Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

Mucking around with climate change

By John D. Sutter, CNN
October 30, 2013 -- Updated 1538 GMT (2338 HKT)
Shelton Kokeok, whose home is shown in November 2009, lives on the edge of the world in Shishmaref, Alaska.
Shelton Kokeok, whose home is shown in November 2009, lives on the edge of the world in Shishmaref, Alaska.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • U.N. panel releases the first part of its new climate assessment this week
  • John Sutter: The impact of climate change is obvious, everywhere
  • Sutter says lawmakers should look to Alaska for evidence of the effects
  • Villages there are thinking of relocating because of changes in the climate

Editor's note: John D. Sutter is a columnist for CNN Opinion and head of CNN's Change the List project. Follow him on Twitter, Facebook or Google+. E-mail him at ctl@cnn.com.

(CNN) -- A U.N. panel on Friday said with 95% certainty that the effects of climate change are real and largely man-made.

To which pretty much everyone in Shishmaref, Alaska, said ...

Well, duh.

If only they weren't so polite.

John D. Sutter
John D. Sutter

The tiny Inupiat Eskimo community in near-Arctic Alaska -- which I was lucky enough to visit on a reporting trip in 2009 and which is home to some of the sweetest and most colorful people you'll meet -- has been watching climate change happen to it for years now.

Locals see the sea ice forming later each year, the coast eroding and the permafrost melting. The hunting seasons have shifted and lakes have dried up.

The coast had become so unstable that one house toppled off the edge of the barrier island that harbors the village. When I was there, the town was considering relocating to more stable ground.

How climate change affects business
U.N. climate report points to humans
Miami's rising water problem
Understanding the climate change report

Now those plans seem to have dried up, too.

Stanley Tocktoo, the mayor of Shishmaref, told me by phone Thursday that residents have tabled their plans to move the town. Money is one reason. Another is that they were unable to find a suitable location upon which everyone could agree.

Potential relocation spots also are hit by the changing climate, he said.

"The island is only a quarter-mile wide by three miles (long), probably narrower now. I don't know how long we'll be able to be on this island," he said.

"These floods get pretty fierce now, worse than before."

It should seem laughable in 2013 that anyone would try to deny the reality of climate change, which is causing tougher droughts, stronger storms, rising seas and melting ice. The effects are scattered, to be sure. It's difficult to attribute any single storm to macro-changes in the atmosphere, for example.

But it's clear things are changing. It's clear that's for the worse.

And it's clear -- has been clear -- that we're to blame for that.

I'm thankful the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change continues to update all of us on the latest science and evidence.

But it's already obvious to everyone paying attention that we need to act in new and profoundly urgent ways to blunt the future impact of climate change, and to mitigate the changes that are already taking shape all over the world.

The Marshall Islands and other Pacific nations that could be swallowed up by rising seas have banded together to try to make their economies 50% or 100% renewable.

The urgency is clear to them. They fear for survival.

But in the United States, we're still running around with our eyes shut.

Sure, President Barack Obama has tried, between arguing for strikes on Syria and trying to resurrect the middle class, to make climate change a front-burner issue. But Congress hasn't followed suit. America remains a serious laggard on climate action.

Perhaps we should open our eyes, and turn them to Alaska.

There, the evidence is like a slap in the face.

A wake-up call.

"The town is coming apart, getting smaller and smaller."

That's Shelton Kokeok, a 68-year-old who lives, with his wife, Clara, at the very edge of the Shishmaref coast, which has been thawing and falling into the sea.

A multimillion-dollar U.S. Army Corps of Engineers project has bought Kokeok some peace of mind. The engineers piled rocks high on the shore, as if imploring the land to stay. But even the engineers know that the measures are temporary.

The Army Corps of Engineers in Alaska had $45 million to deal with coastal erosion issues that are related to climate change, according to Bruce Sexauer, chief of planning for the Alaska District. That money ran out though. The rock wall in Shishmaref was planned to be nearly twice as long as it is, but money is now only available if the village can put up 35% of the cash needed to build it. I'm pretty sure a place where people hunt seals for food and harvest ice for water doesn't have millions to spare.

It's a beautiful, generous village. But not a rich one.

The wall, as it stands, likely will buy Shishmaref several years.

But much already has been lost.

When I visited him four years ago, Kokeok told me he blames the death of his youngest son, Norman, on the changes to the climate. Norman fell through a thin sheet of ice on the first week of June several years ago.

That area should have been frozen solid, Kokeok said.

He told me, back in 2009, that he hasn't been the same since.

I was pleased to hear on Thursday that, after two knee replacements, Kokeok was able to go caribou hunting with his grandchildren and daughter this summer.

That's something he hadn't done in years.

The land here, and the community, means so much to him.

Another community, Newtok, which was the subject of a fascinating series by The Guardian, is actually in the process of relocating now, according to Sexauer.

Dave Williams, a colleague of Sexauer's, told me that the permafrost is thawing out from beneath the town, making it nearly unlivable.

"Some of the boardwalks are underwater during the summertime," he said. "You can't step off the boardwalk and walk anywhere without getting wet up to your crotch and covered in muck. You can see that when it floods now, houses that were above the flood level now get water in them or are surrounded by water and (you) can't go anywhere. ... It happens slowly, over years and years."

Slowly, over years and years.

But still, impossible not to notice.

I could think of a few senators I'd like to send up to that village to wade in the muck. Maybe it would alleviate their nagging sense of industry-funded doubt.

