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Alaskan Village Votes To Relocate Amid Climate Change Fears

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

We're going to look now at two approaches to climate change. In a moment we'll explore a proposal that looks to the future, trying to address consequences in the years to come - first an effort to deal with a crisis happening today.

Thirty miles below the Arctic Circle on a barrier island in Alaska, the village of Shishmaref is home to about 600 people. It is being carved away by storms and melting ice. So this week people voted on their future. The question - should Shishmaref relocate or build new protections to keep people where they are? Esau Sinnok is an 18-year-old Shishmaref native. He supports moving. Welcome to the program.

ESAU SINNOK: Hey. Thank you for having me.

SHAPIRO: How would you describe your hometown to people who've never been there?

SINNOK: Shishmaref, Alaska, is an amazing place. Everybody knows everybody. I wake up every morning in my grandparents' house to an amazing view of the shoreline and the Chukchi Sea.

SHAPIRO: And most people survive by hunting, fishing, gathering berries in the summer.

SINNOK: Yeah. A majority of our diet comes from the land and the sea. We hunt for caribou, moose, muskox, walrus and gather traditional berries like the cloudberry, blueberries, blackberries.

SHAPIRO: Now, you support moving the community. Why do you believe this community should relocate?

SINNOK: Shishmaref will be under water within the next three decades, and if we do not do anything, we'll have to move to another city like Nome or Kotzebue or Anchorage. And not many people will move to same place, so that means our unique dialect of Inupiaq Eskimo language are unique. Eskimo dancing are unique. Gospel singing translated in Inupiaq - all that will soon die out if we do not move as a community.

SHAPIRO: This is such a close vote. Obviously the community is divided. Can you tell me about the dinner table conversations surrounding this question?

SINNOK: I have friends and family that are wanting to relocate and wanting to stay on the island of Shishmaref, and it's just been interesting to see how this plays out.

SHAPIRO: Do the people who want to stay usually say, we'll be fine; we can stay here; climate change isn't really going to drive us away. Or do they say, well, let's deal with that when we have to? Or do they say, I'd rather, you know, have to move to Anchorage or Nome someday down the road?

SINNOK: All those sayings are true. The older generation would say that they want to stay in place because they've lived there all their lives, and that's where their parents and grandparents and great grandparents grew up, too. I have a lot of respect for them, but for future generations, I think we would have to relocate Shishmaref.

SHAPIRO: Shishmaref actually voted to relocate back in 2002. You would have been about 4 years old at that point. And because there was not enough money or a clear plan, it didn't happen. Do you think this will be different?

SINNOK: Oh, yeah, I think this will be a lot different because I think that we learned a lot more, and I really hope that this story - our story - goes out to the federal government so that we can have the available resources to relocate not just Shishmaref but also help out the other 223 communities in Alaska affected by climate change. I just want our voices to be heard because it's just crazy to know that your only home will soon be under water if the federal government doesn't do anything to help you out.

SHAPIRO: Esau Sinnok, thank you very much for joining us.

SINNOK: Thank you so very much.

SHAPIRO: That was Esau Sinnok speaking with us earlier today from Anchorage where he's doing a summer internship. Since we spoke, the official results of the vote have been announced, and Shishmaref has voted to relocate. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.