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From Shishmaref to Paris: How to Keep a Culture From Drowning

Esau Sinnok has traveled 4,500 miles to defend his small barrier island against a climate that threatens to sink it.
Shishmaref Alaska cop21 climate

The village of Shishmaref, Alaska, on the Chukchi sea, July 9, 2015. (Photo: Andrew Burton/Getty Images)

Esau Sinnok has traveled halfway around the world to talk about climate change, and when I meet him at the world climate talks in the suburbs of Paris, his anxiety is readily apparent. We meet in the conference center's Green Zone, an area designated for civil society, a 15-minute walk from the central area where negotiations take place.

Civil society has been pushed to the periphery of this year's global climate negotiations, a blight on the record of an otherwise laudable convention. But Sinnok, who's traveled here as part of the Sierra Student Coalition, has bigger problems: In 20 to 25 years, Shishmaref, the island village he calls home, will succumb to the ocean. Increasingly, ice-melt is disrupting his people's subsistence way of life. As far back as 1997, storms and rising sea levels had already displaced his grandmother and 12 other families from their homes on the island's shore.

In his 18 years of life, Sinnok has seen the shoreline retreat 100 feet, an effect spurred by the area's rapidly melting permafrost.

Shishmaref is a barrier island in Alaska, north of the Aleutian Islands and home to Alaska's indigenous Iñupiaq eskimo community. "My grandparents, my great-grandparents, they all lived a subsistence lifestyle on this island for the past 400 years," Sinnok says. But within the past century, their lifestyle, culture, and language have been eroding. Part of the erosion is due to infiltration by white culture, Sinnok says. His grandparents recall being hit by teachers with yardsticks and rulers if they spoke their native language in school. And part of the erosion is, well, literal.

"My grandfather told me that by the end of September or middle of October the ice would be fully formed, frozen," Sinnok says of the old days. Now, in December, it still isn't safe to walk on the ice, and citizens of Shishmaref are witnessing something they've never seen before in winter: rain. If climate change continues at its current pace, Shishmaref can expect to lose three to four meters of land each year, until about two decades from now when the island will be largely underwater.

There are conversations at the Paris climate talks that could help communities like Shishmaref's, but little that addresses it directly.

In 2004, an Army Corps of Engineers study found that relocating Shishmaref would cost roughly $179 million. Today, Sinnok tells me, the numbers are closer to $200 to $250 million, and so far there's little government money in sight. Even if the cash did somehow come through, it could be hard to persuade some people to leave. "Some of the elders don't want to move away from the subsistence lifestyle we have," he says. It's a lifestyle based around hunting, fishing, and gathering, and Sinnok says he would especially miss seal-hunting, along with so much else in the vanishing Iñupiaq culture.

It's one of many reasons he wants the citizens of Shishmaref to stay together. "If we move away to different cities, we'll not have our Shishmaref culture anymore," he says. "We won't have our unique way of eskimo dancing, our unique way of speaking—because we've got a different dialect from different parts of northern Alaska. Also, we will not be able to interact with each other anymore like we do in Shishmaref. Everyone knows everyone. We're all friendly. We're just so accustomed to seeing all of us on that island every day."

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Sinnok just off the Shishmaref coast. (Photo: Esau Sinnok)

After surviving for years with little government assistance, the town finally got a boost this February from the Department of Housing and Urban Development, but not nearly enough to begin relocation efforts in earnest. Instead, the HUD money has mostly been used to build a handful of new houses that will have toilets and running water, rare amenities in Shishmaref. But ultimately, those amenities constitute a futile investment. If more government money doesn't come through, and the people of Shishmaref cannot be relocated in a unified way, its residents will be absorbed into mainland towns and cities. Their island's way of life will be lost.

There are conversations at the Paris climate talks that could help communities like Shishmaref's, but little that addresses it directly. One thing Sinnok hopes will be included in the agreement is a passage about the rights of special groups, including indigenous peoples. Right now, that text is included only in the preamble, where it won't carry much force, and advocates continue to push for its inclusion in Article Two. Esau is also following efforts to cap global warming at 1.5 degrees Celsius, which could help Shishmaref by slowing the level of sea level rise, and he's looking for the inclusion of a loss and damage package. But at this late stage, the odds of anything concrete on these issues appear increasingly long.

Still, there's cause for some optimism. On Wednesday, Secretary of State John Kerry announced the United States would double aid to places on the front lines of climate change, committing $861 million in adaptation aid to desperate countries. While it's unclear how much of that money would be available to Shishmaref, Kerry did mention Alaskan communities explicitly in his speech, recalling a visit to Alaska with President Obama earlier this year. "I met with Alaska natives who have been forced to uproot their communities in search of safer ground," Kerry said. "President Obama walked to and stood at the base of a glacier that has receded a mile and a quarter since 1815, and 187 feet last year alone." It was a heartening speech that shows the administration is thinking about places like Shishmaref, yet it still leaves Sinnok's village without a clear path forward.

Sinnok, for his part, is less focused on the finer details of negotiation; he’s more worried about getting his story out. And he's not pinning all his hope on the climate conference either. This year he started school at the University of Alaska–Fairbanks and has already determined his course of study—a major in political science, with a minor in Iñupiaq eskimo language—and has decided that at some point, he wants to run for statewide office.

"I want to help preserve our lands and not let oil companies keep drilling, like how Shell tried to drill earlier this year in the Chukchi Sea where my community is located," he says. "I want native communities to be talked about more.... I want communities to be heard too."

Sinnok is a big admirer of Alaska Lieutenant Governor Byron Mallott—a native leader of Tlingit descent—and says he would like to become the first native senator or governor, adding that current politicians, such as Republican Senator Dan Sullivan, focus too much on developed, inland cities and simply don’t have an intuitive understanding of the variety of cultures at stake.

"I know what's affecting communities. I want native communities to be represented and talked about more instead of just Anchorage, Juneau, Sitka—those kinds of places," Sinnok says. "I want communities to be heard too."

And that, in a nutshell, is why he traveled more than 4,500 miles to the northeastern outskirts of Paris. "I want to tell world leaders: Climate change is happening now and it's affecting my village."

By the time he’s heard, his people may have scattered, and that village might well be gone.


"Catastrophic Consequences of Climate Change" is Pacific Standard's year-long investigation into the devastating effects of climate change—and how scholars, legislators, and citizen-activists can help stave off its most dire consequences.