Alaskans discuss climate preparedness and displacement at Hawaiʻi symposium

December 22, 2016

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four partcipants posing for group picture Erin Shew, Davin Holen, Alaska Sea Grant program manager Tara Borland, and Alaska Sea Grant director Paula Cullenberg in Honolulu, Hawaiʻi.

Honolulu, Hawai'i—Three Alaska Sea Grant staff members and Knauss Marine Policy Fellow Erin Shew attended the Symposium on Climate Displacement, Migration, and Relocation in Hawaiʻi in December.

The meeting—which attracted nearly 100 people—took place in Honolulu at the Kapi’olani Community College December 13–14. The workshop highlighted how climate change is influencing displacement of Pacific people, especially in Alaska and the Marshall Islands. The first sessions featured panelists from the Alaska communities of Shishmaref, Kivalina, and Unalakleet. Alaska coastal residents shared their experiences of erosion caused by severe fall storms in an environment where shore-fast ice is no longer present at the time of year when storms occur. Their communities are disappearing as the ocean creeps farther inland. A representative of the Quinalt Nation of Washington discussed how his community is migrating inland as the coastal environment changes due to increasing storm surges.

Some of the most severe impacts are being seen in the Marshall Islands where climate change is impacting access to the subsistence food supply. The Marshall Islands sit an average of 5 feet above sea level. As sea levels rise, storms inundate larger areas of communities and fields. Due to climate and economic impacts, one-third of the Marshall Islands population now resides outside their homeland.

Other sessions at the symposium were dedicated to discussing the legal framework for relocation at the state, national, and international level. The major questions surrounded who is responsible for relocating communities that are impacted by climate change. In Alaska, communities most at risk are located on spits or barrier islands that are quickly disappearing. Participants learned that the territorial government chose these locations for communities because the migratory Alaskans were at these sites when they were forced to settle. However, the locations are not particularly good for building modern infrastructure.

In some parts of the Pacific, community residents on islands that are just above sea level are planning their move and even buying land in other Pacific nations to resettle their populations, as sea level rise is expected to overtake their islands in the next century.

“Whether climate change is real or whether it’s exacerbated by anthropogenic influence is no longer the question, we have already reached the tipping point,” said Davin Holen, Alaska Sea Grant coastal community resilience specialist. “Residents of coastal communities and islands in the Pacific are experiencing a changing climate in real time and it's already impacting their health, safety, and way of life. The question now is, how do we give coastal communities and island peoples in the Pacific the tools and the assistance they need in preparing their communities to deal with the challenges of today, and to plan sustainable communities for their children and grandchildren?”

During workshops at the symposium, small group discussions centered around questions of how to engage communities in the Pacific to plan for future displacement, migration, and relocation. This was followed by how to talk to policy makers, funders, and the public about why it’s important to engage residents on this topic now. The climate is expected to gradually become more extreme in the Pacific in the next century, and rising sea levels will continue to impact coastal communities and may ultimately overtake some Pacific nations.

The White House Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ), the University of Hawaiʻi Law School, Hawaii Sea Grant, and Alaska Sea Grant organized and funded the symposium. Erin Shew, a climate preparedness fellow at CEQ, was a key organizer of the event. Shew is finishing her master’s degree in northern studies at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

Shew will complete her 2016 John A. Knauss Marine Policy Fellowship in February 2017. Her past experience includes working as a fish and wildlife technician in northern Alaska for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game Division of Subsistence, conducting research on the use of wild plants, fish, and animals. Previously, she worked as an AmeriCorps volunteer in the Native Village of Eyak’s environmental department and as a communications intern for the Renewable Energy Alaska Project.

Alaska Sea Grant is a statewide marine research, education, and outreach program, and is a partnership between the University of Alaska Fairbanks and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Alaska Sea Grant Marine Advisory Program agents provide assistance that helps Alaskans wisely use, conserve, and enjoy marine and coastal resources.