Climate Change as a Human Rights Challenge for the United States

By Kevin Todd*

The remote village of Newtok, AK is sinking. Due to melting permafrost and a rising river, Newtok, a Native Alaskan village of roughly 350 people, is in danger of disappearing.[i] Expansion of the Ninglick River is claiming roughly 70 feet of shoreline per year, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers expects Newtok’s highest points to be underwater within two to three years.[ii] Newtok’s plight puts a sharp focus on the vast human rights challenges the developed world will face as it seeks to address the impacts of climate change. Current US disaster relief policy, not designed to handle long-term disasters like those inherent to climate change, has largely failed Newtok. A new federal fund should be created to aid Newtok and communities like it suffering ecological crises brought on by the long term effects of climate change.

For several years, Newtok has attempted to partner with the state and federal governments to secure new land and pull together the estimated $80-130 million required to relocate the community.[iii] These efforts have had little success. In late 2016, village leaders made a long-shot effort to obtain funding by requesting a federal disaster declaration. In January, shortly before the inauguration of President Trump, the Obama Administration denied Newtok’s request.[iv] The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) noted that they were unable to prepare a cost estimate because the damages were “not associated with a specific and identifiable incident or incident period.”[v]

A disaster declaration targeted towards assisting a community suffering from a long-term ecological crisis rather than a one-off event such as a hurricane would have been the first of its kind.[vi] According to FEMA official Alex Amparo, “The situation of a slow-moving disaster in the making is something not contemplated under the Stafford Act,”[vii] the legislation enabling FEMA to respond to natural disasters. The denial of their petition, and the community’s broader failure to make significant headway in addressing this crisis, highlights the shortcomings of our current mode of handling environmental and natural disasters.

The challenge the United States faces in Newtok will only grow over time. In Alaska alone, dozens of remote Native communities will face similar problems in the coming decades.[viii] Adaptation and relocation costs are likely to reach into the billions of dollars.[ix] In the continental United States, expected challenges include long-term water shortages in the Southwest and rising sea levels flooding coastal communities. Limiting carbon emissions will help abate some of the worst effects of climate change but many of its impacts are already irreversible.[x] Significant adaptive efforts will be necessary.

The challenge the US faces with Newtok and other Native Alaskan communities in particular is analogous to the situation facing numerous small, underdeveloped countries around the globe. The people of Newtok contributed next to nothing to our looming climate crisis and they have benefited little from the long-term economic boom stemming from cheap fossil fuel. Yet they are among the first to suffer severe consequences caused in large part by our warming planet, and have no adequate legal, administrative, or political structure in place to assist them.

Some scholars have argued for applying a human rights focus to adaptive efforts.[xi]The International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights, adopted by the United Nations (UN) in 1976, recognizes a right to adequate housing.[xii] The Stern Report, commissioned by the Chancellor of the Exchequer in the United Kingdom, implicates climate change as a significant threat to that right.[xiii] The report finds that 200 million people globally could be displaced due to the effects of climate change.[xiv]

Globally, efforts to tie climate change to a pre-existing human rights framework have led the United Nations and other organizations to turn their attention to aiding those countries expected to be hardest hit. Prominent among international efforts is the Adaptation Fund, founded under the Kyoto Protocol of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change.[xv] The Fund has taken in over $705 million and committed $462 million to adaptation and resilience efforts in 73 countries since 2010.[xvi] This money has gone towards funding projects such as the enhancement of  resilience of local water systems in Mali[xvii] and the institutional capacity of local governance in the Cook Islands.[xviii]

A similar fund within the United States could present an attractive solution to the challenge facing communities like Newtok. Communities like Newtok have been largely left out of the economic boom experienced by the broader US.[xix] And given the scope of the problem, and Newtok’s apparent struggle to address the problem on their own, any truly effective solution must be national in scope.

Given the expense of aiding each individual community, particularly in remote areas like rural Alaska, the cost of such a fund would likely be over $100 million dollars per year.[xx] Although fixing this problem will not be cheap, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is already preparing for climate change to lead to more intense storms, heat waves, and extreme flooding.[xxi] Undoubtedly, these events will require increased funding from Congress. In the context of the overall FEMA budget of roughly $16 billion,[xxii] and the agency’s acknowledged need for more money to handle climate-related natural disasters, a new fund to aid communities stricken by long-term climate crises would be a reasonable first step in aiding places like Newtok.

The challenge of adapting to climate change, particularly for remote, rural communities that contributed minimally to the problem, has stark environmental and human rights implications for the United States. Globally, the Climate Adaptation Fund has been created to begin addressing the crises facing poor, isolated nations. In the US, our current disaster response regime is not up to the challenge of addressing long-term climate related disasters. A National Climate Adaptation Fund is one promising solution that could aid these communities struggling to adapt and survive.

