Social-Ecological Tipping Points and the Human Rights of Climate-Induced Community Relocation
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change predicts that 150 million people will be displaced by 2050. Alaskan indigenous communities are at the forefront of this humanitarian crisis. Climate change is transforming arctic ecosystems and threatening the lives of the indigenous peoples who reside along Alaska’s coasts and rivers. Disaster relief and hazard mitigation, the traditional humanitarian responses to extreme environmental events, are no longer able to protect communities in place despite spending millions of dollars on erosion control and flood relief. Relocation is the only durable solution to protect the inhabitants of these communities. No United States federal or state government agency has the authority to relocate communities, no governmental organization exists that addresses the strategic planning needs of relocation and no funding is specifically designated for relocation. Despite these challenges, one Alaskan indigenous community, Newtok, is relocating.
Climigration is the word that best describes this type of permanent population displacement. Communities, rather than individuals, will be forced to migrate. Permanent relocation will be mandated because there will be no ability to return home because home will be under water or sinking in thawing permafrost. Determining which communities are likely to encounter displacement requires a sophisticated assessment of a community’s ecosystem vulnerability to climate change, as well as the vulnerability of its social, economic and political structures. The policy and practical issues to relocate Newtok have been enormous and clearly demonstrate that new adaptive governance institutions, that can dynamically respond to rapid ecological change and that are based in human rights doctrine, are critical to ensure community resilience and sustainability.