Or, at the very least, they'd have to make excuses in a ruined pair of pants.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this column are solely those of John D. Sutter.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
July 9, 2014 -- Updated 2047 GMT (0447 HKT)
World War I ushered in an era of chemical weapons use that inflicted agonizing injury and death. Its lethal legacy lingers into conflicts today, Paul Schulte says
July 9, 2014 -- Updated 2153 GMT (0553 HKT)
Mel Robbins says many people think there's "something suspicious" about Leanna Harris. But there are other interpretations of her behavior
July 9, 2014 -- Updated 2006 GMT (0406 HKT)
Newt Gingrich warns that President Obama's border plan spends too much and doesn't do what is needed
July 9, 2014 -- Updated 1753 GMT (0153 HKT)
Amy Bass says Germany's rout of Brazil on its home turf was brutal, but in defeat the Brazilian fans' respect for the victors showed why soccer is called 'the beautiful game'
July 8, 2014 -- Updated 1754 GMT (0154 HKT)
Errol Lewis says if it really wants to woo black voters away from the Democrats, the GOP better get behind its black candidates
July 9, 2014 -- Updated 2107 GMT (0507 HKT)
Aaron Carroll explains how vaccines can prevent illnesses like measles, which are on the rise
July 9, 2014 -- Updated 0008 GMT (0808 HKT)
Aaron Miller says if you think the ongoing escalation between Israel and Hamas over Gaza will force a moment of truth, better think again
July 8, 2014 -- Updated 2241 GMT (0641 HKT)
Martin Luther King Jr. fought and died so blacks would no longer be viewed as inferior but rather enjoy the same inherent rights given to whites in America.
July 9, 2014 -- Updated 1147 GMT (1947 HKT)
Alex Castellanos says recent low approval ratings spell further trouble for the President
July 9, 2014 -- Updated 0349 GMT (1149 HKT)
Paul Begala says Boehner's plan to sue Obama may be a stunt for the tea party, or he may be hoping the Supreme Court's right wing will advance the GOP agenda that he could not
July 6, 2014 -- Updated 1659 GMT (0059 HKT)
The rapture is a bizarre teaching in fundamentalist circles, made up by a 19th-century theologian, says Jay Parini. It may have no biblical validity, but is a really entertaining plot device in new HBO series
July 7, 2014 -- Updated 1749 GMT (0149 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette: President Obama needs to send U.S. marshals to protect relocating immigrant kids.
July 8, 2014 -- Updated 1903 GMT (0303 HKT)
Norman Matloff says a secret wage theft pact between Google, Apple and others highlights ethics problems in Silicon Valley.
July 8, 2014 -- Updated 2237 GMT (0637 HKT)
The mother of murdered Palestinian teenager Mohammed Abu Khder cries as she meets Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah, West Bank on July 7, 2014.
Naseem Tuffaha says the killing of Israeli teenagers has rightly brought the world's condemnation, but Palestinian victims like his cousin's slain son have been largely reduced to faceless, nameless statistics.
July 9, 2014 -- Updated 2028 GMT (0428 HKT)
Danny Cevallos says charging the dad in the hot car death case with felony murder, predicated on child neglect, was a smart strategic move.
July 8, 2014 -- Updated 1326 GMT (2126 HKT)
Van Jones says our nation is sitting on a goldmine of untapped talent. The tech companies need jobs, young Latinos and blacks need jobs -- so how about a training pipeline?
July 7, 2014 -- Updated 1309 GMT (2109 HKT)
A drug that holds hope in the battle against hepatitis C costs $1,000 per pill. We can't solve a public health crisis when drug makers charge such exorbitant prices, Karen Ignagni says.
July 7, 2014 -- Updated 1133 GMT (1933 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says our political environment is filled with investigations or accusations of another scandal; all have their roots in the scandal that brought down Richard Nixon
July 6, 2014 -- Updated 1814 GMT (0214 HKT)
Sally Kohn says Boehner's lawsuit threat is nonsense that wastes taxpayer money, distracts from GOP's failure to pass laws to help Americans
July 7, 2014 -- Updated 1526 GMT (2326 HKT)
Speaker John Boehner says President Obama has circumvented Congress with his executive actions and plans on filing suit against the President this month
July 7, 2014 -- Updated 1331 GMT (2131 HKT)
Hands down, it's 'Hard Day's Night,' says Gene Seymour-- the exhilarating, anarchic and really fun big screen debut for the Beatles. It's 50 years old this weekend
July 2, 2014 -- Updated 2201 GMT (0601 HKT)
Belinda Davis says World War I plunged millions of women across the globe into "men's jobs," even as they kept home and hearth. The legacy continues into today.
July 3, 2014 -- Updated 1824 GMT (0224 HKT)
Pablo Alvarado says all the children trying to cross the U.S. border shows immigration is a humanitarian crisis that can't be solved with soldiers and handcuffs.
July 3, 2014 -- Updated 1151 GMT (1951 HKT)
Elizabeth Mitchell says Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi dreamt up the symbolic colossus not for money, but to embody a concept--an artwork to amaze for its own sake. Would anyone do that today?
July 2, 2014 -- Updated 1601 GMT (0001 HKT)
Wendy Townsend says Jamaica sold two protected islands to China for a huge seaport, which could kill off a rare iguana and hurt ecotourism.
ADVERTISEMENT