Climate Forced Displacement is Already Happening

What we must learn from Indigenous communities in Alaska, now.


December 5, 2019

Indigenous communities in Alaska are helping to create a much-needed framework to guide people facing climate forced displacement — and we all need to be paying attention.

© Mark Meyer / Greenpeace

With frustration in her voice, Robin Bronen, JD PhD, paints a picture of the intense warming taking place in Alaska:

“It’s raining and unbelievably warm for Anchorage this time of year. Unless you’re living in the Arctic and you experience this every day, people think this is a mid-century problem when it’s really obvious that this is a problem of epic proportions right now. We need to be responding with that level of urgency of figuring out how we’re going to adapt.”

The village of Shishmaref, along with hundreds of other Alaskan Native villages, is suffering from the serious consequences of climate change. Rising temperatures have resulted in a reduction in sea ice. The permafrost that the village is built on has also begun to melt, making the shore vulnerable to erosion.

Bronen is the Executive Director of the Alaska Institute for Justice (AIJ), an organization working with Indigenous communities facing an impossible choice: whether or not they are going to relocate. While there are no perfect words to describe people being forcibly displaced because of the climate crisis, Bronen lands on “climate forced displacement” as the best broad descriptor.

“Climate forced displacement includes lots of different ways that people are going to be affected in regard to their ability to stay in the place they call home. So in some places, it may be on an individual or household level that people make the decision that they can no longer be safe in their country of origin. And then there’s the very real problem of having an entire community needing to be moved. And that type of population displacement is what I’m most focused on.”

Entire communities of Indigenous peoples in Alaska are being forced to relocate or consider relocating due to rising sea levels, erosion, flooding, thawing permafrost, and “usteq,” a Yup’ik word meaning catastrophic land collapse. It will come as no surprise that the task of moving an entire community is a massive and expensive undertaking. Of the fifteen tribes AIJ is offering technical support to, only two have officially made the decision to relocate, but have not yet been able to move. This is indicative of a problem facing communities all over the world: there’s no governance framework to respond to climate forced displacement.


Terry Nayokpuk with the family’s sled dogs in Shishmaref.

Why We Need a Governance Framework

One relocation process that reflects the inefficiency that comes with the lack of a governance framework is in Newtok, Alaska. In Newtok, where, as of 2017, roughly 70 feet of land a year erodes away, the community has only just started the process of moving. Roughly twenty-five years after deciding to relocate, they will only be able to move a third of their residents this year.

While earning her Ph.D twelve years ago, Bronen worked with Newtok. During this time she learned “about all the barriers to communities looking to relocate. That is when it became clear that human rights and justice had to be at the forefront when talking about relocation caused by the climate crisis.” Bronen took what she learned to AIJ, and since then the organization has been working with Indigenous peoples to implement a relocation framework based in human rights. Bronen explains:

“The way that I frame it is that the most important right to protect is the right to self-determination. Because what is critically important is that communities are leading this effort and are making all the decisions that are required in order for them to be safe and to adapt in the way they want to adapt.”


Seal on melting glacier, Prince William Sound, Alaska.

If you take a look at the Participants in the Newtok Planning Group, it includes at least twenty-one government agencies in addition to numerous other organizations and institutions. It would be exponentially more efficient to have one or two entities that have the funding and all the resources needed to help a community relocate, and also critical for those entities to protect the human rights of people being forced to adapt.

This is not just a current problem in Alaska; Indigenous communities including the Isle de Jean Charles band of the Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw Tribe in Louisiana have been organizing a resettlement for almost two decades.

Why everyone in the US needs to be paying attention

We all need to be paying attention to challenges facing communities living in the Arctic Circle not just because the rate of change is extremely fast, but also because of research pointing to the likelihood that a warming Arctic has profound effects on the lower latitudes. For example, the loss of sea and ice in the Arctic affects the jet stream, which research shows to affect rainfall in California, and possibly cause more extreme weather in North America and Europe.

The reality is that more and more coastal and vulnerable communities across the United States will be forced to grapple with the possibility of climate forced displacement. And we need to prepare for that.

Melting sea ice in the Chukchi Sea.

Leading with Climate Justice

Wherever the forced relocation takes place, the need for climate justice is paramount.

These small communities living in rural areas in Alaska are clearly the least responsible for emissions that contribute most to human-caused global warming, and yet they are being the most profoundly impacted. When oil companies choose to continue drilling, they are continuing to entrench people in an unsustainable system that is not only speeding up the warming of our planet, but harming communities living close to fossil fuel infrastructure with high rates of toxic releases. The fossil fuel industry has continuously put profits over people, and communities like the ones in Alaska are forced to deal with the consequences.


To learn more about the Alaska Institute for Justice (AIJ), you can visit their website, or Facebook page.


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