“Kivalina: A Climate Change Story”

Christine Shearer’s Kivalina is a passionate account of one tiny Alaskan village’s fight for its life in the face of climate change in the Arctic. Equally importantly, the book spells out the tactics that large and powerful corporations – whether involved in fossil fuels, tobacco, asbestos or lead-based products – have used to suppress civil lawsuits and unfavourable science.

Kivalina’s battle to save itself is a long and complicated one. In recent decades, the native Inupiat people of the north-west Alaskan village (population 374 in 2010) noticed subtle changes indicating that their climate was warming. Ocean-ice conditions altered the way they hunted at sea. Marine mammals, a staple of their diet, migrated earlier. Weather conditions became more unpredictable. Permafrost was melting.

Today, sea ice no longer adequately forms at Kivalina, at the tip of a small barrier island between a lagoon and the Chukchi Sea, part of the Arctic Ocean. With their homes left vulnerable to storms and erosion, the Inupiat people realised their village had to be moved. Frustrated by US government inaction, the municipality and a federally recognised tribe, Alaska Native Village of Kivalina, filed a bold lawsuit in 2008 against 24 fossil-fuel, power and coal companies, seeking relocation costs estimated at up to US$400 million.

In Kivalina v ExxonMobil Corporation, et al, the Inupiat argued that the large amounts of greenhouse gases emitted by the companies contribute to global warming, which threatens their community’s existence. Based on the common law theory of public nuisance, they also accused the companies of creating a false debate around the science of global warming.

Shearer – a postdoctoral scholar in science, technology and society studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara – is an excellent guide to the Kivalina case and through the broader political, legal and economic issues surrounding it. A researcher for CoalSwarm, an online portal on coal-related topics, and managing editor of Conductive, a solutions-oriented social-issues magazine, Shearer meticulously chronicles in her book the development of the “product defence industry” (PDI).

PDI, she writes, is “an entire business area designed to help large industries stave off regulations and laws”.  A main tactic is to cast doubt on science-based arguments. Shearer asserts that “PDI, fused with the fossil-fuel industry’s strong and innate position with the US and world economy, has helped to prevent American action on climate change”. The result: “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 affected, such as the residents of Kivalina.”

“Fossil-fuel industries grew up alongside and literally fuelled US development,” Shearer notes. (Much the same situation is evident in China today.) In the United States, they are intricately tied to the government, to the creation of most industrial products, to the military and financial sectors, and more.  Fossil fuels, the author adds, are “central to the current world order and any transition away from them [is] a huge threat to many powerful interests”.

As in past US legal battles over corporate responsibility for harm done to human health, much is at stake in courtroom fights over climate change. The implications truly are critical, and global.

Since 2009, the Kivalina lawsuit has had its ups and downs, at times dismissed, appealed, reinstated, and stripped of aspects deemed political in nature. But as Heather Kendall-Miller of the Native American Rights Fund and an attorney for Kivalina told the Alaska Dispatch in late 2011: “What we have going for us is the science is changing by the day.”  The causal connection between greenhouse-gas emissions and climate is becoming ever clearer.

Meanwhile, the case continues and Kivalina’s population struggles, as will other Arctic towns, with the mighty task of their eventual relocation.

Kivalina: A Climate Change Story
Christine Shearer
Haymarket Books, 2011

By Maryann Bird 

Maryann Bird is associate editor of chinadialogue.