OPINION: Newtok’s successful climate change model

Amid the Western Alaska storm disaster, Newtok’s pre-disaster planning and mitigation is a beacon of climate change hope. Climate change models have long predicted an increase in severe weather events like this month’s storm. The storm flooded 12 of the remaining 22 homes in Newtok and left 35 people homeless.

The good news is that Newtok anticipated this disaster and, prior to the 2022 storm, had moved 39 households 10 miles away to Mertarvik. The new site is protected and suffered minimal damage. Six Mertarvik houses will be completed this year if the village can get additional resources to complete them. The tribe has four temporary shelters (yurts) that can help. The result is that disaster response in Newtok will be faster and save substantial federal and state funds, which was predicted in a 2007 Congressional Budget Office finding that every dollar spent on pre-disaster mitigation results in $3 of savings on disaster response. Newtok’s preparation has proven that pre-disaster mitigation can reduce/prevent human suffering and reduce costly disaster responses.

Newtok started to move in 2006, but was stymied by various internal and external barriers. In 2012-14, village residents reformed the tribal government, removing many of the internal barriers which held the tribe back. The new tribal government immediately found substantial bureaucratic resistance as different government agencies debated various plans, e.g. waiting for a disaster to wipe out the village and use the resulting disaster relief funds to move the village, or move the residents to the Aleutians, Bethel or Anchorage. President Paul Charles was determined to move the village intact to a safe site and was able to enlist the assistance of the Alaska congressional delegation. As a result, two-thirds of the village has been moved.

But the village continues to encounter barriers, which reflects America’s dysfunction when it comes to climate change. The majority of Americans now accept that climate change is upon us, but find new and different ways to disagree. America is debating whether to fund the Paris Climate Change Accords’ Green Climate Fund, which is dedicated to developing-nation climate change response. As Sen. Lisa Murkowski has pointed out, Alaska villages, which have much in common with developing nations, cannot receive aid from the Green Climate Fund because they are not “third world” enough.

Some “climate change advocates” want non-profits to spend millions “raising awareness,” or duplicating the Army Corps of Engineers’ measurements of riverbank erosion to serve as “witnesses to the injustice of climate change” rather than actually spending money helping villages and other impacted communities relocate out of the path of inevitable destruction or harden their communities against such destruction.

Some external voices merely want to relocate people rather than harden or relocate communities, ignoring that disorganized migration from threatened coastal areas will actually cause substantial economic, political and social dislocations that may be more destructive. This is particularly true for Indigenous people who have historically suffered mightily from forced migration. And yet other external voices prioritize various ideological values over practical and efficient mitigation efforts. Some liberals place a higher value on combating the colonial past or demanding an exclusive government response, while conservatives push privatization and cultural blindness over practical climate change response. And of course, cultural and ethnic differences between the grantors and grantees of climate change assistance will always be a barrier. Every community addressing climate change will have to navigate these external barriers.

Every community addressing climate change will also have to navigate internal barriers, such as competition for jobs, business opportunities, housing and services. Corruption will always lurk in the background, while anti-corruption protocols will hinder efficient resource mobilization. As with all political systems, politicians will jockey for credit and power within the climate change paradigm, and on occasion, subvert their personal goals to meaningful community benefit.


Newtok faced all these external and internal barriers, but the community’s resiliency and commitment has demonstrated that every community can succeed in combating climate challenges. Some argue that Newtok had no choice, since it is the first Alaska community predicted to be destroyed by climate change. But communities facing destruction have a choice whether to survive or not. Newtok made the choice to survive, and in so doing demonstrated that pre-disaster mitigation works to avoid or lessen human suffering from climate change. If Newtok can do it, every community can do it. The question is whether other communities will follow suit to overcome internal and external barriers to successfully navigate climate change.

Michael Walleri was the attorney for Newtok Village from 2014 until 2021, assisting with the village’s climate change relocation efforts.

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