Kivalina clings to the tip of a wisp of a barrier island jutting into the Chukchi Sea. Home to less than 400 people, Kivalina, Alaska, is a windswept collection of buildings: a school, a store, homes. The Inupiat ancestors of Kivalina’s residents have persisted through harsh environmental conditions at or near the village’s current location – 80 miles from the Arctic Circle – for thousands of years. But new environmental challenges may force the residents to leave.

In October, a group of FESers traveled to Kivalina to gain a better understanding of this community’s experience at the frontline of climate change. They learned from a 77-year-old village elder and whale boat captain that whale hunting – a practice which has coloured Inupiat folklore, and provided sustenance and livelihoods – has yielded no whales since 1994. Why have no whales been caught in recent years? Less sea ice means a wider chasm between whales and land. Loss of whale hunting is just one way in which climate change is presenting problems for this Alaskan community: the FESers also learned that efforts to barricade the rising sea and increasing (and increasingly intense) storm surges out of Kivalina have failed. They learned that the Chukchi Sea’s new antics are pushing Kivalina’s population into a smaller and smaller space. That water supplies are increasingly contaminated by salt water. And that the only future for Kivalina’s Inupiat may require picking the village up and moving it away from its barrier island home.

The two week long UNFCCC COP 18 is beginning right now in Qatar. At last year’s COP 17 in South Africa, governments decided to adopt a new global legal agreement on climate change “as soon as possible, but not later than 2015” (read more about the Durban Platform). One focus of COP 18 will be mapping this new agreement. As these conversations unfold, sea level rise will be high on the agenda of at least some delegates. The Association of Small Island States (AOSIS), representing 44 low lying coastal and island countries, will be out with all their force, pushing for strong and legally binding commitments under this new agreement. The AOSIS mantra about limiting warming to “1.5. [°C] to stay alive” is not hyperbole: these low-lying island nations already suffer from rising seas and some face a near future of complete submersion. Unfortunately, AOSIS has relatively little power: while the coalition is made up of almost 28 percent of developing countries, it represents only 20 percent of the UN’s total membership and about five percent of the global population.

But as the USA’s Kivalina shows, a future of increasingly deteriorating coasts, salt water invaded aquifers, and ruthless storm surges is not limited to AOSIS members. Research in Science recently revealed that the next few centuries may herald in ice melt and thermal sea expansion such that the world’s oceans could swell up an astonishing 18 – 29 feet, an estimate – attained from examining fossilized corals – that’s significantly higher than past projections. Even 18 feet of sea level rise would put most major coastal cities under water. And while the amount of sea level rise will be differential around the world, whether it’s one or three stories of coastal infrastructure under water, this is a terrifying prognosis. Gone will be Fiji, the Maldives and Vanuatu of AOSIS, yes, but also gone will be most major coastal cities in developed countries across North America and Europe. And the beginning of this human civilization vs. the sea struggle can already be seen beyond AOSIS nations and Kivalina: Shishmaref and Newtok, two other Alaskan villages, are facing relocation. In eastern Canada, storm surges are relentlessly battering communities and bringing about serious talk of migration away from the coast. And hurricane Sandy’s storm surges along the east coast of the United States should have been a sufficient reality check for developed nations about the real threat of rising seas.

New information, new weather events, and new hard decisions have made sea level rise a climate change issue that reaches well beyond AOSIS, and “1.5 to stay alive” is not just for the small island states anymore. As the construction of the concerted international effort to address climate change is pushed along in the COP 18 negotiations, I’ll be listening for talk about sea level rise as a global issue, and as a compelling call for a strong international climate agreement. I hope to find constructive dialogue from delegates outside of AOSIS.

(Chukchi Rising photo: Susanna Berkouwer)