Recently, the council of the Shishmaref tribe in Alaska voted to leave their island home and relocate to the mainland. This decision was not made lightly, but it had to happen because climate change has made it impossible for them to stay.
Because of rising sea levels and increased storm activity due to climate change, erosion is shrinking the coastlines by 20-30 feet every year. Erosion has destroyed homes as their land vanishes out from under them. Because the island itself is only 77 square miles (roughly the size as Brooklyn), they need to move sooner rather than later.
Here are 5 reasons to care that climate change is forcing the Shishmaref people from their homes:
1. They didn’t cause the problem that’s driving them from their home.
Adding insult to injury is the fact that they aren’t significant contributors to the problem. The actions of others caused this and there was nothing they could do.
Sure, they use electricity and drive vehicles, but Alaska is ranked #38 in the country for carbon emissions, and a tiny island with fewer than 600 inhabitants leaves a minimal carbon footprint. The real offenders are corporations that disobey environmental regulations, putting profits before responsibility, and the politicians who enable them.
2. Climate change will continue to affect their lives.
Hunting and fishing are a way of life for the Shishmaref, so the stress on the wild animals from warming waters and interrupted migration paths will severely impact how readily they can find food. Higher temperatures also mean that the waters won’t be frozen for as long, limiting how much food they can get through ice fishing or hunting by traveling via dogsled.
Some may say that they can just have food sent in, but the shipping prices are astronomical because Alaska is so big and sparsely populated, on top of being a worse alternative for the environment. Not only that, but the food they hunt and fish is better quality than whatever would be sent to them anyway.
3. The relocation will be incredibly expensive.
Though the population is small, the cost of starting their community over on the mainland will run about $320,000 per person. In total, that equals about $180 million.
Why does it cost so much? Not only do they have to rebuild their homes, but also their roads, schools, hospital, and shops, along with infrastructure for all of the utilities needed to support them.
4. The sanctity of their culture is being threatened.
The members of the tribe have decided to stay together, but it isn’t as simple as just moving to the next town. Because the relocation will take time, it’s possible that they will lose some of their traditions and their culture may suffer before it is completed.
Even if the new village is built as similarly to the existing one as possible, there’s a lot to be said for leaving the land itself. They have a lifetime of memories attached to that island, which makes it impossible not to have sentimental value. When they leave the land behind, they will also be leaving the burial sites of their family members and ancestors.
5. Human displacement from climate change is only going to get worse.
The Shishmaref may be the most recent group of people displaced by climate change, but they will not be the last. In Alaska alone, there are currently 31 villages being threatened by climate change with 12 already looking toward relocation.
By the end of the century, it has been estimated that 13 million people living on islands and along coastlines could be displaced because of climate change. While the Shishmaref tribe has the benefit of federal protection and support to relocate to a nearby location, not everyone who will be displaced will be so lucky.
We need to take stronger action against climate change to allow people around the world to stay in their homes and protect their culture.