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IV. Arctic Climate Adaptation Policy Making

This 4th and final blog in the series, Climate Adaptation and Indigenous Response, in the Arctic reviews the gaps in approaches used for regional climate adaptation policy making and the priorities of some arctic governments in the region.

Blake Gentry


All policy making is born out of ideas to improve human lives or achieve a common good for a country’s citizens. and their country’s well - being. The adaptation approaches taken by the federal and state authorities in Alaska are quite telling in this regard and remarkable illustrative in their own right. Sixteen years have passed since federal legislation authorized the first official movement of a US community due to climate change impacts. There was no dispute as to the economic cost of ex situ migration compared to in situ adaptation. The community of Newtok originally requested Alaskan authorities to assess the riverine threat they already had measured. The time elapsed for Newtok’s adaptation, as measured by human moves to the new community, will have taken over 18 years before the whole community is reunited - if they are not forced together sooner due to expected seasonal flooding.

While disjointed and non-continuous, federal political leadership in a state where changing in administrations eliminated deliberately dismissed a previous administration’s climate adaptation planning process – further hindered progress at an already painfully slow pace. Despite this, local Newtok led planning and implementation as the primary actor offers a vital if not daunting lesson for other communities. Leadership was crucial but in many communities is not always in place, when needed.

Intergovernmental cooperation for implementation of a climate adaptation plan for Newtok community implementation in Alaska involved the local Council of Newtok, the Newtok Planning Group, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Alaska Climate Change Sub-Cabinet Immediate Action Workgroup (IWA), the Newtok Native Corporation, Alaska Department of Commerce, Community, and Economic Development's Division of Community Advocacy, Denali Commission, , the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium, and in a minor role - a small training unit and the Army Corps of Engineers of the US Military, the DOD’s Innovative Readiness Training Program (IRTP) [1]. The community centered effort navigated securing financial resources from Native Corporations, state and federal agencies. The community fully participated in the multiple disciplinary working group at an operational level; producing a positive result for one third of Newtok residents. Elsewhere, national policy responses all too often have not brought a unified effort.

As the US enters an era of official non-cooperation with the Paris Accord, it is an open question how this effects “the other 30” indigenous communities in Alaskan already identified as vulnerable to climate change impacts, and more broadly how it effects climate adaptation rights in the Arctic region

In the Arctic Region it is troublesome that instead of pursuing a multi-national pan-arctic pact like indigenous from Canadian Yukon Province’s Vuntut Gwitchin Council seeks, each nation maintains separate responses to Arctic melting. No multinational regional Arctic adaptation planning is underway. Objectively, the United States is not alone on this path. Arctic oil beckons the world. Russia claims control of the Northern Sea Route. Canada views its sovereignty as containing the Northwest Passage. The human needs of the indigenous peoples of the arctic may come into conflict with such national claims. The Northwest Passage, for example, is the western sea route out of the Arctic for northern Alaskan communities west into the Chukchi Sea and then south into the Bering Sea.

Severe climate impacts are pushing national governments’ disaster relief efforts to aid non- native communities undergoing climate impacts. For example, massive flooding in the Mississippi Valley in the United States, flooding in South Asia, extreme summer heatwaves in European communities (again), and Dengue Fever outbreaks in semi-tropical countries like Honduras in Central America are treated as natural disasters. These national responses however all signal that multiple iterations of disaster relief without climate adaptation planning on regional scales are financially and politically – unsustainable.

Federal US government agencies, including the Department of Defense in the region will face future pleas for resettlement. Identifying deployable tools to assist in measuring the scale of local impacts on a comparative basis and the need to plan for human transmigration where adaptation cannot be carried out - is a large scale task that remains for all federal US civilian governmental agencies which operate in Alaska.

