Build the wall in Alaska

  • September 13, 2016
Build the wall in Alaska

US coastal residents have joked with me that Donald Trump shouldn’t build a wall on the border – he should build it on their beaches. Building a barrier will stave off the worst impacts of the next storm. But walls aren’t long-term solutions. Like immigration reform, combatting sea level rise will take a lot more than concrete blocks from our next president to protect America from the rising tides. 

As Americans head to the polls in November, autumn storms will be at their worst. Dozens of coastal communities will be inundated and hundreds of American citizens will be forced to evacuate to higher ground. For these Americans, the biggest threat to their safety isn’t border control or religious extremism. It’s an encroaching ocean that threatens their economies, cultures, and lives.   

I know because I’ve witnessed these changes first hand.

Since January, I’ve been traveling across the US as a National Geographic Explorer to document the scale of loss to sea level rise along our most fragile coastlines. On Tangier Island on the Eastern coast, backyards regularly wash out into the Chesapeake Bay; in American Samoa to the West, farmers are facing costly saltwater intrusion; and along Alaska’s western coast where I’ve been traveling for the past month, vital infrastructure like fresh water and electricity lines are being compromised.

Over the past year, President Obama has been working hard to visually show the American public these changes. Where climate change in America once resembled a chart of greenhouse gas emissions, it is now photographs of President Obama speaking against backdrops of a changing American landscape – a saltier Everglades, a drier Yosemite, and now after his visit to Midway Atoll, a shrinking island.

The President’s effort to make climate change real began in September 2015, when he became the first sitting President to visit the Arctic. Photos of disappearing glaciers and shoreline erosion were a wake up call to America that climate change is more than abstract statistics – it is already having a profound impact on places like Alaska, where temperatures are warming twice as fast as the continental US. 

A climate-conscious public

Changing America’s climate change story has paid off.

One year after President Obama journeyed north, concern in the US about global warming is at its highest point since he took office, with 64 per cent of the country worrying a “great deal” or “fair amount” about the consequences of a warmer world. The importance of this jump cannot be overstated. Having a climate-conscious public is necessary to garner support for any policy that seeks to address the tremendous changes our country will face as global temperatures rise.   

But changing the story isn’t enough. Despite the increase in public concern, Alaskans living on the frontlines of climate change are still struggling to adapt.

In the Northwestern Alaskan village of Teller, leaders have been trying to find funding to fix a broken seawall for three years. With no support, the autumn swells will soon wash through the fragmented barrier, flood their sewage lagoon and inundate their roads with contaminated water. In Shaktoolik, the city council has gotten tired of waiting for help and has taken adaptation into their own hands. The council used private funds to build a gravel berm last year, giving the village a temporary defence from increasingly dangerous storms. And two weeks ago, the community of Shishmaref reluctantly voted to relocate inland, questioning what will be saved and what will be left as their village disappears below the Chukchi Sea. 

President Obama has changed America’s climate story. It’s now up to the next president to change America’s approach to climate policy.

From mitigation to adaptation

For three decades the overwhelming focus of American climate policy has been mitigation. And rightly so; the US is second only to China in its contribution to global greenhouse gas emissions.

Through national policies and international agreements, President Obama has put America on a low carbon path to limit global temperature rise. And in a recent New York Times interview with Coral Davenport and Mark Landler, President Obama has announced he will continue to work on climate mitigation after he leaves office in 2017. America’s next president will need to uphold Obama’s climate legacy and support his continued efforts, but they can’t stop there. Whoever wins the White House this November will need to create a national framework for dealing with the effects of climate change we can no longer avoid.

A national adaptation and relocation strategy will need to include strong communication channels between the federal government and town officials to ensure national support matches local needs. And it will require a dedicated funding source large enough to help localities build capacity, construct adaptive infrastructure and execute relocation plans. Above all, it will take dedication, perseverance and vision by the next president – a tall order in this election race. But we cannot afford to wait any longer. 

The residents of Shishmaref are only the first of millions of coastal Americans who will make the decision to leave their history and homes behind in search of safer land. By the end of this century, at least 400 towns, villages and cities in America will be partially underwater no matter how much global carbon emissions are reduced. It’s high time America’s leaders support Americans already affected by rising seas and prepare for the great migration inland of the 21st Century.

*Victoria Herrmann [2014] is a Gates Cambridge Scholar pursuing a PhD in Polar Studies at the Scott Polar Research Institute. She is the President & Managing Director of the Arctic Institute, a think tank based in Washington DC dedicated to informing Arctic policy decisions. She will be speaking in a panel on Climate change: past, present and future at the Cambridge Festival of Ideas on 22nd October. Picture credit: American Samoa by Nerelle Que for America's Eroding Edges.


Victoria Herrmann

Victoria Herrmann

  • Alumni
  • United States
  • 2014 PhD Polar Studies at Scott Polar Institute
  • Pembroke College

Victoria is interested in exploring the nexus of climate change, human development, and public policy in the Arctic. Her PhD research focuses on how images and aesthetic codes construct values, identities, and ideas of power in the Arctic since the Second World War. From a young age Victoria's grandfather, a Holocaust survivor, has inspired her to pursue a career promoting social justice and empowerment. During her undergraduate degree, she followed that inspiration through two emerging personal interests - art and environmentalism. Through internships at The Smithsonian Institution and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, she helped to create programs to bring different, often contentious, communities together through museum educational events. At the Untied Nations and the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, she later worked on research, writing, and advocacy for climate justice, urban resiliency in socioeconomically depressed neighbourhoods, and mitigation. Though passionate about art, climate change, and social justice individually, it was not until her Fulbright research that Victoria was able to bring her three disparate interests together. During her year in Canada, she studied how indigenous civil society groups used visual media to empower their voices at climate change negotiations. At Cambridge, she continues this multidisciplinary approach to scholarship by examining the changing visual narratives of geopolitics in the Arctic and its influence on perceptions of power, justice, and agency. As the Alumni Officer Victoria works closely with the Gates Cambridge Alumni Association to connect the scholar and alumni communities.

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