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Alaska Life

How one woman is helping 'climate refugees' face realities of relocation

  • Author:
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published April 24, 2016

When Anchorage immigration attorney Robin Bronen decided to pursue an advanced degree in climate change at the University of Alaska Fairbanks in 2007, she was most interested in what climate had done to her beloved Alaska landscape. An avid hiker regularly in the backcountry, Bronen was concerned about an increase in wildfires attributed to warming temperatures and the patterns of change she was beginning to see in the natural world. She wanted to learn more about what was happening to plants and animals — and what was at stake for wilderness.

What she never expected was to turn into an international expert in the forced migrations of people.

Today, Bronen, 56, holds a doctorate from UAF's Resilience and Adaptation Program and an affiliation as senior research scientist with UAF's Institute of Arctic Biology. She has studied the rising sea levels, disappearing ice, eroding coastlines and melting permafrost that are now the familiar hallmarks of climate change. But at a time when much of the scientific community focuses on the root causes of climate change, Bronen has aimed her research elsewhere, exploring climate-induced realities beyond dispute: the permanent disappearance of land, and the irreversible impacts on communities living upon that land.

'Science fiction'

Bronen remembers the initial disbelief she encountered at international conferences when she reported that some Alaska villages were deciding to relocate because of climate-caused erosion and flooding.

"It was science fiction to them," she recalls. "No one could believe that population displacement linked to climate change would be something we would have to deal with in the Arctic in the near future."

Beyond disbelief were concerns about the negative connotation of relocation.

"Relocation is politically charged because of the legacy. Forced removal in the past has been almost uniformly disastrous for people," Bronen explains. Relocations, such as the displacement of indigenous communities in the Aleutians during World War II, fractured social networks, disintegrated communities and impoverished many. The notion that communities might initiate relocations themselves — might have no other choice because their lands are flooding — was new.

Soon, Bronen began to see parallels between the plight of people forced to relocate because of climate change and the refugees she had represented during her long legal career. Both groups are forced to leave behind the worlds they know to protect themselves from harms beyond their control. Both find themselves in difficult new circumstances. But unlike refugees, who flee across national borders to escape political persecution, those escaping climate impacts are often displaced within their own countries. And while refugees are clearly defined and granted rights and protections under international human rights laws, "climate migrants" typically aren't mentioned.

Until recently, no one thought entire groups of people could lose their homes due to climate forces. That these groups would require their own legal framework under local, national and international laws to decide whether, when and how to relocate was not on the global radar.

To Bronen, Alaska's indigenous communities offer a compelling opportunity to develop international standards for responding to climate-induced relocation in a way that respects the rights of those concerned.

30 villages imminently threatened

According to the U.S. Government Accountability Office, 184 of Alaska's 213 villages cope with encroaching erosion. More than 30 of them are imminently threatened. Three villages — Newtok, Kivalina and Shishmaref — decided years ago to move to more stable ground, but none have succeeded. Bronen considers it "serendipitous" that early in her doctoral program, she was able to attend meetings in Newtok as the village made plans to move to a new site on 42-mile-long Nelson Island in the Bering Sea. It would change the course of her study and the direction of her career.

With no local, state, national or international laws to offer direction, and few guidelines to follow, Newtok adopted its own core principles to govern relocation. They stressed the importance of maintaining local control over decision making, looking to elders for guidance, and ensuring cultural and community integrity throughout the process. The village convened an ad hoc group of agencies and nonprofits to address the issues. Construction at the new village site began, and several houses and some infrastructure were completed. But tremendous hurdles remain.

"The roadblocks have been enormous," Bronen says, "because what's happening is unprecedented. There are no road maps."

In the U.S., federal disaster relief laws emphasize repairing and fortifying what has been destroyed, not moving altogether. The issue the village faces — relentless erosion — is not covered by federal disaster legislation. To compound these problems, resources for a new village site are typically unavailable until people live there. Yet resources to keep an old site inhabitable are also unavailable once a village decides to move. Villagers are suspended in a crisis with no end in sight, despite the recognition by all concerned that relocation is their only choice.

"Without a relocation framework," Bronen says, "no state or federal agency has a mandate or authority to support a relocation decision."

Using international human rights law as a guide, Bronen developed a suggested legal protocol for countries facing climate-induced displacement. She coined the term "climigration" to describe the phenomenon, which is now part of climate change lexicon. Her 50-page proposal was published by New York University Law Review in 2011, and a shorter overview appeared in the prestigious Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences two years later.

Key to her proposal is the integral role of communities themselves in monitoring the social and ecological impacts and deciding whether to stay or leave.

"Any model we adopt must be founded in respect for the collective human rights of the communities involved," she says.

