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May 21, 2021 HUMAN RIGHTS

Higher Ground: Protecting Human Rights as the Climate Crisis Forces Coastal Retreat

by Robin Bronen

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change predicts that climate change will displace 150 million people by 2050. Erosion and sea level rise causing the permanent disappearance of land and extreme weather events, such as hurricanes, will be the primary causes. The scale and geographic scope of this type of population displacement is the greatest human rights challenge of our time. Every coastline will be impacted by sea level rise. No binding international human rights instrument exists to guide nation-state governments to prepare and respond, creating an enormous protection gap for hundreds of millions of people.

People will be displaced in many different ways. While some may be forced to cross international borders, the majority of people will be internally displaced, creating complex governance challenges. Most countries do not have any governance framework to manage the internal movement of people living within their boundaries. Extreme weather events cause mass population displacement, evacuations, and a humanitarian crisis with efforts focused on returning people to the places where they lived prior to displacement. The planned relocation of people from disappearing coastlines, and other locations no longer able to sustain human settlements, is a disaster risk reduction process that can prevent the humanitarian crisis often connected to extreme weather events. Relocation is a long-term planning process that not only requires the building of infrastructure, but also involves the movement of people, whose livelihoods must be sustained, and most importantly, cultural and kinship connections maintained. This article focuses on this type of internal population movement, which affects the rights to life and self-determination, as well as a wide range of social, economic, and cultural rights. Understanding how climate change affects local ecosystems is critical to the protection of these rights.

Our failure to reduce greenhouse gas emissions is causing air and ocean temperatures to increase, melting the frozen regions of the world and causing sea levels to rise. East coast cities in the United States, such as Miami, Florida, and Charleston, South Carolina, are regularly inundated with “sunny day” flooding caused by high tides, not storm surges. The U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration proclaimed 2016 as the hottest year in its 137-year record, the third consecutive year of record warm years with 2018 a close second. The 2015 UN Framework Convention on Climate Change Paris Agreement seeks to prevent a global temperature increase of 2 degrees Celsius from preindustrial levels and includes aspirational language to limit the global temperature increase to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit). But in the Arctic, winter temperature increases have surpassed the freeze-thaw threshold, spiking 20–40 degrees above normal several times since November 2016. In Alaska, the only arctic state in the United States, temperatures have already far surpassed the goal of the Paris Agreement, with winter temperatures now approximately 3.5 degrees Celsius (7 degrees Fahrenheit) above normal. In March 2019, average temperatures were 11 degrees Celsius (20–30 degrees Fahrenheit) above normal, shattering previous records.

Only one degree is the difference between ice and water. For the indigenous peoples who live in villages on the Bering and Chukchi seas in Alaska, such a difference is life threatening. Just south of the Arctic Ocean, these northern seas separate Alaska from Russia and historically freeze during the winter. Blanketing millions of miles, sea ice forms when the water temperature dips below freezing. Fastening to the coast, the ice creates a seawall protecting villages from the storms that arrive in the fall with hurricane-strength winds. September and October were traditionally the months when the Bering and Chukchi seas began to freeze for the winter. But now these seas may not freeze until December or later. Record minimum levels of arctic sea ice have been recorded since 2007. Arctic sea ice is now 40 percent of its 1979 size, when satellites began capturing this data. Scientists predict that there will no longer be arctic sea ice in the summer within 30 years. The loss of arctic sea ice not only profoundly impacts the health and well-being of Alaska Native communities located along the west coast of the United States but is also linked to changing of the polar jet stream, which is increasing the intensity of storm events and drought in lower latitudes.

With diminishing arctic sea ice extent to protect coastal communities, usteq, a Yup’ik word meaning catastrophic land collapse, occurs and threatens the ability of Alaska Native communities to remain in the places they call home. Usteq is caused by the combination of erosion, flooding, and thawing permafrost. Permafrost is permanently frozen ground and the glue that keeps the land intact and habitable and is critical to maintaining the structural integrity of infrastructure. Increasing temperatures are causing permafrost to thaw and the land on which infrastructure is built to sink. These environmental changes are now causing indigenous communities in Alaska to be some of the first communities to decide that community relocation is the best long-term adaptation strategy.

In 2009, the U.S. Government Accountability Office found that 12 Alaska Native communities had made this decision. Shishmaref, Kivalina, and Newtok are three of the most imperiled Alaskan communities. Each community decided decades ago that relocation was the only long-term solution to protect community residents and ensure their cultural survival. Federal and state government agencies agree, yet relocation has not occurred, as of 2019, because of the quagmire of statutory barriers as well as the lack of a government agency that has the mandate and funding for the relocations. Only one community, Newtok, is actively in a relocation process.

The policy and practical challenges to relocation are enormous. President Obama designated the Denali Commission, a federal agency, to be the lead coordinating agency for relocation in Alaska. Yet the Denali Commission did not receive any new funding to take on this role and, more importantly, they were not given any authority to require other federal agencies to provide funding to facilitate relocation. Complex governance issues must be resolved in order to facilitate relocation, including the process to determine when protection in place is no longer possible and community relocation is required.

