The First Frontier: Creating a climate displacement fund for displaced Alaska communities

OPINION: A climate displacement fund, based on successful fund models used elsewhere, could help pay threatened Alaska communities.

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A climate displacement fund could help residents in threatened villages such as Kivalina, Alaska. (Relocate Kivalina)

Alaska needs a climate displacement fund, or it risks the lives of its indigenous communities.

The world’s first climate change refugees may not only be from Pacific countries, but also Alaska communities in the United States that are on the frontlines of climate change. The Arctic is warming twice as fast as the global average. In Alaska, winter temperatures are already 3.5 degrees C higher than they were in the 1950s. Rising temperatures have already wreaked havoc in Alaska communities.

One major impact has been the increase of storm surges and resulting erosion. A layer of sea ice along the coastline long protected communities in western Alaska from storm surges and wave action that arise from storms in the Bering and Chukchi seas. In the winter, the sea now freezes three weeks later than it used to on average, removing the natural protection that communities once enjoyed and exposing them to more erosion. Meanwhile, these communities are attacked from below ground. Melting permafrost from rising temperatures compromises the structural integrity of buildings whose foundations are buried in permafrost. Climate change also affects food supplies, causing ice cellars to melt, and throwing off caribou migration routes. Thin ice has also made it difficult for sea ice-based whale hunting, as well as hunting seals, ducks, and geese.

In Newtok, a village of about 350, erosion and thawing permafrost have already taken the village’s sewage lagoon and landfill, with its drinking water source expected to be gone soon, too. Facing an average of 70 feet of land erosion per year, the community expects to lose its school and airport by 2020.

Newtok is just one of many villages facing an existential threat. In 2003, the U.S. Government Accountability Office found that flooding and erosion was affecting more than 184 of 213 native villages in Alaska. Twelve of 31 villages facing “imminent threats” voted to relocate, and many have found a safer place to live. As far back as 10 years ago, Newtok, identified a suitable place, Mertarvik, that is on higher ground and nine miles away.

Yet, not one village has moved. The high costs of replacing buildings, roads, pipes, and other infrastructure have made it impossible. It will cost Newtok $80 to $130 million to relocate, Kivalina at least $200 million, and Shaktoolik $290 million.

Current financial resources are not enough, pointing to an obvious need for a new way to raise funds. There was some federal support under President Obama, including an $11.8 million Tribal Climate Resilience Program under the Department of the Interior that was not enough. President Obama’s 2017 budget also proposed a $2 billion Coastal Climate Resilience Fund, but the fund’s status under President Trump is uncertain. Meanwhile, funding from the Federal Emergency Management Agency has been hard to come by, as erosion is not seen as an official disaster. International sources are also not an option. These communities cannot access funds set aside in global sources like the new Green Climate Fund or Adaptation Fund, which are specifically aimed at developing countries.

I propose a climate displacement fund that raises new financial support by applying a levy on plane and cruise tickets in and out of Alaska. Eventually, this fund should evolve into a pooled fund across affected regions in the Arctic Region, recognizing that Alaska Native communities are the first of many in the Arctic to be displaced by climate change. A Brookings study warns that migration patterns of other Arctic indigenous communities, such as the Viliui Sakha in northern Russia and transnational Saami, will also be affected by climate change.

A fund raised from a levy on airplane and cruise tickets in and out of affected Arctic regions, and shared across all displaced communities, could help to alleviate the financial burden of rebuilding. This pooled fund could also serve as a platform for the relevant countries in the Arctic to share best practices on policies and programs for climate displacement.

How would the money be raised? A $1 levy, or the equivalent in affected regions, such as Alaska, Greenland and northern Russia, can be placed on all passenger flights and cruises in and out of these areas. It could be a compulsory levy, or passengers could choose to opt out of the $1 donation, with the expectation that most passengers would not. There is also an option of applying a higher levy on business class tickets or more premium cruise packages. There is an opportunity to tap into growing tourism in Alaska and other areas in the Arctic. In 2013, Alaska saw a record number of visitors (1.96 million) as the number of tourists grew from 2010, with 51 percent coming by cruise ship and 45 percent by air.

Indeed, this is a model that has already succeeded. In 2006, French government placed a €1 levy on economy-class air tickets and €40 on business class air tickets for flights out of France. Over eight years, this raised $1.5 billion for UNITAID, an international organization working to combat AIDS, tuberculosis and Malaria. Importantly, it was found to have no negative impact on tourism to France.

Alaska could move first, leading the way for the rest of the Arctic. There is growing political will to protect Alaska’s communities, and Alaska’s political leaders could push for a levy on airplane and cruise tickets. The late Sen. Ted Stevens sponsored legislation on erosion control projects, which paved the way for the Army Corps of Engineers to build a rock revetment in Kivalina to protect against erosion and wave action, buying Kivalina at least a decade. FEMA’s climate plans recognize the severity of the climate displacement in Alaska. Newtok’s unprecedented step of requesting that the government declare climate impacts as an official disaster continues to put pressure on the government to categorize climate displacement as a disaster. Most recently, on Oct. 31, Alaska Gov. Bill Walker created a climate change task force to develop a new strategy for the state of Alaska.

Without the funds, Shaktoolik, a community of 250, made the decision last year that their only option was to stay and defend, amongst other things building a berm made out of gravel, dirt and grass along the beach to protect themselves from erosion. They say they can last for maybe 20 years. Staying and defending has a ticking time limit. Alaska’s communities need the funds now, and a climate displacement fund is the first step towards rebuilding their homes and livelihoods.

Wen Hoe is a Master in Public Policy student at the Harvard Kennedy School. She has a background in climate adaptation in the water sector. Prior to HKS, she worked for an International NGO in London and West Africa, and a social enterprise in Singapore focusing on effective volunteerism.

This piece is the first of a series of op-eds written by student-scholars of the Arctic Innovators Program at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Arctic Initiative. You can read the full series on this site.

The views expressed here are the writer’s and are not necessarily endorsed by Arctic Today, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary (at) arctictoday.com.