Skip to main content


Log in

The impact of climate change on tribal communities in the US: displacement, relocation, and human rights

  • Published:
Climatic Change Aims and scope Submit manuscript


Tribal communities in the United States, particularly in coastal areas, are being forced to relocate due to accelerated rates of sea level rise, land erosion, and/or permafrost thaw brought on by climate change. Forced relocation and inadequate governance mechanisms and budgets to address climate change and support adaptation strategies may cause loss of community and culture, health impacts, and economic decline, further exacerbating tribal impoverishment and injustice. Sovereign tribal communities around the US, however, are using creative strategies to counter these losses. Taking a human rights approach, this article looks at communities’ advocacy efforts and strategies in dealing with climate change, displacement, and relocation. Case studies of Coastal Alaska and Louisiana are included to consider how communities are shaping their own relocation efforts in line with their cultural practices and values. The article concludes with recommendations on steps for moving forward toward community-led and government-supported resettlement programs.

This is a preview of subscription content, log in via an institution to check access.

Access this article

Subscribe and save

Springer+ Basic
EUR 32.99 /Month
  • Get 10 units per month
  • Download Article/Chapter or Ebook
  • 1 Unit = 1 Article or 1 Chapter
  • Cancel anytime
Subscribe now

Buy Now

Price excludes VAT (USA)
Tax calculation will be finalised during checkout.

Instant access to the full article PDF.

Similar content being viewed by others


  • Agnew-Beck Consulting, PDC Engineers and USKH Inc (2011) Relocation report: newtok to Mertarvik. Final draft issued for review by the Community of Newtok and the Newtok Planning Group

  • Aker DL (1999) Removing the heart of the Choctaw people: Indian removal from a native perspective. Am Indian Cult Res J 23(3):63–76

    Google Scholar 

  • ASCG (2008) Village of Newtok, local hazards mitigation plan, ASCG Inc. of Alaska Bechtol Planning and Development, Newtok

  • Bartrop PR (2007) Episodes from the genocide of the Native Americans: a review essay. Genocide Stud Prev 2(2):183–190

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Blaikie P et al (1994) At risk: natural hazards, people’s vulnerability, and disasters. Routledge, London

    Google Scholar 

  • Bronen R (2011) Climate-induced community relocations: creating an adaptive governance framework based in human rights doctrine. NYU Rev Law Soc Chang 35:356–406

    Google Scholar 

  • Burkett M (2011) The nation ex-situ: on climate change, deterritorialized nationhood, and the post-climate era. Clim Law 2(3):345–374

    Google Scholar 

  • Button GV, Peterson K (2009) Participatory action research: community partnership with social and physical scientists. In: Crate SA, Nuttall M (eds) Anthropology and climate change: from encounters to actions. Left Coast Press, Walnut Creek, pp 327–340

    Google Scholar 

  • Callaway D, Eamer J, Edwardsen E, Jack C, Marcy S, Olrun A, Patkotak M, Rexford D, Whiting A (1999) Effects of climate change on subsistence communities in Alaska. In: Weller G, Anderson P (eds) Assessing the consequences of climate change for Alaska and the Bering Sea Region. Center for Global Change and Arctic System Research, University of Alaska Fairbanks

  • Cernea MM (2000) Risks, safeguards and reconstruction: a model for population displacement and resettlement. Econ Polit Wkly 35(41):3659–3678

    Google Scholar 

  • Cernea MM (1997) The risks and reconstruction model for resettling displaced populations. World Dev 25(10):1569–1587

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Cernea MM, Mathur HM (2008) Can compensation prevent impoverishment? Reforming resettlement through investments and benefit-sharing. Oxford University Press, London

    Google Scholar 

  • Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority of Louisiana (2012) Louisiana’s comprehensive master plan for a sustainable coast. Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority of Louisiana. Baton Rouge, LA

  • Cochran P, Huntington OH, Pungowiyi C, Tom S, Chapin III FS, Huntington HP, Maynard NG, Trainor SF (2013) Indigenous frameworks for observing and responding to climate change in Alaska. Climatic Change. doi:10.1007/s10584-013-0735-2

  • Conklin PK (1991) The new deal, 3rd edn. Wiley-Blackwell, Hoboken

    Google Scholar 

  • Cox S (2007) An overview of erosion, flooding, and relocation efforts in the native village of Newtok. Alaska Department of Commerce, Community and Economic Development, Alaska

    Google Scholar 

  • De Wet C (ed) (2006) Development-induced displacement: problems, policies and people. Berghahn Books, New York

    Google Scholar 

  • Farbotko C, Lazrus H (2012) The first climate refugees? Contesting global narratives of climate change in Tuvalu. Glob Environ Chang 22:382–390

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Farmer P (2003) Pathologies of power: health, human rights, and the new war on the poor. University of California Press, Berkeley