A new governance framework must be created that can provide guidelines for institutions to shift their efforts from protecting people in the places where they live to creating a relocation process when environmental and social thresholds are surpassed and harm the health and well-being of community residents. Determining which communities are most 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. Human rights principles must be embedded in any relocation governance framework because severe economic, social, and environmental consequences can occur in the relocation process.

Governments have forcibly relocated people for geopolitical motives for millennia. Development projects, particularly dams, have caused the forcible relocation of approximately 300 million people since 1997—approximately 15 million people are displaced annually. These government-mandated relocations have been uniformly disastrous for the people displaced, weakening community institutions and social networks, disrupting subsistence and economic systems, and impacting the cultural identity and traditional kinship ties within a community. In Alaska this occurred most recently during World War II when the federal government forced the Unangan people to relocate thousands of miles away from their home on the Aleutian Islands. Ten percent of the population died.

Two international human rights documents that address internal displacement are the Guiding Principles of Internal Displacement and the Inter-Agency Standing Committee (IASC) human rights guidelines to respond to natural disasters. Both are not adequate to address the complex issues and human rights implications of climate-forced community relocations for several reasons.

First, population displacement caused by disasters is clearly different from planned relocations. Both the IASC guidelines and the Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement do not provide for the prospective needs of populations planning their permanent relocation and do not provide any guidance on how communities can sustain themselves and create the necessary infrastructure to provide for basic necessities without the assistance of humanitarian aid. The IASC human rights guidelines to respond to natural disasters were developed to respond to situations when pre-planning is not possible and assume that humanitarian aid organizations will provide basic necessities to populations displaced by natural disasters. The fact that these guidelines do not incorporate mechanisms for community self-sufficiency is a significant protection gap for communities facing permanent relocation.

The Guiding Principles of Internal Displacement also do not provide sufficient human rights protections for those facing climate-forced community relocation. This document is not a binding international treaty or convention, but the UN General Assembly has recognized the Guiding Principles as an important international framework for the protection of internally displaced persons. Although the Guiding Principles include persons displaced by natural disasters, the primary focus of these guidelines is displacement caused by the state’s inability or unwillingness to protect populations from political, religious, ethnic, or otherwise discriminatory persecution or violence.

To address these protection gaps, a human-rights based approach to climate-forced community relocation must be based on the collective right to self-determination. Climate-forced relocation affects entire communities whose residents will collectively need protection from the threats caused by climate change. These rights include the collective right to relocate as a community, as well as the collective right to make decisions regarding whether, when, where, and how a community will relocate. No human rights document currently contains a community right to make these decisions.

International human rights conventions, such as the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, recognize the principle of collective human rights and that indigenous peoples have the collective right to the fundamental freedoms articulated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and international law. Like these documents, a human rights instrument that addresses climate-forced population displacement must ensure the protection of collective rights.

To operationalize this collective right, people need the capacity to assess, document, and predict the rate of environmental changes and sociological impacts and vulnerabilities caused by climate change. Community-based monitoring of environmental change and its impact on the health and well-being of community residents can be the foundational process to protect the collective right to self-determination. In this way, they can determine whether the risks can be mitigated where they currently reside. The ability of this community-based process to foster human rights will depend on the capacity of governance institutions to collaborate, be transparent in decision-making, and be inclusive of all sectors of society.

In Alaska, the Alaska Institute for Justice is creating this community-based process with Alaska Native Tribes. Local governing entities in Alaska Native communities are using community-based environmental monitoring of erosion, permafrost thawing, and storm events to understand how their particular locality is affected by global and regional projections of climate-induced environmental change. Consistent monitoring of environmental change and the impact of these changes on individuals, households, and the larger community captures the dynamic nature of a community’s vulnerability and resilience to these environmental changes and can determine whether and when relocation needs to occur.

Community-based social and environmental monitoring can also identify the social and environmental indicators to assess when protection in-place no longer provides a community with long-term sustainable adaptation to climate hazards and guide the transition from protection in-place to community relocation.

Finally, community-based integrated social and environmental monitoring can facilitate communication between community residents and local, state, regional, and national actors to ensure that communities are leading the implementation of climate adaptation strategies, including relocation. In this way, residents, their local governing entity, and state and federal government agencies can implement a dynamic and locally informed institutional response. Through the integration of indigenous knowledge with natural, atmospheric, and social science to implement community-based monitoring, the adaptive capacity of communities is strengthened to respond to risks associated with accelerating environmental change and can be one of the mechanisms that fosters the resilience and human rights of the populations assessing whether relocation is the best long-term adaptation strategy. This community-based process needs to form the basis for a relocation governance framework based in human rights principles. By ensuring the communities have the capacity to protect their collective rights to self-determination, communities will also be able to protect the social, economic, subsistence, and cultural rights critical to long-term resilience and adaptation.

Alaska Native peoples are not the only populations faced with the unprecedented permanent disappearance of their homes. Coastal communities all over the world are watching the ocean swallow land, eat shorelines, and submerge entire islands. Human rights principles must be the foundation upon which people determine whether, when, and if they need to find higher ground.

Robin Bronen is the executive director of the Alaska Institute for Justice.