Arctic coastal communities that are primarily indigenous and forced to relocate because of the effects of climate change face not only environmental threats but also bureaucratic hurdles.
That was the assessment from a panel discussion at the State Department-sponsored GLACIER conference in Anchorage Monday.
As sea levels rise, coastal bluffs erode, said Northwest Arctic Borough Mayor Reggie Joule, describing a familiar set of changes for coastal communities. Meanwhile the decline of sea ice forces the marine mammals upon which those communities rely for food to find land somewhere else, because the ice they would normally rest on is gone.
"It's not like you can drive away from a problem. The only way in and out is by air. The changes, the action needs to happen soon because the members of those communities, Kivalina and others, really don't have the luxury of time," he said.
But such changes are hindered by a lack of mechanisms for relocation -- or even ones that streamline efforts from federal, state and local stakeholders.
Robin Bronen, executive director of the Alaska Immigration Justice Project, said people living in threatened coastal communities have asked for help for more than a decade. But because governments only provide funding after major disasters, the system is backwards; it's reactive instead of proactive.
Bronen said Newtok has been documenting erosion since 1983, and raising awareness about it since 1990. The village even hired a lobbyist to help them secure a new place to live.
"So despite taking all of that action Newtok has still not relocated," Bronen said. "And the primary reason is because we do not have a relocation institution or framework not only in the U.S. but anywhere in the world."
Interior Department Chief of Staff Tommy Beaudreau said efforts to date to help these communities have been made in a "discrete and relatively uncoordinated way."
He said that the federal government wants to be more involved, and provide guidance, but with most of the input coming from locals.
"We want to avoid having some sort of heavy handed but well-meaning effort from Washington D.C. that ends up dictating outcomes, dictating decisions to the people who are actually affected by and have to live with those decisions," he said.
Beaudreau mentioned the Denali Commission as one model for achieving such aims, praised its structure for having representatives from the state, local and federal levels, and adding that, "you'll hear in the coming days a lot more about this structure."
Last week, a U.S. Army Corp of Engineers official said President Obama would announce during his visit that the Denali Commission would head a task force assessing potential relocation for 31 threatened coastal villages in Alaska.