In the case of Alaska, there was a state entity for Adaptation planning, one that was first informed by a sub–cabinet level working group, the Alaska Sub-Cabinet on Climate Change, Immediate Action Workgroup (IAWG). The Alaska Climate Change Impact Mitigation Program (ACCIMP) and the Coastal Impact Assistance Program provided for adaptation planning, although the former was disbanded by the Republican Governor Mike Dunleavy in early 2019. A similar body could be stood up to reenact that notable initiative. All states have an essential role in cases of community relocation due to severe climate impacts. Without a scaling up of the federal and state effort at climate change impact assessment, adaption planning, and adaptation implementation within 10 years, most of the 30 identified vulnerable communities, it appears, will have to face climate impacts alone.

Alaskan Native peoples, in other sense, are not alone. For indigenous peoples are, more than any sector globally, reliant on a balanced and sustainable use of natural resources for their survival. Migration of an entire indigenous communities without a legal framework for securing new homes puts them at legal risk. Previous historical migrations were not under such pressure.

The documented inter-annual human population swings suggest more research is needed to determine if seasonal human migration to further locales is increasingly necessary for native Alaskan food security in the northern and northwestern coastal areas. History would suggest that away parties searching for alternative locations and sources of subsistence may deplete populations on a seasonal basis. Their fluctuations may be harbingers of social crisis or transformational adaptation on the horizon, rather than statistical anomalies.

Defining indigenous economies more broadly than strict market valuation of assets such as property and income is missing from adaptation planning in Alaska to date. Alaskan native communities are both at considerable risk and simultaneously represent a rich opportunity to measure indigenous resilience in the face of damages and losses from climate impacts. For

example, though inter-annual population swings from northern native villages failed to detect population losses, finer indicators of human adaptation to climate change impacts can be documented- such as how to account for the decision making mechanisms of tight knit social structures and their strategies for achieving communal food security. Mapping reciprocity networks among extended village systems, for example, may provide critical indicators of adaptive capacity.

Standards for Indigenous Communities Consultation within the Vulnerability Reduction Credits (VRC™) Standard Framework[2] approach presented by the Higher Ground Foundation does consider that mixed economies with differential seasonal activities can best reflect the activities of some indigenous communities’ societies, while others may work mostly outside the money economy, and others still participate as fully in the market economy as non- indigenous peoples. Seasonally driven livelihoods can be measured when indigenous communities are consulted. The VRC Standard Framework bases the VRC quantification on an adaptation project’s avoided impact costs and per capita income for a defined period of time. The Higher Ground Foundation acknowledges that such an approach does not fully reflect the holistic value of adaptation to indigenous (and non-indigenous) communities.

This is why the Standards for Indigenous Communities Consultation is an important adjunct to VRC project requirements as otherwise outlined in the Standard Framework. Furthermore, non-market economic value using “contingent valuation” is permitted and encouraged to characterize climate vulnerability and vulnerability reduction more comprehensively [3].

Clearly, climate adaptation policy initiatives are needed from indigenous communities in partnership with sub-national biome centered adaptation responses, with national scientific bodies, and units of government in Alaska, and beyond, Arctic wide. Joint work is needed beyond disaster risk reduction, but in broader social and infrastructural planning, and to stimulate investments by private finance.

A more stable and rigorous planning model is needed to overcome the silo effect of disaster relief centered planning and modeling responses. Mobilizing US federal agencies, State of Alaska science and research capacities, Alaska Native Regional Corporations, indigenous communities, and environmental organizations to work on climate adaptation holds great potential for indigenous communities in Arctic Alaska and Canada.

Indigenous peoples in Alaska are measuring the damages and losses from climate change impacts to their communities, but they are also innovating methods and technologies to adapt; much as they have over several millennia.



[1] See: Summary, Relocating the Village of Newtok, Alaska due to Coastal Erosion, op cit.

[2] The Higher Ground Foundation, Vulnerability Reduction Credits (VRCs) Standard Framework, Version 1.1, March 2018. Available at:

[3] See the HGF’s “Contingent Valuation Toolkit” at:

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