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Eroding Alaska village urges Congress to address climate change

Alex DeMarban
A home in Shishmaref falls into the sea. Shishmaref is highly susceptible to coastal erosion. Courtesy Tony Weyiouanna

Congress has the dirt on climate change -- literally.

Five residents from the eroding village of Shishmaref in Northwest Alaska journeyed to Washington, D.C., this week to sound the alarm on climate change, while hauling a pineapple-sized chunk of frozen tundra to present to lawmakers.

The delegation’s biggest meeting came on Tuesday during a roundtable gathering with the Bicameral Task Force on Climate Change created last year by Rep. Henry Waxman of California, a Democrat.

Warming temperatures have had earth-shattering effects in the village of Shishmaref, a cluster of houses and buildings perched on a mile-wide barrier island some 600 miles northwest of Anchorage, residents said.

With the Chukchi Sea gobbling away the edges of the island, Shishmaref’s 600 residents face the prospect of being washed away in the coming years, as do such other Alaska communities as Newtok and Kivalina.      

Speaking before the task force on Tuesday, Debra Hersrud, a high school senior in Shismaref, told panelists that in 2004 her family was forced to evacuate their home because stormy swells ripped away the earth, leaving the back of the house dangling over an ocean cliff. 

“It was scary. We had to immediately move all of our things out of the house and we went to go stay with my grandparents,” she said, according to her prepared text.

Now she wonders how long until her village gets wiped off the map. “It seems unfair to be giving up my home and my culture for a problem that I don’t have the power to solve by myself. But that is why I’m here and why we are asking for your help -- to address the issue of climate change at a national level,” she said.

The travelers from the Arctic told the four lawmakers who attended, including co-chairs Waxman and Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., about the perils of climate change.  

Hunters have died falling through weak ice, a disappearing beach no longer supports subsistence digging for clams, and houses must be set on skids for periodic moves to higher ground. They told of warm weather that spoils food, of winter fishing that starts weeks behind schedule when the lagoon isn’t frozen for travel, and of storm-tossed waves that batter the village with increasing ferocity because the ice that once armored the coast forms late.  

The challenges have made it difficult to retain quality teachers and to receive support for things such as school improvements, because organizations are reluctant to spend money in a community with a short shelf life, residents said.

Living on the front lines

Waxman told the group they live on the front lines of climate change, and that their stories matter because many members of Congress remain climate-change deniers.

In fact, lawmakers have introduced a bill that would eliminate the Environmental Protection Agency’s authority to address carbon pollution from coal-fired power plants, he said. “At a time when we urgently need to move forward with real solutions, House Republicans want to bury their heads in the sand and block progress,” he said.

Alaska Rep. Don Young helped co-sponsor the bill, which also includes some Democratic co-sponsors in the House and Senate, said Young spokesman Matt Shuckerow. Young believes climate change can’t be pinned on humans alone, but is due to a variety of factors, Shuckerow said.

On Wednesday, Young heard from the group. Where would they move? they wondered. Where would they get the gravel to build roads and foundations? Where would they get the money to build a new village at another site?

The estimated cost of relocating Shishmaref was pegged at $180 million in 2005, or about $300,000 a person, according to the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers. With restraints on earmarks in Congress, getting federal funds for a move won’t be easy, Young told the group.

“There may be ways to find the money, but he was very clear it’s going to be difficult without earmarks,” said Shuckerow.

Money for Vietnam, but not Alaska

During the week, the delegation also met with EPA chief Gina McCarthy, White House advisors, and Alaska Sens. Mark Begich and Lisa Murkowski.

After the meeting with the Shishmaref delegation, Murkowski sent a letter to President Barack Obama, “calling out his administration for its contradictory messages on rising sea levels,” according to a statement from her office.

Shishmaref has been told no federal money is available to help them move, yet Secretary of State John Kerry announced last month that Vietnam will get $17 million from America to deal with climate change there, Murkowski wrote. “I ask that you put America first, especially the Alaskans who deal with this reality on a daily basis,” Murkowski wrote. “As the United States prepares to assume the Chairmanship of the Arctic Council, it is essential we are prepared to address adaption issues in our own Arctic communities.”

The meeting with the task force was organized by the Climate Action Campaign, a nationwide coalition of groups focused on climate solutions. 

In front of the task force, Shishmaref residents said the road to the landfill was washed out this fall when an ocean tempest churned up the Western Alaska coast, ending trips to the dump until the ground froze.

A few more big storms and the airstrip could be wiped out next, said former Mayor Stanley Tocktoo. When that happens, the village will be cut off from emergency flights.

“No matter what your politics, you can’t ignore the facts. The facts are that our village is being impacted by climate change on a daily basis. And we need you to do something about it,” he said.

As for the permafrost that had traveled from Alaska, it attended every meeting in a plastic tub, a slowly melting reminder meant to symbolize the change happening in the Arctic.  

Contact Alex DeMarban at alex@alaskadispatch.com.