'Local people know best'

"Robin's work is unique in recognizing that laws and regulations that define the responsibilities of agencies … are a major barrier to communities that need to relocate to escape the risks to life and property from coastal flooding," according to Terry Chapin, professor emeritus at UAF's Institute of Arctic Biology and Bronen's main professor during her doctoral studies.

"An important part of her vision," according to Chapin, "is that local people often know best how to shape their future and must play a leadership role in deciding how to adapt."

Today, Bronen is a recognized international expert on the issue of planned relocation. She publishes articles in academic journals on the need for a more formal global structure for addressing forced migration. She serves on a United Nations working group on climate displacement and consults with the U.N. High Commissioner on Refugees. She speaks regularly at conferences around the world, and works closely with prominent non-governmental organizations trying to address the issue.

"Robin's work has vastly improved understanding of the problem," according to Alice Thomas, climate displacement program manager for Refugees International, an independent group based in the U.S. that promotes solutions to displacement crises worldwide. Without a legal framework to protect the integrity of threatened communities, many are already disintegrating, Thomas said. Many poor Filipino fishing families driven from their homes by Hurricane Haiyan in 2012 remain displaced, separated from their communities and livelihoods because no adequate relocation plan was in place at the time of the disaster.

On the national level, Bronen is optimistic about increased attention the issue is receiving. In 2013, the Bicameral Climate Change Task Force of the U.S. Congress identified the need for an institutional framework for climate displacement, specifically citing Newtok. In 2014, the Obama administration's Task Force on Climate Change Preparedness and Resilience adopted a recommendation for a relocation framework. And last year, President Barack Obama brought attention to the community impacts of climate change during his visit to Alaska.

"We … know the devastating consequences if the current trend lines continue," the president said at the GLACIER conference in Anchorage. "We are going to have to do some adaptation, and we are going to have to help communities be resilient, because … there's not going to be a nation on this Earth that's not impacted negatively. People will suffer."

Growing UN attention

At the international level, Bronen also sees some progress. At the United Nations, displacement and relocation have been identified as topics governments should address together. "People are coming to recognize that the need to relocate is a growing reality for many people," she says.

But for most countries, relocation remains a far-off prospect — not something to confront today.

"No nation has taken up the recommendations," Bronen says. "There is still no institutional framework for relocation anywhere in the world."

Bronen continues to work directly with communities in Alaska and the South Pacific, the regions hardest hit so far. In 2012, she traveled with two tribal leaders from Newtok to Papua New Guinea for a learning exchange with residents of the Carteret Islands, who have decided to relocate their communities of about 2,500 people as their island home disappears. In 2015, she visited the Solomon Islands to learn from communities that can no longer grow their food and are running out of drinking water because salt water has contaminated their water supply and high tides routinely flood their lands. She also visited Fiji in 2015 to learn how the country is responding to rising sea levels.

"People who have lived for hundreds or thousands of years on remote atolls are facing relocation," Bronen says. "It's overwhelming … and heartbreaking."

Turning to migration issues

Bronen is executive director of the Alaska Institute for Justice, which she co-founded in 2005 with friend and longtime colleague Mara Kimmel, the wife of Anchorage Mayor Ethan Berkowitz. The organization initially provided legal services to immigrants and refugees who landed in Alaska. Then it began operating the Alaska Language Interpreter Center and working on behalf of victims of domestic violence and human trafficking. Now its mandate includes research on migration issues related to climate change.

"Robin's work sits within AIJ's mission," Kimmel says, "which is to protect and promote the human rights of Alaskans. Like immigration or migration, relocation is human movement, and (it) affects human welfare."

Under the auspices of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the Alaska Institute for Justice recently initiated a collaborative effort with the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium, the Alaska Native Science Commission, the University of Alaska Fairbanks and the University of Victoria to better understand risks Alaska's villages face and choices they must make.In a project coordinated by Bronen, villages facing loss of their land base will be able to develop a community-based process to monitor erosion and sea-level rise and their effects on community health and well-being. Governmental agencies and universities will provide technical expertise and funding.

Ultimately, some communities facing climate destruction may decide to stay and adapt. Others will have no choice. Bronen hopes to see laws in place nationally and internationally that protect communities in both situations.

To Bronen, the turn her life and career have taken feels like a natural extension of a commitment to social justice that led her to become a lawyer in the first place some 30 years ago. Today she can weave the strands of past experiences as a poverty lawyer, Peace Corps volunteer and immigration attorney together with her passion to confront what she considers humanity's greatest challenge: protecting residents in places becoming inhospitable, even dangerous.

Suffering happening today

Bronen recognizes that change often comes incrementally. Small steps matter.

"I hope everyone understands that climate change is happening now and that people are suffering its effects today, not sometime in the far-off future," she says.

"And I hope that at least one country will create a relocation framework that protects the human rights of people who are losing the places they have always called home."

Barbara Hood is a retired attorney, small-businesswoman and a 50-year Alaskan who lives in Anchorage.

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