But mean air surface temperatures increased more than 2 degrees Celsius 3. Arctic sea ice, measured since , was at a monthly record low in January. And the September sea ice minimum is decreasing at a rate of The scientific consensus is that human pollution is driving these changes. Most people prefer to live off the land, hunting seal, walrus and ptarmigan and fishing tomcod as their ancestors did.
The elder replies in a tone that is airy and patient, a voice measured through time. Esau Weyiouanna was something of a renegade in Shishmaref, he tells me. He was an individual in a place that prides itself on community -- an opinionated, outspoken man in a village where many would prefer to blend with the environment. In a photo that hangs on a friend's wall today, Esau wears purple-and-green plaid and Napoleon-Dynamite bifocals, a knowing, understanding smile on his lips. His eyebrows are angled and inquisitive, like an owl's. The local church in Shishmaref, Alaska.
Decades ago, the Christian church decided to ban some of the village's Inupiat traditions, which had been passed from one generation to the next for centuries, if not longer. The church believed some of these traditions defied the will of God and were incompatible with its teachings. Dancing, in particular, was banned. Children of Shishmaref no longer could gather with drums made of stretched walrus stomach to move their bodies in the same artful patterns their parents, grandparents and great-grandparents always had, the elder tells me.
Esau was the rare man who could see both sides of this dispute, the kind of man who straddled worlds both modern and ancient. He served on the church board, the elder says. But he also loved the Inupiat cultural traditions -- particularly the dance. So he took a stand.
Esau danced boldly and in public, the elder tells me, to remind the community of the value of culture. Today, the elder says, children are taught this dance in the local school. Decades later, and nearing death, Esau tried to ensure his story would continue. It was a startling question, but up here in a world of ice, where no one really dies, or not for long, the meaning was clear to the mother.
Submerging Paradise: Climate Change in the Pacific Islands – Climate Institute
She knew Esau's body soon would be laid to rest in the cemetery, and that he would be reincarnated as the child still growing inside her. Shelton and Clara Kokeok, with a photo of their deceased son, Norman, who fell through the ice in Norman had been on a hunting trip and was heading back into town in the early morning of late spring, when lower latitudes would still be shrouded in darkness but when this village sees nearly eternal sunshine, the tilt of the Earth making it possible to hunt through the night. Village elders and family members tell me he was crossing a narrow part of the lagoon that separates Shishmaref and its barrier island from mainland Alaska.
It may sound strange to drive a snowmobile across ice-covered water in June. But elders tell me the ice should have been frozen solid that time of year -- that there was no indication Norman would be in danger. Norman's death was particularly hard on his father, Shelton, who keeps a photo of the young man, wearing a buzz cut and Reno mustache, on his coffee table, facing the door for all to see. Norman was a second-chance child, one he taught to hunt seal and follow traditions Inupiat people had followed here for at least four centuries, if not many more.
Yet, from birth, the boy had an air of tragedy about him, even if no one in the family dared say so aloud. Norman was named after Shelton's brother, who died in a plane crash. The tragedy brought Shelton together with Clara, who was married to his brother. In the wake of the accident, the two mourners decided to marry.
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Love was at the heart of it, to be sure, but Shelton also felt a sense of duty -- duty to occupy the loving, supportive station his brother had left vacant in Clara's life. Esau Sinnok, 19, was adopted by his aunt, Bessi Sinnok. As a toddler, Esau Sinnok spouted off phrases in Inupiaq, the local language, even though no one had taught him to do so. Then, as a young boy, Esau was traveling with his birth mother across the empty landscape that surrounds Shishmaref.
It was the very spot where his namesake, Esau Weyiouanna, used to stay. For many, it's not just that young Esau reminds them of his namesake. It's that Esau is the namesake elder, returned from the grave and walking among them. They sometimes call him "father" or "brother" or "cousin," referencing their relationships with the elder who passed away. Esau inherited the elder's respected status, too. His namesake was very respected by lots of people and because of that he had already earned respect as he was growing up.
Teenage Esau never knew this when he was young. Bessi Sinnok told me the village hid the history from him. She wanted her son to form his own identity.
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Yet she watched as the elder's personality seemed to emerge from the boy. Esau, who was nearly mute as a child, they say, bookish and reserved, grew to be an outspoken and free-thinking young man, much like the elder Esau -- and much to the surprise of his family. The small blue house at the edge of the land once seemed like it might stand forever. After the storm, he tells me, "We thought the house would collapse. The other was the death of his uncle, Norman, the man who feel through the ice.
