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Rising Seas, Corporate Greed, and the Plight of an Alaskan Village

Book Excerpt

For the Inupiat people of Kivalina in the Arctic of Alaska, the price of further climate change denial could be the complete devastation of their lives and culture. Their crumbling village must be relocated to survive. But neither the government, nor the fossil fuel giants who have helped speed up the destruction of their village seem to willing to take responsibility.

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In her compelling new book Kivalina: A Climate Change Story, Christine Shearer traces the history of corporate greed and government compliance and connects it to the plight of this ancient Eskimo community by the Chukchi Sea coast. A grim forewarning of what could soon be the plight of coastal communities across the world if we don’t wake up and act right now.

We bring you the introduction to her book as Journal web exclusive.


IN February 2008, a tiny Alaska Native village named Kivalina filed suit against twenty-four fossil fuel companies for contributing to the village’s erosion through large greenhouse gas emissions, and for creating a false debate around climate change. The lawsuit was filed in conjunction with environmental justice and indigenous rights organizations as one of several steps in a broader push for climate justice, aiming to help Kivalina residents draw attention to their situation and call for action from government and corporate officials that had so far largely ignored them.

The media gave the lawsuit brief attention that quickly faded, and the judge’s ruling was issued with little discussion or notice outside of certain legal circles. Meanwhile, the people of Kivalina are still in danger from the effects of climate change, in a situation that is going to become more common throughout the world.

For roughly the past ten thousand years we have enjoyed a relatively stable climate that has allowed for the development of agriculture and civilization. Such stability is the exception, not the norm, when it comes to the earth’s 4.54 billion-year history. The Earth has oscillated between long periods of cooling (glaciations) and shorter periods of warming (interglacials), sometimes undergoing radical climate variations within the span of a century or even a decade. Evidence suggests that later glaciations correspond with periodic shifts in the earth’s orbit, tilt, and precession (movement of the axis), which can reduce the amount of energy received at the poles. This small temperature perturbation, in turn, can kickstart a glaciation through feedbacks: as ice builds, greenhouse concentrations within the oceans are sequestered and reduced in the atmosphere, and the ice reflects a greater amount of sunlight back to space (the “albedo effect”). These processes maintain the cooling, and can create the conditions for layer upon layer of cumulative ice sheets.

Glaciations then give way to warmer interglacial periods, which have been correlated to increases in greenhouse gases in the atmosphere—trace gases like carbon dioxide and methane that capture heat and can amplify the initial orbital forcings. The sun’s light rays that are absorbed by oceans, land, and vegetation are eventually given off as infrared radiation, or heat energy. Due to their molecular structure (having three or more atoms), greenhouse gases vibrate at frequencies that allow them to absorb and emit this infrared radiation, sending a portion of that energy back to the Earth's surface. During certain periods this increased heat can hasten the melting of glaciers, with the newly exposed landscape absorbing more heat and releasing more greenhouse gases, potentially leading to an interglacial period. The most recent warming shift occurred 11,700 years ago, the beginning of a relatively long and mild interglacial period known as the Holocene.

Photo by Christine Shearer Rock revetment at Kivalina village.

Some have argued that the Holocene epoch has been supplanted by an Anthropocene, or human-influenced climate, beginning with large-scale agriculture and accelerating rapidly with the Industrial Revolution and the widespread use of fossil fuels. For the past two centuries we have been digging up and burning fossilized carbon from earlier eras — coal, oil, and natural gas — at an accelerating rate, and greatly increasing the amount of greenhouse gases in our atmosphere. While we need greenhouse gases to absorb heat and sustain life, their increasing concentration is steadily turning the furnace up on our lower atmosphere and altering our climate. Scientists are concerned not only because the effects are already apparent, such as melting glaciers, rising sea levels, and increased water vapor in the atmosphere, but because the ultimate consequences are so disturbing. What the historic evidence suggests is that the earth has certain feedback mechanisms that can tip the planet toward extreme cooling as well as extreme heating, and that those mechanisms can be very hard if not impossible to reverse once they hit a certain threshold.

As of 2011, carbon dioxide levels are about 390 parts per million (ppm), substantially higher and more rapidly built up than at any time in the eight hundred thousand years’ worth of records from air bubbles trapped in ice cores. And there is a potential warning on the horizon: numerous glaciers are melting faster than many had predicted, and the thawing permafrost—the frozen subsoil beneath the ice—can release stores of carbon dioxide and also methane, a greenhouse gas with a high and rapid heat absorption much stronger than that of carbon dioxide. The most pressing question is what large amounts of greenhouse gases will do to an already warm interglacial period, with some scientists predicting events such as the melting of glaciers and the resulting steady release of methane could bring about a “tipping point,” setting off a cascade of warming feedbacks over which we would no longer have any control. Other scientists believe we are already at or very near that tipping point, and need to begin clamping down on greenhouse gas emissions immediately.

