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Inupiat Community Sues Companies Over Ravages of Climate Change

The Inupiat community of Alaska is reviving a 2008 suit against energy and other companies on the grounds that global warming has contributed to the erosion of their land and destruction of their way of life.
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In 2006, the Army Corps of Engineers delivered a report that contained shocking news for the Inupiat community living in the arctic city of Kivalina: Pack up and move. Kivalina sits on a barrier island 70 miles north of the Arctic Circle and has depended on seasonal freezing of the surrounding waters for protection from erosion and storms. As reported by The Guardian, the community's lawyers addressed an appeals panel in San Francisco and painted a picture of a desperate situation. "Due to global warming, this landfast sea ice forms later in the year, attaches to the coast later, breaks up earlier, and is less extensive and thinner," said the lawyers. "Houses and buildings are in imminent danger of falling into the sea. Critical infrastructure is threatened with permanent destruction."

The recommendation by the Army Corps of Engineers was to move Kivalina 7.5 miles away—a classic case of easier said than done, particularly for a town of 427 people in which the median income per family was, according to 2000 census data, $30,000.

If global warming or climate change was responsible for the Inupiats' plight, then the logical thing was to expect those who had caused the problem to pay to solve it. In 2008, the community launched a suit against energy and other companies that sought $400 million in damages and relocation costs. That suit ran aground when the court in northern California decided that the politically-charged issue of climate change could only be answered by the executive branch of government. After all, it would be hard to say that man-made climate change had caused the damages when much of the U.S. Government resisted the worldwide consensus that climate change was caused by humans at all.

According to the Guardian, the new case has been filed against "Exxon Mobil, BP America, Chevron, Shell, Peabody Energy, the world's largest coal provider, and America's largest electricity-generating companies including American Electric Power and Duke Energy."

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On Monday, the defendants' lawyers argued that "greenhouse gases allegedly cause harm only when the emissions of billions of entities accumulate worldwide, over many decades ... Plaintiffs might just as well have targeted steel mills in Pennsylvania... or a defendant class of all US car and truck owners."

The lawsuit isn't the only problem the community is wrestling with; the question of where to go has sparked a familiar debate between science and indigenous knowledge. A reporter from KQED, a northern California public radio station, spoke with Enoch Adams, Jr., an Inupiat representative who had come to San Francisco for the hearing, and found that the community didn't like the site the Army Corps of Engineers had chosen. Instead, the villagers would rather relocate to a site described by an ancestor in the 19th century. The Army Corps of Engineers picked its site based on models that predict what parts of land will survive flooding over a 500-year period. "They're so caught up in the science part, they don’t realize that all they’re doing is predicting, which is a 50-50 thing," said Adams. "Their guesses are as good as ours."

“A lot of our knowledge is based on observation over years, and stories that are told from father to son, mother to daughter, over generations," Adams continued. "We know it to be accurate, because we depend on that knowledge as a people, to survive, and to thrive as a community. I hope that the federal government recognizes soon, and it looks like they will, recognize that traditional knowledge needs to be given the same respect that their scientific data gets.”