Esau Sinnok is a young man on a mission. His village, Shishmaref, is on the western coast of Alaska, and it’s falling into the Chukchi Sea. Esau is doing whatever he can to help.
Shishmaref’s story has been featured by most major news outlets, and I have not yet met an Alaskan resident who isn’t familiar with the story. In fact, there are a number of villages just like Shishmaref, you may have heard about Newtok or Kivalina. Two dozen of these villages are actually in the process of relocating to safer locations. The danger is so real that entire communities are uprooting and leaving behind cultural sites and historical landmarks.
I had the chance to sit down with Esau over the summer to talk about Shishmaref and his expectations about the future. Esau is a member of Alaska Youth for Environmental Action (AYEA), a program to bring together young leaders from around Alaska to address environmental challenges. Climate change has been in the forefront of AYEA’s attention for several years, which is an excellent indicator for the level of concern among young Alaskans about climate change. Esau’s message to world leaders is that, “Climate change is happening now and it’s affecting the arctic twice as much as in the lower latitudes. Two hundred and twenty-three communities across Alaska are being affected. This is a social justice issue, and it’s on all of us.”
Climate change is affecting the region in several ways, and the combination of these effects has created a very desperate situation for the Native Alaskans living along the coast. Permafrost thaw, sea level rise, and sea ice loss are coalescing along Alaska’s coastline and causing unprecedented levels of coastal erosion.
- Sea level rise is slowly eating away at the shoreline, bringing the ocean closer and closer to communities.
- Thawing permafrost is making the ground softer and easier to break apart, which is particularly problematic during the spring and fall storm seasons.
- Coastal villages used to be protected from these strong storms by Arctic sea ice. Now that sea ice levels have fallen significantly, and the winter season has shortened, the ice is no longer there to stop storms from slamming into the shoreline.
One of the first stories that Esau shared with me was about the death of his uncle in 2007.
“On June 2, 2007, my uncle and my dad and a few of his friends went out duck and geese hunting on the ice, and on their way back my uncle fell through the ice where it would usually be frozen. And he passed away on that day. We’ve had a lot more incidents out on the ice because it’s warming up so fast that it’s just unpredictable now.”
The ice that they were walking on had been hunting grounds since the community settled there several centuries ago. The ice used to be six to eight feet thick and now is two to three feet thick. Esau’s uncle is not the only person who has fallen victim to the unseasonably thin ice. Esau explained that this puts the community in a difficult situation; hunting has become more dangerous, but the community survives on a subsistence diet and depends on hunting for food.
These regional effects of climate change are palpable and impossible to deny, regardless of one’s stance on human-caused climate change. Some could debate why and how these environmental changes have occurred, but for Alaska’s coastal village residents, this is a useless argument. Their problem is immediate and dire.
Leaders among the Native Alaskan communities have experienced varying levels of political power throughout the last few decades. The state has a dark past, a history of aggressive and xenophobic treatment of the indigenous communities. Native Alaskans have had to fight for their civil rights for the last century, and they have been fairly successful.
However, much more needs to be done. Although a few Native leaders have achieved a measure of statewide authority and influence, and despite some improved attention to the needs of Native communities, there is still a palpable void where the collective voices of these communities should be audible. Racism is still a major problem, and the challenges that Native Alaskans feel are similar to those of Black communities throughout the rest of the country. Both communities have had to struggle to claim their rightful place in societies that owe much of their success to indigenous and cultural knowledge and the resilience of hard-working minorities that support important social institutions.
This struggle is always there but sporadically appears as front-page headline stories: another shooting, a tense protest, a march causing city-wide gridlock, a vicious attack on police. The spotlight has recently been fixed on the battle over Standing Rock, where the Sioux Tribe and their supporters are protesting the Dakota Access Pipeline. This struggle has been a dramatic show of solidarity and resistance by the Sioux, who are fighting to maintain their rights and jurisdiction over sacred land and precious natural resources.
Like Esau’s community, the Standing Rock Sioux are facing an unfair burden of the effects of a fossil-fuel-dependent society. It is the same everywhere around the country; our most vulnerable and marginalized societies have been pushed to the front lines of climate change. Whether communities are physically restricted to less-than-ideal locations or racist and oppressive systems like redlining have forced people into undesirable areas, many of the people who have the smallest voices are facing the gravest environmental challenges. The Standing Rock Sioux are standing up for their rights, making their voices heard with authority and strength. The Native communities in Alaska and minority communities around the country will continue to do the same, and the next generation of leaders is watching.
Esau has grown up in a transformative environment, both physical and political. His experiences with a changing environment are personal and direct. He has grown up watching Native leaders achieve more authority than ever before and he has also had personal experience with good leaders in government. Former Senator Ted Stevens regularly visited the Native villages, and he went to Shishmaref six to eight times a year. He campaigned for the Native communities and his support was felt among the village residents. Since his death, no government representative has stepped up to continue Senator Stevens’s work in the Native villages.
Esau plans to change that. The eighteen-year-old told me his plan to run for governor or senator by 2030. He also already plans to run in subsequent elections, if his first attempt is unsuccessful. He told me that his generation will have to step up and take over responsibility from the current leaders, and he is serious about taking that role.
And I believe him.
Esau was at the 2015 United Nations Conference on Climate Change in Paris, speaking on behalf of his community and interviewing with media outlets like CNN and National Geographic. He has also been travelling around the country and the world, raising awareness about Alaska’s coastal villages. He intends to make Shishmaref’s story heard and he plans to campaign for the “223 communities across Alaska that are being affected by climate change.”
Just weeks after I met with Esau, he was at the White House being recognized as a Champion of Change by the White House Council on Environmental Quality. Esau was the youngest recipient of the honor and the only one representing Alaska. He was one of five of the Champions of Change who participated in a panel during the ceremony.
Esau is already an excellent leader and an example of resilience and determination. His community is facing challenges that touch everything from the natural world to politics, and everything in between. Rather than being paralyzed by the task before him, he is stepping up and taking it head on.