Impossible Choice Faces America's First 'Climate Refugees'
Climate change is a stark reality in America's northernmost state. Nearly 90 percent of native Alaskan villages are on the coast, where dramatic erosion and floods have become a part of daily life.
Perched on the Ninglick River on the west coast of the state, the tiny town of Newtok may be the state's most vulnerable village. About 350 people live there, nearly all of them Yupik Eskimos. But the Ninglick is rapidly rising due to ice melt, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers says the highest point in the town — a school — could be underwater by 2017.
Suzanne Goldenberg, a U.S. environmental correspondent for The Guardian, spent time in Newtok and published a series this week on the plight of its residents, whom she calls America's first climate refugees. She told weekends on All Things Considered host Jacki Lyden that the rising river poses the greatest risk.
"The river is basically stealing the land out from underneath the village," she says. "Every year during the storm season, that river can take away 20, 30, [even] up to 300 feet a year. ... It just rips it off the land, away from the village in these terrifying storms."
The town, like many others in coastal Alaska, is situated on a broad plain that becomes a mud flat every summer when the snow melts.
"There's no high point there," Goldenberg says, "because so much land is being lost every year. Every year the storms get worse, every year the flood gets more intense."
The Yupik Eskimos who live there are intimately connected to the land, Goldenberg says, where they've fished and hunted for centuries. All that time they have built a culture and tradition that comes from depending on each other in a harsh environment.
But changes in the climate have meant changes also to those centuries-old routines, according to some of the village's residents, who spoke with Goldenberg and her videographer Richard Sprenger.
"The snow comes in a different time now. The snow disappears way late," says villager Nathan Tom. "That's making the geese come at the wrong time. Now they're starting to lay eggs when there's still snow and ice. We can't even travel and go pick them. It's getting harder. It's changing a lot."
Some of the townspeople are eager to relocate, and others would rather not. A new site — about 9 miles away — has already been selected, but residents are dubious about when a move could happen.
"I'd rather stay here, where I grew up," resident Tom John says. "I love Newtok, you know. I don't want to move to somewhere else."
There are also the financial considerations. The U.S. Government Accountability Office has estimated that the cost of moving Newtok — with 63 homes — might reach $130 million. The people of Newtok do not have that kind of money, Goldenberg says.
"These people are living well below the average income of other Americans. They're able to live that way because they hunt and fish for what they eat," she says. "So they can't all of a sudden go and build and pay for new houses on the other side."
The money has not been forthcoming from the government either, Goldenberg says. Neither the state nor federal government recognizes climate change as a disaster for the appropriation of relief funds.
"It's not as if you suffer a drought, suffer a hurricane, suffer a tornado, and you can apply for disaster relief," she explains, "because climate change moves too slowly to be recognized as a disaster, and because you need to move people now, before the disaster occurs."
That leaves the Yupik people of Newtok in limbo, Goldenberg says. Some villagers are hoping the move to the new site can begin this summer. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers says there is no possible way to protect the village of Newtok where it stands now.
JACKI LYDEN, HOST:
If you're just joining us, it's WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Jacki Lyden.
Climate change is dramatically altering the world we live in. That's a stark reality in the northern most state where nearly 90 percent of native Alaskan villages are on the coast and dealing with erosion and floods. And perhaps nobody is more vulnerable than residents of the tiny village of Newtok. It's 450 miles west of Anchorage. There, the Ninglick River is rapidly rising due to ice melt. And the Yupik Eskimo who live there must leave, and soon.
Reporter Suzanne Goldenberg calls them America's first climate refugees. She spent time in Newtok and wrote about it in The Guardian newspaper. She took along a videographer, and they recorded what people there are seeing.
NATHAN TOM: The snow comes in a different timing now. The snow disappears way late. That's making the geese come at the wrong time. Now, they're starting to lay eggs when there's still snow and ice. And we can't even travel and go pick them. It's getting harder. It's changing a lot.
LYDEN: That's Newtok resident Nathan Tom. Suzanne Goldenberg joined us in the studio to talk about the story.
SUZANNE GOLDENBERG: Good to be here.
LYDEN: So he is giving you this incredible description, which is about much more than when geese lay eggs. He's talking about the threat to their way of life. Another thing that you document is the rising of the Ninglick River. What's happening there?
GOLDENBERG: Well, that is the biggest and most immediate threat to Newtok, and that is the river is basically stealing the land out from under the village. Every year, during the storm season, that river can take away 20, 30, up to 300 feet a year in that season, and they - just rips it off the land away from the village in these terrifying storms.
And then the seasons are just totally out of whack. And if you're a hunter, like Nathan Tom, then that affects your daily life and your living.
LYDEN: So you write in perhaps five years these will be America's first climate refugees because, what, the town surrounded by this river will be underwater?
GOLDENBERG: Absolutely. I mean, the Corps of Army Engineers did a survey. And according to the projections, the highest point in the village, which is the school, because it sits on pilings, could be underwater by 2017 because so much land is being lost every year. Every year the storms get worse. Every year the flooding gets more intense. And one day the whole area could be underwater.
This is an area of mudflats, you know, when the snow melts. There's no high point there. There is nowhere to go for them except to really leave the place entirely.
LYDEN: There are plans to relocate the entire village across the Ninglick River to higher ground about nine miles away. What's standing in the way of effectuating that?
GOLDENBERG: Money. Money and the law. Basically, these people are living well below the sort of average incomes of other Americans, and they're able to live that way because they hunt and fish for what they eat and because they share within the community. So they can't, all of a sudden, go and build and pay for new houses on the other side.
LYDEN: Let's hear from another resident. This Yupik Eskimo gentleman is called Tom John.
TOM JOHN: I rather stay here where I grew up, where I love - I love Newtok, you know? I don't want to move to somewhere else.
LYDEN: Well, the Eskimos have hunted there for centuries, haven't they? Not necessarily in Newtok but this area.
GOLDENBERG: They are intimately connected to the land. And you have to remember that this community - first of all, people are all related, and second, they have a unique culture. They have their own dances. They have their own songs. And that develops over years, decades, centuries living together, hunting together, being very dependent one upon the other in this very harsh environment.
LYDEN: What are we learning from climate change? As you write, there are scores of Alaskan native villages in this kind of condition. What are we learning from them? How are we preparing?
GOLDENBERG: I think, you know, for me, the biggest revelation here was that we just do not have the right mindset in the federal and state governments to deal with climate change. I mean, for example, one of the biggest impediments to getting the money for the people in Newtok is that the federal government and the state governments do not, under the law, recognize climate change as a disaster.
So it's not as if you suffer a drought, you suffer a hurricane, you suffer a tornado and you can apply for disaster relief because climate change moves too slowly to be recognized as a disaster and because you need to move people now before the disaster occurs. So our current legal framework was not set up to anticipate climate change, and that's a big, big problem.
LYDEN: That's Suzanne Goldenberg, the U.S. environment correspondent for The Guardian. She's written a three-part series on America's first climate change refugees in Newtok, Alaska. Thank you very much for coming to the studio with us.
GOLDENBERG: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.