The Native Alaskan coastal village of Kivalina is suing two dozen oil, coal and power companies that they claim have affected the climate, causing their land and homes to slide into the Chukchi Sea. An Inupiat village numbering nearly 400 inhabitants, Kivalina is located on the end of an eight-mile barrier island between the Chukchi Sea and the mouth of the Kivalina River, 80 miles north of the Arctic Circle. It has been threatened by erosion from the sea for several decades, and a relocation committee was first formed by the community 20 years ago. The village has already been relocated once, from the north end of the river’s mouth, due to eroding shores.
In addition to the prohibitive expense, the community has encountered difficulties in choosing a new site where they can be secure and still have access to the sea for which they depend for their way of life—including seasonal hunts for bowhead whales. Whaling is traditionally only undertaken in the spring, from openings in the sea ice—but now open water appears nearly year round.
“An increase in the frequency and intensity of sea storms, degradation and melting of permafrost, and accelerated erosion of the shoreline have recently forced the village into a state of emergency,” according to a 2006 Relocation Master Plan written by the US Army Corps of Engineers. “Sea storms have eroded the shoreline out from underneath several structures and threatens the airstrip. Emergency erosion control measures are in place, but will only slow the sea’s inevitable reclamation of the island,” the relocation plan states.
Climate change scientist Dr. Gunter Weller of the University of Alaska-Fairbanks says Kivalina and another coastal village, Shishmaref (not part of the lawsuit), have suffered from erosion that he attributes to three factors—all deriving from global warming. Permafrost has thawed, causing houses to slide suddenly down muddy cliffs; sea ice has thinned, creating expanses of open water that rise up in ever-higher storm surges; and glaciers are melting, causing local sea levels to climb.
The suit was filed behalf of Kivalina Feb. 26 in US District Court in San Francisco by the Center on Race, Poverty and the Environment and the Native American Rights Fund. Named in the suit are BP, Chevron, ConocoPhillips, ExxonMobil, Royal Dutch Shell, Peabody Energy, and several power companies, inclding AES, American Electric Power, American Electric Power Services, DTE Energy, Duke Energy, Dynegy Holdings, Edison International, MidAmerican Energy Holdings, Mirant Corp, NRG Energy, Pinnacle West Capital, Reliant Energy and Xcel Energy Inc. (ENS, Feb. 26)