Little time remains for travellers hoping to get a glimpse of Kivalina, Alaska, writes Fran McCrae.

By 2025, the village in north-western Alaska will be under water, turning its 400 Inupiat Eskimo residents into the United States’ first climate change refugees.

Why Kivalina will disappear

Located on a small barrier island off the coast of north-west Alaska in the Chukchi Sea, the community is rapidly succumbing to the ravaging effects of severe erosion devouring the island’s shoreline and rising sea levels that will eventually put all remaining usable land under water.

Attempts to save the island have been underway since 1992, including state-funded erosion control projects, but a slower trickle of funds, violent autumn and winter storms and the retreat of the Arctic ice have made recovery impossible.

The people of Kivalina have fought to protect their village, famously suing ExxonMobil, BP and a slew of other fossil fuel giants in 2008 for monetary damages to compensate the town’s destruction at the hands of a polluting energy industry.

The residents of Kivalina blame the polluting energy industry for the deterioration of their community and lifestyle.

The residents of Kivalina blame the polluting energy industry for the deterioration of their community and lifestyle.

The case was dismissed in 2009 by a U.S. district court who ruled that greenhouse gas emissions were a political issue and therefore out of the judicial system’s scope, a view that carried throughout the failed appeal process.

Now Kivalina is tasked with finding the estimated $400 million necessary to relocate to higher ground, a bill that no one, including the U.S. or Alaskan government, seems willing to foot.

Kivalina council leader Colleen Swan was quoted in a BBC feature as saying, “The U.S. government imposed this Western lifestyle on us, gave us their burdens and now they expect us to pick everything up and move it ourselves. What kind of government does that?”

Why Kivalina matters

Though the plight of this Alaskan village may seem small compared to the host of other global environmental challenges, Kivalina is only one of 26 Alaskan villages on the brink of destruction, according to a 2009 report by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.


Climate change is slowly sinking Kivalina. Source: World Justice Project.

And beyond Alaska, many more regions are at risk, including the deltas of Bangladesh, the Maldives, the Sahel in Africa and Venice, Italy.

In 2010 alone, 38.3 million people were displaced, and the problem will only get worse: the total number of climate-related refugees is widely estimated to reach 150 million by 2050.

The humanitarian crisis at hand is staggering.

Who will shoulder the financial burden of relocating entire cities, entire countries?

Where will these millions of people go?

How will the global community handle the question of statelessness for those whose nations no longer exist?

Kivalina is important, because its story has finally brought climate displacement to the media’s attention, even though the threat was already imminent in a 2006 report.

Kivalina matters, because it will be the first test for the United States, that has finally pledged a more aggressive approach to combating climate change as detailed in the President’s Climate Action Plan (June 2013).

Kivalina will make a difference, because the rest of the world will be watching.

For more information, see:

– BBC’s HARDtalk On the Road: Alaska
Kivalina: A Climate Change Story by Christine Shearer


Writer: Fran McCrae is an independent contributor to Revolve Magazine.