He's now a year-old college student with heavy eyes and mussy hair. And there's not a day that goes by that I do not think of him. He's always on my mind. He's always in my heart. Local meats, including seal, hang from drying racks in the village. Seal oil, made from blubber, is a staple. Esau tells me he wanted to help his grandparents with chores his uncle might have performed, which would have included things like getting ice for drinking water from the lake, washing clothes in the local "Washateria" and emptying the "honey bucket" toilet.
Shelton remembers telling his grandson how much the village had changed over the years, how the weather wasn't cold like it used to be, how these storms seemed bigger now, how much of the land, including the neighbor's house, had already disappeared -- and how he might be next. Climate change is happening real fast.
But none of this made sense to Esau -- not really -- until his senior year of high school. Stenek, an affable, big-smiling guy with a wiry beard and a kettlebell figure, told the students about the greenhouse effect -- how pollution, mostly from fossil fuels, hangs around in the atmosphere and acts like a blanket, heating the planet. They watched "An Inconvenient Truth," the high-profile documentary featuring former Vice President Al Gore and a graph often called the "hockey stick.
That was related to the melting sea ice, the thawing of permafrost, the frequency of damaging storms. In short: By burning fossil fuels, people were helping destroy this village. If you'd asked him the year before what he wanted to do with his professional life, Esau would have told you he wanted to be a petroleum engineer, like his brother. Good money, he'd say, unaware that extracting and burning fossil fuels like oil is contributing to the problem. Through Ken Stenek's science class, Esau met researchers who were studying climate change and its consequences.
And through those connections he became an Arctic Youth Ambassador, which is a program of two federal agencies and Alaska Geographic, a nonprofit. He learned that Shishmaref is not alone -- that 31 villages in Alaska face "imminent" threats from erosion and other issues related to climate change, according to a Government Accountability Office report; and that 12 of them were exploring relocation options because of warming. Esau started to wonder: Could Shishmaref actually survive the melting of the Arctic?
Those questions never occurred to Esau before, although they had been on the lips of older people in Shishmaref for years. They're questions kept from young people, hoping to protect them, wanting them to grow up with a sense that the world is more certain than it is. He got to go to Washington. Then, he said, with help from the Sierra Club, an environmental group, he got to attend international climate change negotiations in Paris in December It was that meeting -- which is often called "COP21," since that's simpler than "the 21st meeting of the conference of parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change" -- where world leaders agreed, after decades of failure, to work together to end the fossil fuel era.
The target: Limit global temperature increases to no more than 2 degrees Celsius. When you walk around here, you don't feel that. Everyone here is family. You get a sense of trust. Percy Nayokpuk owns one of two stores in town. Rae Bainteiti comes from Kiribati, a tropical island nation that could not be more geographically dissimilar from Shishmaref. Sun and sand vs. The two places are thousands of miles apart, separated by the vast Pacific Ocean and a half-world of latitude, with Shishmaref near the Arctic Circle and Kiribati near the equator.
Yet when an interviewer sat Rae down with Esau in Paris, the two young men discussed the perils of a common threat. The two share a laugh at the irony of the situation: As Arctic ice melts and oceans warm, sea levels around the world are rising. A host of locations, from Pacific islands like Kiribati to low-lying countries like Bangladesh and cities from New York to Shanghai will be threatened with coastal flooding -- and possibly relocation, too -- as people continue to pump greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.
Already, Miami Beach, Florida, is installing pumps and raising street levels to try to hold the water back. But this is the exception rather than the rule. Most local governments don't have the money for infrastructure to hold rising tides back. Experts say there are no programs -- in the United States or internationally -- designed specifically to plan and fund climate-driven relocations.
Only a few moves have been funded with money designated for climate adaptation projects, said Elizabeth Ferris, research professor at Georgetown University's Institute for the Study of International Migration. But "if it isn't planned well, it just doesn't work. It leaves people much worse off. It's going to be very vulnerable people Where will they go? Local officials in Shishmaref discuss the possibility of climate relocation.
They do not have the money to move.
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Globally, it tied for the hottest month of the hottest year on record. For example, fish and crabs caught in affected waters today are considerably smaller than they were previously. Raised in a traditional Samoan family, Feaunati has witnessed firsthand the negative impacts of climate change on her home. Determined to act, she chose to become an architect in order to help her people structurally respond to the dramatic environmental changes increasingly affecting their way of life. Working together with a team, Feaunati has focused on devising new ways of adapting traditional Samoan house construction to withstand heightened storms and sea level rise — all while ensuring that local aesthetics and architectural traditions firmly rooted in the culture are kept alive.
In this endeavor, she has made a point of consulting local elders to learn from their years of experience in the islands. They in turn have recounted a recent history of periodic cyclones or tsunamis forcing families to vacate dwellings near the sea and rebuild further inland. The repeated need to rebuild, due to necessary relocation inland, seems to represent a distinct shift for Samoans. This effort is especially important for Feaunati, because young Samoans today are growing increasingly divorced from their heritage.
