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First Person: How climate change shapes the community of Kivalina, Alaska

An aerial view shows how close some of the homes are to the lagoon on September 13, 2019 in Kivalina, Alaska. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
An aerial view shows how close some of the homes are to the lagoon on September 13, 2019 in Kivalina, Alaska. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

Climate reparations. It’s an idea that the richest countries in the world owe money and technology to the Global South as a moral repayment for the impacts of climate change. Hear our hour on the case for climate reparations here.


How does climate change impact the United States?

Colleen Swan is the interim city administrator in Kivalina, Alaska. Coastal erosion and rising sea levels could render Kivalina completely uninhabitable by 2025, according to predictions by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

For Colleen Swan and the members of the indigenous Iñupiat community who live on Kivalina, climate change isn’t a remote abstraction. It’s an emergency that’s threatening their lives right now.

Below, Colleen Swan shares her story:


Kivalina sits in a sense that it’s a little island, and it’s surrounded by water.

We have the lagoon on one side, and two channels on either end and ocean. When the fall storms come, they come from the south and that’s our most vulnerable side of the island.

And I grew up watching these things. Subtle changes that started interrupting with our own societal systems. The fall sea storms, they are a given. They happen every fall.

But one year in 2004, suddenly land started falling into the ocean. And so when the land starts falling away, you’re just a couple of feet away from the residential homes. And that’s something that I didn’t understand.

Some of our elders started saying the ice is not there to buffer those annual fall storms, to buffer the waves. And so we were defenseless. And unless you stand on a rock, your sandcastle is going to disintegrate.

What I’ve heard from my elders is every time there is a disruption to anything — like to the migration of the caribou, or the beluga whale — they come back. Little interruptions by industrial development. But they always come back.

But it became consistent, the changes. They were not going back to the way they were. Even bearded seal hunting is happening two weeks earlier, consistently. And not going back to the way it was the year before, or five years before it seemed permanent. I mean, in every part of this whole human system, they’re going to have to adapt.

What you take for granted today is not going to be there if we don’t start working now to figure out what we’re going to be left with in the end.

We are going to starve. We won’t have jobs. I mean, we as a people are on our own. I’m a grandmother. In fact, I’m a great-grandmother.

Now, your children are not going to live the life you lived. If we don’t figure out these things, and bring Western science and traditional knowledge together, they’re going to have to solve this problem.

You look at your little four-year-old, your little eight or nine-year-old grandchild. You realize you’re leaving them with the problems that you can’t fix now. They’re going to have to figure it out.

Look at your children, and grandchildren and great-grandchildren and think about it.


In this diary … we hear from:

Colleen Swan, interim city administrator in Kivalina, Alaska.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.