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Following their appearance in a San Francisco Federal Appeals Court this week, Climate Watch contributor Amy Standen was the only journalist to sit down with members of the Kivalina delegation before their return home.
As a group of nine Alaskan natives returns to their coastal village after their day in court, it seems that their plight is about more than getting money to pay for a move to higher ground. It’s an interesting microcosm of the climate conundrum: The past isn’t prologue anymore. History is a faulty crystal ball. How climate change will affect a specific place is anyone’s best guess. And in the case of Kivalina — and likely, many other places — residents’ visions of the future may not line up with those of scientists.
In the past, Kivalina– which lies at the tip of a narrow barrier island off the coast of Alaska – was buffered from storms by a thick layer of ice around its perimeter. But now the ice is melting. Every time a storm hits, many of Kivalina’s 400 residents take shelter in a local elementary school, hoping the waves will spare them. Everyone agrees: The village must relocate.
Moving Kivalina will likely cost between $180 and $400 million, according to the US Army Corps of Engineers. So far, it’s not clear where that money is going to come from, which is one reason Kivalina is suing ExxonMobil, Chevron USA, and 22 other gas, electric, and power companies whose greenhouse gas emissions, according to the suit, led to Kivalina’s woes.
But money isn’t the only obstacle. There’s also the question of where to go. The native Inupiat community in Kivalina has its preference. The Corps of Engineers, which dispenses advice on flood safety, has a different one. But given the inherent instability of climate change, how relevant is either prediction?
I met up with Enoch Adams, Jr., a member of the Kivalina delegation, at his attorney’s office in downtown San Francisco.
How did the Corps go about choosing a relocation site?
“The Army Corps of Engineers studied six different sites. They did storm surge studies using 100-year flood [scenarios] and 500-year floods. And they chose two sites that would meet the 500-year flood plain.”
So why has the Kivalina community chosen a different site?
“We told [USACE] a story of a little girl, back before the turn of the century, who happened to be some of our people’s grandmother and great-grandmother. The area had flooded, and they had to move to higher ground, using a skin boat, a boat they use for traveling. She was a little girl at the time, probably about 15. She said she happened to look back, to the place where Kivalina was and it was flooding, and she saw one area that was not flooding at all. And that’s the site the community has picked.
“The site that the community picked would answer the 100-year flood [scenario], but the Army Corps of Engineers is concerned it might not meet the 500-year flood plain. But this is their projection, their prediction. And sometimes they’re so caught up in the science part, they don’t realize that all they’re doing is predicting, which is a 50-50 thing. Their guesses are as good as ours.”
How do you think this will be resolved?
“There seems to be a change — and I hope this continues — that the federal government is looking for ways to have traditional knowledge be as respected as their scientific data.
“A lot of our knowledge is based on observation over years, and stories that are told from father to son, mother to daughter, over generations. We use this knowledge to do our subsistence hunting, our fishing, our gathering. We know it to be accurate, because we depend on that knowledge as a people, to survive, and to thrive as a community. I hope that the federal government recognizes soon, and it looks like they will, recognize that traditional knowledge needs to be given the same respect that their scientific data gets.”
Amy Standen is a reporter for KQED’s award-winning science & environment initiative, QUEST.