    Google Scholar 

  • Freudenberg WR, Gramling R, Laska S, Erikson KT (2009) Catastrophe in the making: the engineering of Katrina and the disasters of tomorrow. Island Press, Washington DC

    Google Scholar 

  • GAO (2003) Alaska Native villages: most are affected by flooding and erosion, but few qualify for federal assistance. Government Accountability Office Report GAO-04-142

  • GAO (2009) Alaska native villages: limited progress has been made on relocating villages threatened by flooding and erosion. Government Accountability Office Report GAO-09-551

  • Gast RH (1934) The subsistence homesteads program. Ann Am Acad Polit Soc Sci 175:240–243

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Harrison RW (1952) Research in land development and land settlement in the Alluvial Valley of the lower Mississippi River. J Farm Econ 34(1):1

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Hesse K (2005) Aleutian sparrow. Margaret K McElderry Books, New York

    Google Scholar 

  • Hilhorst D, Bankoff G (2004) Introduction: mapping vulnerability. In: Bankoff G, Franks G, Hilhorst D (eds) Mapping vulnerability: disasters, development and people. Earthscan, London, pp 1–9

    Google Scholar 

  • Holley D (1975) Uncle Sam’s farmers: the new deal communities in the lower Mississippi Valley. University of Illinois Press, Chicago

    Google Scholar 

  • Houser S, Teller V, MacCracken M, Gough R, Spears P (2001) Potential consequences of climate variability and change for native peoples and homelands in climate change impacts on the United States: the potential consequences of climate variability and change. Foundation Report, prepared by the National Assessment Synthesis Team, US Global Change Research Program, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge UK, pp 351–377

  • Hugo G (2011) Lessons from past forced resettlement for climate change migration. In: Piguet E, Pécoud A, De Guchteneire P (eds) Migration and climate change. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, pp 260–288

    Google Scholar 

  • IPCC [Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change] (2007) Fourth assessment report: impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability.

  • Karl TR, Melillo JM, Peterson TC (eds) (2009) Global climate change impacts in the United States: a state of knowledge report from the US Global Change Research Program. University Press, Cambridge

    Google Scholar 

  • Katz M (2003) Staying afloat: how federal recognition as a Native American tribe will save the residents of Isle de Jean Charles, Louisiana. Loyola J Public Interest Law 4(1):1–26

    Google Scholar 

  • Laska S, Wooddell G, Hagelman R, Grambling R, Teets-Farris M (2005) At risk: the human, community, and infrastructure resources of Coastal Louisiana. J Coast Res 44:90–111

    Google Scholar 

  • Lazrus H (2012) Sea change: climate change and island communities. Ann Rev Anthropol 41:285–301

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Louisiana Workshop (2012) Stories of change: Coastal Louisiana tribal communities’ experiences of a transforming environment. Input to the National Climate Assessment. Participating tribes: Grand Bayou Village, Grand Caillou/Dulac Band of the Biloxi-Chitimacha Confederation of Muskogees, Isle de Jean Charles Band of the Biloxi-ChitimachaConfederation of Muskogees, Pointe-au-Chien Indian Tribe. Maldonado JK (ed)

  • Lynn K, Daigle J, Hoffman J, Lake FK, Michelle N, Ranco D, Viles C, Voggesser G, Williams P (2013) The impacts of climate change on tribal traditional foods. Climatic Change. doi:10.1007/s10584-013-0736-1

  • Marino E (2012) The long history of environmental migration: assessing vulnerability construction and obstacles to successful relocation in Shishmaref, Alaska. Glob Environ Chang 22(2):374–381

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Mayo III RJ (2010) Democracy and environmental decision-making: a review and analysis of the theoretical and empirical relationships. Master’s Thesis, State University of New York, College of Environmental Science and Forestry, Syracuse, New York

  • McLean KG, Ramos-Castillo A, Gross T, Johnston S, Vierros M, Noa R (2009) Report of the indigenous peoples’ global summit on Climate Change: 20–24 April 2009, Anchorage, Alaska. United Nations University—Traditional Knowledge Initiative, Darwin, Australia

  • Meck S, Retzlaff RC (2009) Familiar ring: a retrospective on the First National Conference on City Planning (1909). Planning & Environmental Law Commentary. American Planning Association Publication, Chicago

    Google Scholar 

  • Melville A (1985) Farm security administration, historical section: a guide to textual records in the Library of Congress. Library of Congress, Washington DC

    Google Scholar 

  • Melvin BL (1936) Emergency and permanent legislation with special reference to the history of subsistence homesteads. Am Soc Rev 1(4):622–631

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Miller M (2004) Forgotten tribes: unrecognized Indians and the federal acknowledgment process. University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln

    Google Scholar 

  • Mitchell J (2007) Erosion.

