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Climate change in the spotlight at AFN

November 24th | Shady Grove Oliver Print this article   Email this article  

Climate change is on the minds of many Arctic residents who aren't just hearing about its effects from afar, but are seeing it up close. It's happening right on our doorstep.

These changes were in the spotlight at one of the panels during October's Alaska Federation of Natives convention in Anchorage.

"If you're in a place that has a 10,000-year history, you look at the world differently. I think it's that indigenous knowledge that's so critical right now as we think about how climate change is going to disrupt the world and what we need to do next," said Shoshone journalist Mark Trahant, who was one of the panelists.

Alaska has found itself in the spotlight for the past several years, often because of its relationship with climate change. During the U.S. Chairmanship of the Arctic Council, the international community had the chance to look to Alaska as an example.

"I think that what we're seeing here is what is going to happen not only in America, but around the world. I think people are watching Alaska. People are looking at what's happening here," said Rolling Stone reporter Jeff Goodell. "I think that gives Alaska a great opportunity to show the rest of the world how to deal with some of these problems, how to deal with relocating communities. Alaska Native communities can show the world how to live on changing coastlines."

Goodell traveled to Alaska with President Barack Obama. He said they tried to land in Kivalina, but the plane couldn't touch down. Instead, they circled the community and saw its precarious place, surrounded by water.

He credits that trip, in part, with piquing his interest in rising water levels around the world. Last year, he published a book on the topic.

"Your voice is being heard in Washington," said retired Ambassador Mark Brzezinski, who worked under the Obama Administration. "We need to hear more about what is happening in terms of climate change and the impacts locally ... In response, the U.S. needs to be more responsive and very much so we need to modernize the definition of what is a disaster. We need to modernize a definition so it is in keeping with the challenges of our time. Climate change is a phenomenon that only lately we are beginning to understand and just because we are only understanding it now, does not mean that a definition of what is a disaster should remain conventional and outdated. We need to change ... the federal government's definition of it in terms of what a disaster [is] to include slow-moving disasters — to include the 30 Alaska Native towns and villages that face washing into the sea as slow-moving disasters because of the impact of climate change. That is the least that the American government owes to the Native people of Alaska. We owe so much more."

Trahant said that is why it's imperative for people to take candidates for office to task about how they plan to change the conversation on climate change. It must be acknowledged and legitimately confronted.

"We have to change people's minds," he said. "It's not just government that's going to solve this problem. It's going to be every single human being taking individual actions and saying, 'How can I act differently with this bigger goal at stake?'"

He talked about the nature of disruption and gave the example of the Kalinago people of the Caribbean island of Dominica. To this day, is the only Native territory left in the area.

"When Columbus got lost and started heading this direction, he hit the Caribbean Islands and one of the first islands he hit was an island called Dominica. And most of the places he went, he landed, they got out and checked the water and whatever food they could round up, but when they went to Dominica, he couldn't land because the Kalinago Native community was so fierce that every time they tried to get off their boat, they got hit with lots of weapons," he said.

The very same island was recently hit hard by the hurricanes that pummeled the Caribbean. It wiped out village infrastructure and locals are now trying to figure out how to rebuild.

They are looking to do it differently — to forge a new path forward that is sustainable in light of the changing climate.

"One of the advantages we have in this conversation is a 10,000- or 100,000-year history. I'm from Idaho and there's a place where Shoshone hunted for many, many years and in these caves they have mastodon drawings. And you think about one day, our ancestors hunted mastodon and then mastodon were gone and had to go through transitions and hunted buffalo," he said. After they couldn't hunt buffalo, they had to change again. "I think it's that long view of history that's going to be really so important now."

That very same long view can inform decisions for years to come. Brzezinski called on Alaska's Native communities to speak up and share their knowledge.

"What is at stake is something you, your people, your societies, as America's first climate refugees, know the best. What is at stake is that the basic outlines of societies, the basic parameters along the coast are contracting," he said. "That is a world that our children and our children's children will inherit and we need to understand it better."


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