Kevin Todd is a Junior Editor on MJEAL. He can be reached at katodd@umich.edu.


The views and opinions expressed in this blog are those of the authors only and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Michigan Journal of Environmental and Administrative Law or the University of Michigan.

[i]Rachel Waldholz, Newtok Asks: Can the U.S. Deal with Slow-Motion Climate Disasters, Alaska Public Media(Jan. 6, 2017), https://www.alaskapublic.org/2017/01/06/newtok-asks-can-the-u-s-deal-with-slow-motion-climate-disasters/.

[ii]Id.

[iii]Rachel Waldholz, Alaskan Village, Citing Climate Change, Seeks Disaster Relief in Order to Relocate, National Public Radio(Jan. 10, 2017), https://www.npr.org/2017/01/10/509176361/alaskan-village-citing-climate-change-seeks-disaster-relief-in-order-to-relocate.

[iv]Rachel Waldholz, For Alaskan Coastal Village, Erosioin Hits Home, National Public Radio(Dec. 20, 2017), https://www.npr.org/2017/12/20/571914718/for-alaskan-coastal-village-erosion-hits-home.

[v]Federal Emergency Mgmt. Agency, Preliminary Damage Assessment Report: Newtok Village – Flooding, Persistent Erosion, and Permafrost Degradation: Denial, 0 (Jan. 18, 2017), https://www.fema.gov/media-library-data/1490890193388-36a192ed5406685c17e5a4bff81aac2f/PDAReportDenial-NewtokVillage.pdf.

[vi]Waldholz, supra, note 3.

[vii]Waldholz, supra, note 4.

[viii]U.S. Gen. Accounting Office, Alaska Native Villages: Limited Progress Has Been Made on Relocating Villages Threatened by Flooding and Erosion, 12 (June, 2009) (identifying 31 imminently threatened villages, 12 of which have chosen to relocate).

[ix]Id. at 10 (estimating the relocation cost of three villages at $80-200 million each).

[x]Joby Warrick & Chris Mooney, Effects of Climate Change ‘Irreversible,’ U.N. Panel Warns in Report, The Washington Post(Nov. 2, 2014), https://www.washingtonpost.com/national/health-science/effects-of-climate-change-irreversible-un-panel-warns-in-report/2014/11/01/2d49aeec-6142-11e4-8b9e-2ccdac31a031_story.html?utm_term=.d2adc69277b9.

[xi]E.g. Margaux J. Hall & David C. Weiss, Avoiding Adaptation Apartheid: Climate Change Adaptation and Human Rights Law, 37 Yale J. Int’l. L. 309 (2012).

[xii]G.A. Res. 2200A (XXI), International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights, 4 (1976), http://www.ohchr.org/Documents/ProfessionalInterest/cescr.pdf.

[xiii]Nicholas Stern, Stern Review: The Economics of Climate Change, 56 (Jan. 2007) http://mudancasclimaticas.cptec.inpe.br/~rmclima/pdfs/destaques/sternreview_report_complete.pdf.

[xiv]Id.

[xv]About the Adaptation Fund, Adaptation Fund (last visited Mar. 16, 2018), https://www.adaptation-fund.org/about/.

[xvi]Adaptation Fund (AF), The World Bank, http://fiftrustee.worldbank.org/Pages/adapt.aspx (last visited Mar. 16, 2018).

[xvii]Program Support for Climate Change Adaptation in the Vulnerable Regions of Mopti and Timbuktu, Adaptation Fund (last visited Mar. 16, 2018), https://www.adaptation-fund.org/project/programme-support-for-climate-change-adaptation-in-the-vulnerable-regions-of-mopti-and-timbuktu-2/.

[xviii]Strengthening the Resilience of our Islands and our Communities to Climate Change, Adaptation Fund (last visited Mar. 16, 2018), https://www.adaptation-fund.org/project/strengthening-the-resilience-of-our-islands-and-our-communities-to-climate-change/.

[xix]Newtok, AK, DataUSA (last visited April 7, 2018), https://datausa.io/profile/geo/newtok-ak/.

[xx]See, U.S. Gen. Accounting Office, Alaska Native Villages: Limited Progress Has Been Made on Relocating Villages Threatened by Flooding and Erosion, 10 (June, 2009) (estimating the cost of relocation for individual villages at over $100 million each).

[xxi]Climate Change, Federal Emergency Mgmt. Agency (last visited Mar. 16, 2018), https://www.fema.gov/climate-change.

[xxii]Department of Homeland Security: Federal Emergency Mgmt. Agency, Budget Overview, 22 (last visited Mar. 16, 2018), https://www.dhs.gov/sites/default/files/publications/FEMA%20FY18%20Budget.pdf.

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