Climate change and the ecological alterations that result will cause millions of people to flee their homes. This humanitarian crisis is occurring with unprecedented rapidity in the Arctic, where rising temperatures, loss of arctic sea ice, thawing permafrost have impacted the 200 indigenous communities that have lived there for millennia. Disaster relief and hazard migration have been the traditional humanitarian responses to extreme environmental events. Yet government agencies are no longer able to protect communities despite spending millions of dollars on erosion control and flood relief. Because there may be no way to quickly reverse the harm caused by climate change, community relocation may be the only immediate and permanent solution to protect people facing climate-induced ecological change.
This article provides an overview of the climate-induced ecological changes occurring in Alaska and an analysis of the post-disaster recovery and hazard migration laws that define the current humanitarian response to extreme weather events in the United States. The author argues that these laws fail to address environmental disasters that occur gradually and require relocation and have, in fact, impeded efforts to relocate communities. The article describes the unprecedented social and ecological crisis climate change has caused in Newtok, an Alaskan indigenous community that has resolved to relocate. Ultimately, the article proposes the enactment of an adaptive governance framework based in human rights doctrine to protect people residing in communities threatened by climate change. This framework will allow government agencies to transition their humanitarian response from protection in place to community relocation.