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‘Inequitable and inefficient’: A new report says the federal system for climate change response is lacking

High water from Typhoon Merbok caused a fuel spill and damaged Newtok’s diesel fuel tanks. The storm surge also shifted boardwalks across the community and further exacerbated coastal erosion. Residents here have been trying to relocate from this village for decades because of the adverse effects from a changing climate.
Emily Schwing
High water from Typhoon Merbok caused a fuel spill and damaged Newtok’s diesel fuel tanks. The storm surge also shifted boardwalks across the community and further exacerbated coastal erosion. Residents here have been trying to relocate from this village for decades because of the adverse effects from a changing climate.

More than three decades ago, Newtok started to sink into the tundra. For just as long, the community has been working to move 9 miles across the Ningliq River to a new subdivision: Mertarvik.

Critical infrastructure in Newtok is rapidly deteriorating. There’s not a single power pole that isn’t leaning at a precarious angle, and the power lines they hold up hang so low that residents have to duck to walk under them or, when enough snow piles up, step over the lines to get by. The power plant is also leaning dangerously, and the water plant has long outlived its lifespan and is at serious risk of freeze-up this winter.

And Newtok is only one of nearly 150 Alaska Native communities statewide dealing with environmental threats that result from climate change. A new report from the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium (ANTHC) says “the federal government’s system for providing resources and services to address climate change and environmental threats remains inequitable and inefficient.”

“We are already dealing with inequitable placement of infrastructure,” said Jackie Schaeffer, ANTHC Director of Climate Initiatives. “Most of these high risk communities don’t have water and sewer, but how do you engineer for that when you couple that with melting permafrost and potential managed retreat or relocation? So to me it’s a compounding issue. It’s compounding negatives that are already happening in our communities.”

Schaeffer said that the federal government isn’t structured in a way that’s meeting the needs of those vulnerable communities. That’s because more than a half-dozen agencies offer grant funding and issue calls for proposals to manage and respond to climate change, but the agencies themselves don’t communicate amongst each other. Many of the applications are also cumbersome, complicated, and include requirements that small, Indigenous communities simply can’t meet.

Schaeffer also said that the federal government isn’t invested enough in taking action. She pointed to an enormous funding gap, $80 million annually over the next 10 years, which she acknowledged would be a big ask in an election year when government spending is a hot-button issue. “You could look at it through that lens of preventative or responsive, right? So that does sound like a lot of money, but if we do nothing, what is that dollar amount?” she asked.

The report includes those numbers too: it says that if the federal government doesn’t act, it could spend an estimated $25.8 billion on emergency response and recovery costs.

Permafrost degradation, land subsidence, erosion; the list of severe impacts that result from a changing climate is not breaking news in Alaska. In fact since 2004, the federal government has released more than a half-dozen reports that highlight the same kinds of funding gaps, lack of agency cooperation, and overall lack of progress to help Alaska’s Indigenous communities shore up threatened critical infrastructure, qualify for federal assistance, and in some cases fully relocate.

Don Antrobus is the Climate Change Adaptation Program Manager at ANTHC. “If we publish the report and that’s it, then it will just be another report that goes on the shelf. So I think there’s a lot of strategizing to be done about what comes next,” he said. “We’re gonna have to come up with a pretty robust plan for telling our story so it’s the one that’s on the top of the stack.”

As researchers compile reports and legislators weigh budget decisions, the reality is that Alaska's Native communities are living with the impacts of climate change on a daily basis. And perhaps nowhere else in the state are those impacts more stark or dramatic than in Newtok, where decades of permafrost degradation and erosion mean the entire community of nearly 400 people has to move 9 miles upriver.

Twenty-two-year-old Jimmy Kassaiuli was born and raised in Newtok. “I gotta say goodbye to home sweet home and say hello to the new home, new life, new beginning,” he said during an interview last spring. He said that it will be hard for him to leave the village where he was born and raised. “But you just gotta take it positive,” he said.

Three generations of the Kassaiuli family live in a small, old house at the north end of the village. That includes Jimmy’s older brother, Christopher, and Christopher’s twin toddlers. “They’ll be telling us ‘it’s not safe here,’ because of the erosion and the floods, because it’s not gonna be the same,” Christopher said. And that’s intimidating. “Yeah, I’m scared for my twins because they’re just babies,” he said.

ANTHC’s new report, which took two and a half years to compile, has a few major recommendations.

First, it calls on the United States Congress to close the funding gap and create a single committed funding source of money to cover the costs required to adequately respond to climate change. It also asks Congress to establish a permanent and coordinated framework to address and respond to climate change, and it identifies major barriers across 25 federal programs that hinder tribal communities and calls for a remedy.

Schaeffer said that the more than 200-page document isn’t limited to the Alaskan experience. It also has national significance. “This report is not only to help our tribes to understand that all these stories are valid, this is your living history, but for federal agency partners to understand that these are barriers that have been in place that create inequities in response to climate change,” she said

Schaeffer said that there’s a particular sense of urgency now because “the cost of hard infrastructure is going up and the acceleration of climate change is speeding up.”

Emily Schwing is a long-time Alaska-based reporter.
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