Her team now hopes to teach younger Samoans how to build the traditional house — or fale — armed with new engineering skills and hybrid designs so as to modify and strengthen the structures in the face of more severe storms. That in and of itself is employable. That is something that they can make money off of. It has taken lives, it has taken family members, it has ruined houses.
I think, to them, the biggest thing is that what they thought was their home is now foreign to them…the area, the sights, and the context that they live in are now unpredictable. It is rising, the temperatures are changing, and everything is out of their hands, basically. It used to be that there was a mutual agreement — a spiritual mutual agreement — that they were working together with the ocean; that they look after it, and that it feeds them and their families.
Many Samoans who have moved inland have subsequently lost their personal connection to the sea. Fishing no longer constitutes their primary means of acquiring food, for example. They live in anxiety because they feel like they have lost that [age-old] connection with the ocean. With no extended hinterland to fall back on, coastal communities there are especially vulnerable.
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They have borne the brunt of increasingly frequent cyclones and tropical storms, which have in turn seen the formerly abundant local fisheries severely depleted. The problems extend beyond basic subsistence. After tourism, the economy of French Polynesia is primarily based on the pearl trade, due to prevailing environmental conditions and the nature of the atolls in the region. Ocean acidification — another manifestation of global warming — has hit this activity particularly hard, as the phenomenon is highly detrimental to mother-of-pearl.
Sea-level rise poses yet another economic threat.
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The atolls of French Polynesia are flat islands — the highest elevations reach only two to three meters — essentially lying at sea level. Composed of coral, the atolls have long been used by locals to grow coconuts, which are then used to produce a wide variety of products. One of these is copra, another mainstay of the regional economy. Copra is the meat of the coconut, which once extracted is then pressed in order to obtain coconut oil — an essential ingredient in cosmetic products. Given their topography, the atolls upon which the coconuts are grown are especially susceptible to slight changes in sea level.
Seawater has already begun flowing into the lagoons, leading to widespread decimation of this precious crop. For Hatuuku, effectively addressing this situation will require a new set of ideas and approaches, distinct from the prevailing orthodoxies of the industrialized West. In his view, indigenous communities around the region — and throughout the world — have significant contributions to make. If you want to change, we need another model.
Across the Pacific, islanders are finding themselves in the same precarious boat. In the independent nation of Vanuatu, communities are also being hit hard by climate change. Sea-level rise there has inflicted the most damage, steadily eroding the coastline, flooding roads, and causing devastating saltwater inundation of precious cropland. Shortages of water — that most vital of human necessities — have further compounded the situation on the islands.
As ocean levels rise, seawater has progressively seeped underground, contaminating key freshwater resources. As a result, the population today is increasingly dependent on rainwater and water catchment. With climate change, it really shifts. The current crisis has also led to growing tensions within island communities, stemming from increased uncertainties over natural resources and living conditions. This is an elemental concern, given the practical importance of maintaining good social relations on small islands. In the face of these mounting challenges, the people Vanuatu have begun devising creative ways to adapt to their changed circumstances.
Strategies have included constructing seawalls of cement, rocks, and dead coral to minimize coastal erosion; re-vegetating coastal foreshore areas; enhancing soil quality and resilience through composting and cultivating drought-resistant crops; and creating better methods for water storage. Designed to withstand severe storms, these dwellings are made of traditional materials such as wild cane, coconut leaves, and bamboo, which are able to survive strong winds.
The stakes are high here, as they are throughout the region. If we lose our islands, that is going to be really sad for us. But it seems like climate change is going too fast now. We contribute a little to climate change, but not much. We are [mainly] victims of climate change. For him, the need for urgent action is self-evident. And then the beaches: the closest house to the beach was twenty meters [away] in , [and now it is only] five meters — in a short span of time. Given such dramatic changes, Tuimoce expressed an inability to understand the relative inaction of the international community.
We need to put our heads together, and try to slow this down. Any changes that disrupt access to the sea, or harm the fisheries upon which Fijians depend, especially trouble Tuimoce. Whereas 15 years ago he would catch fish the size of his lower arm, today they are half the size of his hand. Before you used to get [the much larger fish] in probably ten minutes. Waste from large ships traveling through the Pacific is another major issue.
We went there with seven canoes, and we collected as much as we could. At the same time, Tuimoce believes that the current situation has also created new opportunities for Fijians to draw on their indigenous traditions to adapt and transition to more sustainably-oriented practices. As a sailor, to him the drua represents a prime example.
One vision is to marry indigenous design with sustainable technology. For example, Tuimoce described plans to construct a large solar-powered drua.