Photo by Christine Shearer Sandbags — a stopgap measure to keep this Kivalina house from sinking.

Despite the vocal concerns of scientists, pockets of the U.S. population remain unconvinced of the existence of human-caused (anthropogenic) warming, its potential severity, and the need for action. This includes people who believe climate change is a hoax; fossil fuel company executives reluctant to alter their business practices; members of think tanks, media, and other organizations that are actively trying to distort the science on climate change; and representatives of the U.S. federal government resistant to addressing climate change, particularly the George W. Bush Administration and certain members of Congress, who have been complicit in downplaying the reality and severity of climate change.

Meanwhile, some are already feeling the daily effects of global warming. Among them are Alaska Natives living in the now steadily melting Arctic, such as the village of Kivalina. Perched on a thin strip of land between a sea and a lagoon, sea ice no longer adequately forms on their coastline, leaving the tiny island vulnerable to storms and erosion and requiring relocation. In the midst of government inaction on climate change, the village filed suit against fossil fuel companies for their relocation costs, and for creating a false debate around global warming: Kivalina v. ExxonMobil et al.

In taking a close look at the dynamics surrounding the lawsuit, this book will lay out the development of an entire industry designed to help large industries stave off regulations and laws, known as the product defense industry (PDI). It will then explore how the PDI, fused with the fossil fuel industry’s strong and innate position within the U.S. and world economy, has helped prevent U.S. action on climate change. The result is a political environment in which it has been incredibly difficult to adequately address what is increasingly a clear and present danger, particularly for those already being affected, like the residents of Kivalina. While individuals can scale back on the amount and type of energy they consume, such options are limited without broader societal change. How to initiate effective action? People around the world are working on the answers right now. And for people like those in Kivalina, the clock is ticking.


Christine Shearer is a postdoctoral scholar in science, technology, and society studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and a researcher for CoalSwarm, part of SourceWatch. Her work has appeared in Race Gender & Class, Conservation Letters, the Huffington Post, and Truthout. This is her first book.

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Many can jot a word for or against, changes continue and will bring additional studies, yet words on paper need actions for much will happen.  These words in this book helps to bring to light the obstacles and what needs to be addressed for true science to guide the decision makers not the dollars per barrels fueling elections, weaken regulations, and impacting the health of the lands, waters and people.

By Rosemary Ahtuangaruak on Sat, October 08, 2011 at 3:15 pm

“Used to”: First i have to apologise. I came off sounding snide and conceited, to which you have replied in a gentlemanly fashion. I am embarrassed about that. Good for you.

However, i’m afraid you and your friends have made the common mistake of assuming that previous changes that took place over thousands of years might have caused the same trauma to flora and fauna as the changes that are happening this time around. Thousands of years gives the system time to evolve. New species gradually replace the ones that can’t evolve fast enough to survive. When the same thing happens in hundreds of years, the effect on the system is much more dramatic. Rapid changes in greenhouse gases and other artificial changes such as deforestation and over-harvesting wreak havoc with the food chains. The current convergence of a number of negative influences should seem to predicate disastrous results.  Even if there were not symptoms of the beginning of a widespread extinction taking place, the impact on the human race of rising sea levels alone is going to place extreme hardship on most of mankind. Huge forced relocations will disrupt political and farming processes. Large populations driven into proximity with one another, competing for resources, will cause worldwide unrest. Somalia’s problems today will become the problems of dozens of countries tomorrow, without the availability of equipped aid agencies to help stave off disaster. Famine and disease will decimate whole populations. The “have nots” will try to aggressively displace the “haves”, spreading the horror to every corner of the globe.

Only rapid and dedicated effort will forestall this. Unfortunately, there is presently no political will to mobilise the worldwide team effort required.

I hope you are right in your assessment of the capacity of the world to cope. Unfortunately, that hope is very slim, and if your assessment is wrong, the delay that your perspective might cause will result in unbelievable hardship.

My last comment ended with “keep thinking.” It encourages me to see you are thinking. Open minds solve problems.

