The Arctic is warming at a rate almost twice the global average, making climate change’s effects there far more intense and rapid than any other ecosystem in the world. While nature photographs of polar bears and melting ice dominate media narratives, the top of the world is home to 4m people who face an uncertain future.
Coastal erosion, forest fires and storm surges are threatening the physical and economic safety of settlements across the Arctic Ocean shoreline. Further inland, thawing permafrost is compromising the stability of transportation, sanitation and public service infrastructure built upon once-sturdy foundations. In Alaska alone, 31 villages face imminent threat of destruction from erosion and flooding. Many of these villages have 10 to 20 years of livability before their streets, schools and homes become uninhabitable. At least 12 have decided to relocate – in part or entirely – to safer ground to avoid total collapse.
This week, the United States approaches the First Hundred Days mark of its leadership of the Arctic Council, a high-level governmental forum for the world’s eight Arctic nations to act on circumpolar challenges. Leadership gives the US a two-year opportunity to lead the international community in confronting climate change there. Though the US, led by Secretary of State John Kerry, has seen some successful polar initiatives implemented in the past few months, there is much more work to be done.
In early 2015, President Obama proposed $50.4m in federal spending to help Native American communities adapt public infrastructure to the effects of climate change. That is less than half of what the US Army Corps of Engineers estimates to be needed to relocate just one Alaskan town. Moving an entire community to a safer location mere miles away can cost anywhere from $80m to upwards of $250m.
Currently, federal programs for disaster assistance are limited and mostly unavailable to villages that require relocation. Relief programs focus on sudden natural disasters like Hurricane Sandy at the expense of financially supporting the adaptation and relocation of towns facing dangers from gradual natural processes. Because of this, communities in Alaska must rely on ad hoc federal and state grants to build single buildings, in hopes of relocating in full before an emergency evacuation is needed.
To truly lead in meeting today’s most pressing Arctic issue and help safeguard the wellbeing of northerners, Secretary Kerry must take seriously the issue of climate relocation. This means working towards the creation of a legal and financial structure that can adequately respond to communities in need today.
Defining a new governance structure and making the necessary financial resources available to deal with climate relocation will take hard work and a determined commitment by Secretary Kerry and his Arctic team. The structure must be built through engagement at all levels of government, which is largely lacking in America’s current national Arctic framework. That means not only being inclusive of tribal, local and state stakeholders in Alaska, but also engaging the many federal agencies involved in relocation activities, from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to the newly formed Senate Arctic Caucus.
A first step towards this ambition is simple: convene a relocation policy meeting in DC with vital local, state and federal policymakers and stakeholders within the year to draft a strategic plan. The plan’s components must be actionable, with further steps to be taken over the US’s two-year chairmanship transparent and deliverable. Debate over who will fund relocation and which agency will lend technical assistance during the meeting will be intense. But the meeting, debates and eventual outcomes are essential for protecting the lives of our northernmost citizens.
Secretary Kerry concluded his first Arctic Council meeting in April by stressing the importance of acting quickly. “We all know the clock is ticking, and we actually don’t have a lot of time to waste.” This is most evident today in the Arctic, but the clock is also ticking for communities in New Jersey, Louisiana, California and other coastal states.
Alaskan villages may be the first to be forced into climate-induced relocation, but they certainty won’t be the last. Creating a framework for relocation can establish an important structure for vulnerable towns across America to use in the decades to come. To make America’s next hundred days leading the council more impactful than the first, Secretary Kerry must inaugurate the process to build a deliverable policy to help not only Alaskans, but citizens on all American shorelines, before times runs out for us all.