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America’s Climate Refugees Are Pleading for Help. The Government Has No Answer.

Four tribes and one Native Alaskan village need to be relocated due to rising waters.

Children in Kivalina (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

In December, as the remaining Democratic primary candidates participated in another one of the seemingly endless string of presidential debates, Senator Amy Klobuchar was asked about climate-forced relocation efforts. “I very much hope we will not have to relocate entire cities, but we will probably have to relocate some individual residents,” she said.

On January 15, less than a month after the Minnesota senator’s naïve remark, four coastal tribes and one Alaska Native island village filed an 83-page complaint with the United Nations against the United States federal government. Their central issue: The land they’ve called home for centuries has steadily been whittled away due to the effects of increasingly volatile storms and rising sea levels. The U.S. has essentially sat on its hands while they call out for help.

The move to challenge American inaction through the U.N., it must be said, is largely aesthetic. Much as with the similar appeals made to the U.N. by those affected by the human-induced Flint water crisis, there is little that the intergovernmental body can do to address the extreme conditions and dim realities facing the five Native communities. In each of these cases, the U.S. government is unquestionably the one with the power to improve their situations. But rather than act as a fellow steward of the land and water, the Department of the Interior continues to lean into fracking and natural gas pipelines, and the Environmental Protection Agency slashes necessary pollution regulations.

This doesn’t mean the U.N. complaint is useless, though. The move is, if nothing else, an attempt by four tribal nations to publicly shame the U.S. government for the apathy it has always shown Indigenous communities—especially those tribal governments that lack the coveted federal-recognition status.

The Louisiana tribes involved include the Isle de Jean Charles Band of Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw, the Pointe-au-Chien Indian Tribe, the Grand Caillou and Dulac Band of the Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw Tribe, and the Atakapa-Ishak Chawasha Tribe of the Grand Bayou Indian Village. They were joined by an Iñupiat community in Alaska: the Village of Kivalina.

The five communities involved in this case are state-recognized governments but not federally recognized governments: The Bureau of Indian Affairs, housed in the Department of the Interior, has not formally recognized these bands as sovereign entities. This means they are not able to operate on a nation-to-nation basis with the American federal government in the fashion of the 574 federally recognized tribal governments. Instead, their main political relationships exist with the state governments. Unsurprisingly, these relationships have not gone well.

The Isle de Jean Charles Band is among the cases of climate displacement that have received more coverage in America: It was actually mentioned by Andrew Yang following Klobuchar’s comment about relocating individuals rather than communities. While the tribe urgently needs new territory to replace the one climate change has rendered uninhabitable, it was forced to reject a relocation proposal from Louisiana after the state refused to consult with it on the new location and bought new land despite lacking the band’s approval. State governments have failed the tribes who are bringing the U.N. complaint. They also continue to subsidize the gas and oil industries fueling the climate crisis with tax incentives. But federal policy is an even bigger problem.

In addition to the destruction wrought by current leadership at the Interior Department and the EPA, Congress has a long history of neglecting or harming the Louisiana tribes. It thought little of them when it allowed the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to carve unnatural shipping canals like the Intracoastal Waterway, which the legislative body signed off on in 1925. Dug out of the low-lying soil, the waterway has since expanded nearly threefold beyond the initially approved width in some areas throughout Louisiana and Texas, which, when combined with global warming and sea-level rise, has rapidly diminished coastal lands and habitats.

In the case of Kivalina, an Indigenous nation located on an island off the northwestern Alaskan coastline, its land area has been eroded by at least 50 percent over the past seven decades, with much of it falling into the Chukchi Sea. The U.S. Government Accountability Office determined in 2003 that this erosion from flooding was “due in part to rising temperatures that cause protective shore ice to form later in the year, leaving the villages vulnerable to storms.”

After wrestling for decades with the prospect of leaving their homeland, the citizens of Kivalina have now twice agreed and voted in favor of new places to relocate their village. But in both cases, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers rejected their proposals, leaving them stuck between an encroaching sea and bureaucratic inaction. As noted in the complaint, the Federal Emergency Management Agency has recovery programs in place, but villages like Kivalina often don’t qualify because they’re not declared federal disaster areas. Instead, Alaska Native villages are often forced to relocate only individual projects, one house or building at a time.

The U.N. complaint is not Kivalina’s first attempt at seeking some semblance of environmental justice. In 2008, the village filed a lawsuit in the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, Kivalina v. ExxonMobil Corp. The suit was an attempt by Kivalina to recoup monetary damages for the energy industry’s contribution to the destruction of its island. But in 2009, the court dismissed the claim, ruling that greenhouse gas emissions were not a legal issue but a political one and should be addressed by Congress or the executive branch. The village appealed the case up to the Supreme Court, which declined to hear it in 2013.

The American government has shown little concern for the aftereffects of its actions as it strips away the natural resources and land-based cultural heritage of tribal nations. “It looks like our community could be gone in 20 years,” Shirell Parfait-Dardar, chief of the Grand Caillou and Dulac Band, told “We’re not only losing our homeland. We lose so much more than that. We lose our culture. We lose our identity.”

This is the reality for Native tribes and villages that sit in the crosshairs of climate change’s initial lashes. The politicians minimize the problem, while the courts refuse to get involved. The U.S. government repeatedly sides with capital against vulnerable communities. The U.N.—the institution with the weakest chance of bringing about any change at all—is the only place left to turn. The best-case scenario in this complaint process would be a harshly worded condemnation of the U.S., not that anyone will care. What the appeal to such a feckless and ineffective international institution shows, above all else, is that the U.S. lacks any kind of mechanism for dealing with climate dislocations. And as long as those harmed by the displacement are mainly Indigenous nations, the government doesn’t seem to care.