By tony stephens on Tue, August 16, 2011 at 1:49 am

Hi Tony,

  Actually you’ve pretty much misread everything as to what I had said and about me apparently.

  First - I’m 45, second I’ve been doing extensive research, but raw data research, not finding, not article, not publications - but the raw uninterpreted (and hence - untainted) data and materials.

  I’ve also gone back from the 27 year “encapsulation” that many seem to be staying within and of course, surprisingly enough I’ve found out why.  These are my findings and the finding of a fairly large group of us here in the Bay Area and instead of us trying to “sell” our findings to each other, we exchange them and let everyone come to their own conclusions, and I’m not going to sell anything to you either - you have to make your own conclusions - but step outside of the encapsulation first, stop reading the peer findings, stop reading the articles and really take a deep breath and opening your eyes up wider and see the whole picture, you’ll come to realize that what is being sold and told versus what the data says are like day and night.    Climate Change is here, has been here before many many a time and will come again.  What I am far more concerned with is a concerted and deliberate effort to attempt to “fix” something that based on unbiased data, clearly shows it to be a natural planetary cycle and if deliberating disturbed, could cause catastrophic repercussions that will cause more damage then what the natural cycles do normally and have done every 10,000 years or so each time.

I am more interested in a focus more of continued reductions of pollutants and a continued effort in recycling and turning our eyes from corporate greed silliness to how about forcing emerging nations like China and India to here and now stop their fast tracking of global-killing pollution on a scale never seen before, and on South America to demand that deforesting be done in a more scattered pattern with immediate replanting of same species back in their place and not to touch an area such as that again for no less then 20 years.

Demand that Saudi Arabia supply desalination systems into their region, also demand that China and Russia who are buying up huge swathes of land in Africa are required to install desalination plants in numerous regions of that continent to bring more fresh water and better irrigation into that region…

When you look at a place such as for instance - Somalia, which I remember in the 1970’s about articles of mass famine and starvation there, still today it is no better…  Instead of telling corporations what to do, perhaps its time to go into such area’s and put in real, solid and stable government in area’s that have no governments and have millions dying because more people are worried about arguing over a worthless little dot of land owned by the Jews then worrying about the entire horn of Africa dying en mass.

By Used to believe on Sun, August 14, 2011 at 2:27 pm

Hi, Used to ... your preamble paragraph prepares the reader for the main body of your thought. You sound quite sure of yourself. Being as bright and self-determined as you evidently are, you of course have left all other data behind and come to your own internal conclusions, as, apparently, so have the other people you mention in CA.

However, the problem with leaving data out, as with the problem of warping or misrepresenting data, is that you have only your own opinions, developed devoid of data, to guide you.

Since you are above being influenced by all the noise of the data, i suppose there’s no point trying to explain that some of the examples you put forward were themselves involved in the previous widespread exterminations. Others you mention occurred over very long periods of time, sometimes allowing the flora and fauna to adapt as the changes took place. This is most definitely not the case this time. The changes being wrought by the CO2 and other products that mankind is unquestionably pumping into the atmosphere are taking place in a fraction of a millennium - a split second in the days of creation. That’s why there is another extinction beginning at this time. We can’t stop it now - but we can mitigate the outcome.

You sound like a relatively young person. Hopefully, you will live long enough to see undeniable evidence you are now denying. When you get there, whether you regret these earlier positions of yours or take comfort in the efforts you have been putting forward to help our world will depend on how you react to information such as this. Overstatement by some of the climate change enthusiasts will seem a weak argument for denial a few years from now. Keep thinking. It’s good for you.

By tony stephens on Tue, August 09, 2011 at 8:02 pm

The data is flawed and incomplete, also she has cherry picked only evidence to build her anti corporate case and used much of the same one sided, dare I say “junk science” to back up her claims.

I used to be totally in line with Global Warming, then Climate Change… being from a Scientific background and living and working in a city that is home to some of the brightest men and women in the country, after many a night talking and sharing and comparing notes on our own, its become very apparent that it was time to stop listening to the TV and reading the newspapers and magazines and it was time to look at this on our own without all of the static…

Conclusion is natural cyclical planetary wide changes, mixed with various solar flare activities, and normal circumstances.  Baseline historical data also shows this to have happened centuries before the industrial age with greater environmental impacts.  For example during the 800 through the 1100 centuries there was a much hotter climate and rock slashing and gouging of glaciers shows clear cut evidence as well as short term fossilized plant remains in regions now covered in ice showing massive vegetation just a thousands years back.    Salt water marine life remains found in inland in areas now hundreds of feet above sea level.  Past ancient cities now found in several feet to several hundred feet of water.  Its quite obvious scientifically that these events have been occurring throughout history and it has nothing directly to do with corporate greed and industrial revolution, car emissions or the like.  We should still be working hard to cut pollution, but CO2 and human activity are not a direct or even partial indirect cause, the historical data weighs far to heavily against it, sorry but Climate Change data being offered today is slanted and highly inaccurate…  Do yourselves a favor, do what we are all doing in CA. and shut off the background noise, do your own unbiased research and reach your own conclusions.

By Used to believe on Sat, August 06, 2011 at 12:48 pm

One world,one pain…

Take some getting used to I reckon.

By Malcolm McLaren on Wed, July 20, 2011 at 6:58 pm

There is not much that we can do to convince the die hard AGW fanatic that their data is incomplete and unreliable. It’s like a religion to them, very much like one. Because of this, it’s like telling a Muslim fanatic that there is no heaven where paradise awaits them. They don’t want to hear anything that runs counter to their belief that the activities of humanity, especially the Western World is destroying the earth. Like Creationists they ignore the truth of how Nature is much better a destroying the world than we will ever be. That climate change is a fact of life and that a warmer world is better than a colder one. That humanity, for the past 10,000 years has been living during a period of fantastic weather, including times when it was much warmer. That humans walked to the Western Hemisphere across land bridges that were walled off when the world got colder again. ... These facts, and many more, are ignored as their fanaticism won’t allow any information that conflicts with their strong belief in the evils of mankind.

By Brad Fregger on Wed, July 20, 2011 at 4:22 pm

The criminal activity is on the AGW hoaxers who have pulled off the biggest Ponzi scheme in history. It is my fervent hope that many of them will spend many years in prison (read Al Gore).

By Brad Fregger on Wed, July 20, 2011 at 10:18 am

I wonder how much local subsidence is affecting the shoreline here.  Shore measurements at other oceanic locales have been stable.

By Doug Brockman on Wed, July 20, 2011 at 8:17 am

So just what does have to happen now to convince you remaining faded CO2 Doomers, that we former climate change believers are correct and climate change was wrong, exaggerated and not a real danger at all? What has to happen now to prove we were right and you were dead wrong? 25 MORE years of wrong predictions and warnings? What has to happen now?

By mememine69 on Wed, July 20, 2011 at 5:45 am

You’re making the assumption that increased CO2 is the main cause of climate change; an assumption that is far from proven. Alternative causes have been suggested, alas the vast majority of research dollars only go to those supporting AGW.

In addition, you haven’t suggested the distinct possibility that the increased levels of CO2 might be due to a warming of the oceans (if they are indeed warming), rather than visa versa.

There are a certain group of people that are drawn to the concept that humanities sins (of one kind or another) are the cause of the problems we are currently experiencing. And, the priest cast always jumps on these opportunities as a way of increasing their fortune and power. This has taken place since the beginning I’d civilization, it’s just that in our times the priests carry the title of scientist. No matter, these prophecies are no mire accurate than those proclaimed thousands of years ago.

By Brad Fregger on Tue, July 19, 2011 at 11:26 pm

There is a new clean and super cheap energy technology that will soon emerge on the market.  It uses nickel in a LENR - one gram of nickel yields about 1.7 billion calories.  Google the Rossi E-Cat.  At 1/5th the cost of conventional energy technologies, it will rapidly replace burning fossil fuel, allowing us to dramatically lower our emissions.  By the way, the Inupiat people of Kivalina will be the big winners, because soon the E-Cat will be portable, meaning that everyone will be able to live off the electrical grid everywhere.  In other words, living in the Arctic of Alaska will be like living in a suburb of the Twin Cities in Minnesota because it will have all the conveniences.

By Brad Arnold on Tue, July 19, 2011 at 11:16 pm

I suspect we are rapidly approaching a world situation in which perpetrators of interference in global warming control will be considered to have been involved in criminal activity and will be held relatively responsible for the inevitable ensuing catastrophes. As those catastrophes evolve, the recriminations will become increasingly severe. I would not want to be in the shoes of powerful climate change deniers. Unfortunately, historically there is spillover in these situations, and innocent bystanders in the shadow of the guilty typically shoulder a lot of the repercussions of the vented anger of the disaffected masses. I appreciate Christine’s perspective on this.

By tony stephens on Tue, July 19, 2011 at 10:56 pm

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