming for well over a decade. The Yup’ik Eskimos of Newtok have been planning the relocation since 1994.

Back in 2004, a study by the the oversight organization for Alaska’s national parks revealed that 27 percent of the state’s permafrost had been lost in the last three decades. The organization noted that the loss of permafrost means more than just sinking buildings; severe insect infestations, forest fires and fish die-offs also come with the release of methane and carbon dioxide that comes from the melting process.

According to a report in the Anchorage Daily News, the Mertavik project is years from completion, with the new settlement underfunded and lacking several vital safety features. The state is still busy building a barge landing on which the residents will be able to load housing and construction materials. But the new town, whose name means “getting water from a spring” is no refugee camp. The island has abundant wildlife, and wind turbines are in the works to help power the village with a smaller environmental footprint.

Meanwhile, the residents of Newtok have become internally displaced persons. In April, while Anchorage hosted the first Indigenous Peoples’ Global Summit on Climate Change, devastating spring floods caused the entire village of Newtok to flee 9 miles away to higher ground.

This article from the UK’s Guardian newspaper last year notes that the federal government may be Alaskan Natives’ best bet, considering the “leadership” coming from the governor’s office:

At best, Newtok can expect only ambivalent support from the state authorities in Juneau, 1,000 miles away. Alaska’s new lipstick-wearing pitbull megastar, Sarah Palin, is intellectually challenged when it comes to global warming. Soon after she was thrown into the spotlight as John McCain’s presidential running mate she said: “A changing environment will affect Alaska more than any other state, because of our location. I’m not one, though, who would attribute it to being man-made.” A few days later she tried to retract her statement, but her sentiments as a global-warming denier were crystal clear.

Palin changed her tune slightly once again back in April when she whined to Interior Secretary Ken Salazar about how Alaska bears the brunt of climate change, admitting that “the dramatic decreases in the extent of summer sea ice, increased coastal erosion, melting of permafrost, decrease in alpine glaciers and overall ecosystem changes are very real to us.”

However, she used these “dramatic” changes to appeal for expanded natural gas drilling in her state. She has also recently designated flooded plains, including the delta in which Newtok is nestled, as disaster areas, allowing the Alaskan interior to apply for federal relief funds. It seems the governor of Alaska has not experienced a wholesale conversion to environmentalism, but is more of a green opportunist.

The Guardian article referenced earlier goes on to note the cost of global warming in Alaska, putting the bill for relocating the tiny town of Newtok at a whopping $130 million, and the cost of global warming statewide at $3 billion and rising.

Sen. Mark Begich (D-AK) is lobbying Congress and the White House to have transition funds for Alaskan communities included in climate change legislation due out this year. But if the massive state of Alaska, with its coffers so overflowing with oil money that residents get a rebate check every year, is having a hard time getting some 300 refugees to safety, what happens when climate refugees come streaming out of larger coastal cities such as San Francisco and New York?

Because the GAO has no enforcement power, its call for a U.S. Office for Climate Change Refugee Assistance (if you will) may go unheeded. Creating a new government agency is not an easy idea to sell politically, as has been seen with the difficulty in restructuring the country’s fractured food safety system. As is shown by another contentious battle in Congress, regulating business and climate change is just as difficult; the recession makes either attempt seem exponentially harder to tackle monetarily.

But perhaps climate change deniers who have not been persuaded by drowning polar bears turning to cannibalism just to survive might have mercy for their fellow men and women on the front lines of environmental disaster. A human face on this crisis might cause them to finally admit that they were wrong, and that something must be done immediately.


Image courtesy of MarmotChaser’s photostream on Flickr.

Originally published at BuzzFlash.com.

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