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Rights, Resilience, and Community-Led Relocation: Perspectives from Fifteen Alaska Native Coastal Communities

The Alaska Institute for Justice, in partnership with NOAA and the Alaska Native Science Commission, held its first Rights, Resilience, and Community-Based Adaptation Workshop in September 2016 in Anchorage, Alaska.  The 2016 adaptation workshop agenda was designed by and for the 15 Alaska Native communities during advisory committee meetings held several months before the workshop.  The purpose of the workshop was to enable 15 Alaska Native communities to begin to design a relocation governance framework that protects their human rights.  Climate-induced community relocations are perhaps the greatest human rights challenge of our time.  Those who have least contributed to our climate crisis are now the first to face the permanent loss of their homelands, and thus, need to relocate.  Currently, no Federal or State government agency in the United States has the mandate or funding to implement a relocation process if a community makes the decision to relocate.  Here are the stories from 15 Alaska Native communities designing a community-led relocation process.

Climate and Societal Interactions: Supporting Resilient Coastal Communities and Ecosystems in a Changing Climate: Understanding Climate-Related Human Health Risks Within the Coastal Environment

A rapidly changing climate in the Arctic is dramatically impacting the health and well-being of Alaska Native communities. Erosion and repeated extreme weather events damage infrastructure, including health clinics and water and sewage treatment facilities. Saline intrusion and thawing permafrost impact access to potable water. In the most extreme cases, accelerating rates of erosion are life-threatening and are causing Alaska Native communities to choose to relocate their entire community.

Adaptive governance and institutional strategies for climate-induced community relocations in Alaska

This article presents governance and institutional strategies for climate-induced community relocations. In Alaska, repeated extreme weather events coupled with climate change-induced coastal erosion impact the habitability of entire communities. Community residents and government agencies concur that relocation is the only adaptation strategy that can protect lives and infrastructure. Community relocation stretches the financial and institutional capacity of existing governance institutions. Based on a comparative analysis of three Alaskan communities, Kivalina, Newtok, and Shishmaref, which have chosen to relocate, we examine the institutional constraints to relocation in the United States. We identify policy changes and components of a toolkit that can facilitate community-based adaptation when environmental events threaten people’s lives and protection in place is not possible. Policy changes include amendment of the Stafford Act to include gradual geophysical processes, such as erosion, in the statutory definition of disaster and the creation of an adaptive governance framework to allow communities a continuum of responses from protection in place to community relocation. Key components of the toolkit are local leadership and integration of social and ecological well-being into adaptation planning.

Climate-Induced Community Relocations: Creating An Adaptive Governance Framework Based In Human Rights Doctrine

The specter of millions of people fleeing their homes because of climate change has sparked an international debate about creating human rights protections for climate refugees. Though scholars and journalists have focused on the southern hemisphere, this crisis is occurring with unprecedented rapidity in the Arctic. In Alaska, temperatures have increased at twice the rate of the global average. Arctic sea ice is decreasing and permafrost is thawing. These ecological phenomena are creating a humanitarian crisis for the 200 indigenous communities that have inhabited the Arctic for millennia. Dozens of these communities are threatened because of climate-accelerated erosion, flooding, and extreme weather events. The traditional responses of hazard prevention and disaster relief are no longer protecting communities despite millions of dollars spent on erosion control and flood relief. Community relocation is the only feasible solution to permanently protect the inhabitants of these communities. This article describes the steps that federal, state, and tribal governments have taken to relocate Newtok, one of at least twelve indigenous communities in Alaska that need to relocate due to climate change. The policy and practical challenges to relocate the community are enormous and clearly demonstrate that new governance institutions need to be designed to specifically respond to climate-induced relocation. This Article ultimately proposes the creation of Guiding Principles of Climigration outlining key human rights principles that can guide an adaptive governance framework. This framework, in turn, will allow government agencies to transition their humanitarian response from protection in place to community relocation.

Climate-induced community relocations: using integrated social-ecological assessments to foster adaptation and resilience

Extreme weather events coupled with sea level rise and erosion will cause coastal and riverine areas where people live and maintain livelihoods to disappear permanently. Adaptation to these environmental changes, including the permanent relocation of millions of people, requires new governance tools. In the USA, local governments, often with state-level and national-level support, will be primarily responsible for protecting residents from climate-change impacts and implementing policies needed to protect their welfare. Government agencies have a variety of tools to facilitate protection in place and managed coastal retreat but have very limited tools to facilitate community relocation. In addition, no institutional mechanism currently exists to determine whether and when preventive relocation needs to occur to protect people from climate change impacts. Based on research involving four Alaska Native communities threatened by climate-induced environmental impacts, I propose the design and implementation of an adaptive governance framework to respond to the need to relocate populations. In this context, adaptive governance means the ability of institutions to dynamically respond to climate change impacts. A component of this adaptive governance framework is a social-ecological monitoring and assessment tool that can facilitate collaborative knowledge production by community residents and governance institutions to guide sustainable adaptation strategies and determine whether and when relocation needs to occur. The framework, including the monitoring and assessment tool, has not been systematically tested. However, the potential use of this tool is discussed by drawing on empirical examples of Alaskan communities faced with accelerating rates of erosion.