  • Nakashima DJ, McLean KG, Thulstrup HD, Castillo AR, Rubis JT (2012) Weathering uncertainty: traditional knowledge for climate change assessment and adaptation. Paris, UNESCO, and Darwin, UNU

  • Oliver-Smith A (2004) Theorizing vulnerability in a globalized world: a political ecological perspective. In: Bankoff G, Franks G, Hilhorst D (eds) Mapping vulnerability: disasters, development and people. Earthscan, London, pp 10–25

    Google Scholar 

  • Oliver-Smith A (ed) (2009a) Development and dispossession: the crisis of forced displacement and resettlement. School for Advanced Research Press, Santa Fe

    Google Scholar 

  • Oliver-Smith A (2009b) Sea level rise and the vulnerability of coastal peoples: responding to the local challenges of Global Climate Change in the 21st Century. UNU Institute for Environment and Human Security, Bonn

    Google Scholar 

  • Oliver-Smith A (2011) Sea level rise, local vulnerability and involuntary migration. In: Piguet E, Pécoud A, De Guchteneire P (eds) Migration and climate change. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, pp 160–187

    Google Scholar 

  • Philippe, R (2008) A case study: A fisher's cooperative in lower Plaquemines Parish as an avenue for integrating social equity into coastal management. Presentation at the The Coastal Society 21st meeting: Coastal Footprints: Minimizing Human Impacts, Maximizing Stewardship, Redondo Beach, CA June 29-July 3, 2008

  • Piguette E, Pecoud A, De Guchteneire P (2011) Introduction: migration and climate change. In: Piguet E, Pécoud A, De Guchteneire P (eds) Migration and climate change. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, pp 1–34

    Google Scholar 

  • Roosevelt E (1934) Subsistence farmsteads. Forum 91:199–201

  • Roy A (1999) The cost of living. The Modern Library, New York

    Google Scholar 

  • Shearer C (2011) Kivalina: a climate change story. Haymarket Books, Chicago

    Google Scholar 

  • Shearer C (2012a) The political ecology of adaptation assistance: Alaska Natives, displacement, and relocation. J Pol Ecol 19:174–183

    Google Scholar 

  • Shearer C (2012b) The social construction of Alaska Native vulnerability to climate change. Race, Gender Class 19(3–4):61–79

  • United Nations (1976) International covenant on economic, social and cultural rights. United Nations, New York

    Google Scholar 

  • United Nations (2004) Guiding principles on internal displacement. United Nations, New York

    Google Scholar 

  • United Nations (2007) Declaration on the rights of indigenous peoples. United Nations, New York

  • UNDP [United Nations Development Program] (2007/2008) Human Development Report 2007/2008. Fighting climate change: human solidarity in a divided world.

  • USACE (2006) Alaska Village erosion technical assistance program: an examination of erosion issues in the communities of Bethel, Dillingham, Kaktovik, Kivalina, Newtok, Shishmaref, and Unalakleet. Army Corps of Engineers Report

  • USACE (2007) Environmental assessment: Section 117 expedited erosion control project for Kivalina, Alaska. US Army Corps of Engineers Environmental Assessment Report

  • USACE (2008a) Revised environmental assessment: finding of no significant impact: Newtok Evacuation Center: Mertarvik, Nelson Island, Alaska. U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Alaska

    Google Scholar 

  • USACE (2008b) Section 117 Project fact sheet. U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Alaska

    Google Scholar 

  • Ward B (1995) A new deal for America: Proceedings from a National Conference on New Deal Communities. Arthurdale Heritage Inc, Morgantown

    Google Scholar 

  • Warner K et al (2009) In search of shelter: mapping the effects of climate change on human migration and displacement.

  • Whyte, KP (2013) Justice forward: tribes, climate adaptation and responsibility in Indian country. Climatic change. doi:10.1007/s10584-013-0743-2

  • Wildcat D (2009) Red alert! Saving the planet with indigenous knowledge. Fulcrum Publishing, Golden

    Google Scholar 

  • Wisner B (2004) Assessment of capability and vulnerability. In: Bankoff G, Franks G, Hilhorst D (eds) Mapping vulnerability: disasters, development and people. Earthscan, London, pp 183–193

    Google Scholar 

Download references

Author information

Authors and Affiliations


Corresponding author

Correspondence to Julie Koppel Maldonado.

Additional information

This article is part of a Special Issue on “Climate Change and Indigenous Peoples in the United States: Impacts, Experiences, and Actions” edited by Julie Koppel Maldonado, Rajul E. Pandya, and Benedict J. Colombi.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and permissions

About this article

Cite this article

Maldonado, J.K., Shearer, C., Bronen, R. et al. The impact of climate change on tribal communities in the US: displacement, relocation, and human rights. Climatic Change 120, 601–614 (2013).

Download citation

  • Received:

  • Accepted:

  • Published:

  • Issue Date:

  • DOI: