The small indigenous village sits on a narrow finger on the western coast of Alaska, far from sprawling cities, coal plants and factories. It isn’t bothered by smog, or the toxic fumes of an oblivious industrial neighbor. The community’s kids don’t have to contend with gangs and crime, or unsafe factories near their playgrounds.
Yet it is estimated that in less than a decade, this small indigenous island village of 377 will disappear. Completely.
“Climate change affects everybody,” says Kimberly Freeman-Brown. Freeman-Brown serves as the Washington office chief for Green For All, a U.S.-based advocacy group that works with affected communities. “None of us are saved from the storms, drought, fire, and what have you that are resulting from rising temperatures and…the instability of the weather patterns.”
Unfortunately, Kivalina's story is also evidence that climate justice issues often go hand-in-hand with precipitous climate change.
In 2008, the Inupiat village and the city of Kivalina (which surrounds the village) sued oil, gas coal and other companies for the destruction of their coastline, which the plaintiffs said was due to the emission of greenhouse gases. Since 1952, the village of Kivalina has lost six of its 25 acres to coastal erosion and been forced to evacuate at least once under perilous circumstances. Lack of funds, resources and clout are at the heart of the Inupiat people’s inability to either save their coastline, or relocate to a safer location.
People of color living in Los Angeles, explains Freeman-Brown, “are more than twice as likely to die in a heat wave” than other residents. Urban planners now know that high densities of concrete and other surfaces that absorb heat intensify rising temperatures, creating “heat islands” that turn warm-climate residential areas like L.A. into virtual ovens. For areas where hot summer weather has always been a fact of life, rising temperatures can be lethal in communities where people can’t afford to upgrade their homes to meet the changes, or buy an air conditioner. Studies conducted by researchers in Arizona and Texas in 2012 found that elderly residents in low-income neighborhoods were more likely to die from heat exposure.
“And we know that 68 percent of African Americans live within 30 miles of a coal plant. Coal pollution itself leads to over 10,000 premature deaths a year. We also know that compared to 1 in 10 nationwide, 1 in 6 black children has asthma because of the proximity to the pollution that causes climate change," says Freeman-Brown.
But the heat island effect isn’t the only circumstance in which communities of color and individuals with limited resources are at risk, as the last decade of devastating storms have illustrated. Residents whose homes were wiped out or damaged during Katrina in 2005, found they couldn’t get funding to rebuild and were moved into trailers with toxic fume problems or were prevented from moving into other communities. Survivors of Ike (2008) had to battle to get their public housing units repaired by the city of Galveston, TX.
While Mother Nature is often color-blind in the destruction she wreaks (as communities like the upscale coastal area of Rockaway Beach, NY can attest), the long-term, devastating impact of such storms often isn’t. Lower income communities often find that the affected residents can’t afford to rebuild, and can’t afford to move out of the area. Increased poverty due to loss of work (as a result of the storm or economic problems for businesses due to the storm) can become a downward spiral that affects not only residents, but the economic resiliency of the community as a whole.
In recent years, communities have been coming together to find ways of improving that resiliency. Environmental justice is not new. But the concept that communities have an inherent right to climate safety from greenhouse gases and man-made global warming is still yet to be proven in the courts.
Kivalina's position, however, was that the thick sea ice that had protected its coastline during the stormy autumn, winter and spring months was melting much earlier and at a precipitous rate due to climate warming.
"The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the U.S. Government Accountability Office (had) both determined that Kivalina must be relocated due to global warming," the lawsuit stated. "Houses and buildings are in imminent danger of falling into the sea as the village is battered by storms and the ground crumbles beneath it." Further, due to their remote location 75 miles north of the Arctic Circle, the cost of relocation would be somewhere between $95 million and $400 million, far beyond what the residents could afford.
The 24 defendants, which included oil and power companies, the suit alleged, "Had a responsibility for a substantial portion of the greenhouse gases in the atmosphere that have caused global warming and Kivalina's special injuries."
The U.S. District Court, however, dismissed the case in 2009, saying that regulating greenhouse gases was a political matter, not a legal one. The question of whether corporate entities could be blamed for greenhouse gas emissions should hinge on a political decision by Congress and the Bush administration, the courts said. Although Kivalina attempted to appeal the decision, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals and the Supreme Court both declined to further the case, effectively stopping Kivalina’s legal efforts for redress.
The destruction of Kivalina’s coastline, however, has not stopped.
“If we're still here in 10 years time, we either wait for the flood and die, or just walk away and go someplace else,” said Kivalina’s council leader Colleen Swan in an interview with the BBC.
And, says Freeman-Brown, the answer doesn’t just lie in addressing climate change.
“What we need to make sure happens is that our climate action response generates the kind of environmental justice and economic justice that further insulates people from being victims to the kind of environmental degradation that we are seeing.”
Some of the strategies that have emerged in recent years include:
Photo of Kivalina's sandbagged coastline courtesy of Christine Shearer.
Photo of protesters cap and trade legislation in Chicago courtesy of Wesha.
Jan Lee is a former news editor and award-winning editorial writer whose non-fiction and fiction have been published in the U.S., Canada, Mexico, the U.K. and Australia. Her articles and posts can be found on TriplePundit, JustMeans, and her blog, The Multicultural Jew, as well as other publications. She currently splits her residence between the city of Vancouver, British Columbia and the rural farmlands of Idaho.