The Carteret Islands in the Pacific and Alaska Native Villages in the Arctic share the very real challenge of permanent resettlement due—at least in part—to climate change. Last November, Dr. Jane McAdam, a climate change and refugee law scholar at the University of New South Wales in Australia, organized a conference on Climate Change and Migration in the Asia-Pacific: Legal and Policy Responses.

I’ve spent my snow day in Seattle watching a panel from the conference called, “The Nature of Movement: What Does the Evidence Tell Us?” Notably, Jon Barnett describes that mobility—or, the movement of people—is a normal social process for people in the Pacific. People in the Pacific move around a lot, he says, to receive an education, for work, training, and for money. He argues that mobility may help enable adaptation responses that enhance local livelihoods, but only if people control their movement and exert power and influence over essential planning processes that ensure better livelihoods, such as education, job training, healthcare, etc.. He describes migration as one-way movement, which isn’t an accurate portrayal of how people actually live their lives and respond to crisis in the Pacific. Then Dr. Maryanne Loughry described the history of resettlement in the Carteret Islands, which is undergoing its third attempt at resettlement in over 50 years.

After watching the recording of the panel, I am struck by the following thought. Generally speaking, according to evidence Jon Barnett provided, people in the Pacific Islands move all the time. But people in Alaska Native Villages don’t. They stay. Perhaps because these villages are very remote and travel to and from the villages is very difficult. I wonder if the mobility v. migration distinction is key for understanding the similarities and differences between resettlement in the Asia-Pacific and in Alaska Native Villages? In Alaska, mobility doesn’t seem to be as normal of a cultural force as it is in the Asia-Pacific Islands, at least if you examine trends over the last 100 years or so.

In Kivalina, for example, villagers traditionally lived nomadically, moving seasonally to different hunting grounds. They  only settled permanently after the U.S. federal government’s Bureau of Indian Affairs built a school in Kivalina in 1905 after seeing people camped on the reef and mistaking the temporary hunting camp for a village. (According to the City of Kivalina’s website, the BIA told people they would be jailed if they didn’t send their children to school.) So the people were forced to stay in Kivalina and make it a permanent home after the school was built. As former tribal administrator of Kivalina Colleen Swan has put it, you cannot put a school on a sled and move it. So they stayed. Now, because of climate change, the village must move. And it’s very unlikely they will go back once they move, other than for use of traditional and customary uses of the land when the weather allows it.

So local infrastructure built by the BIA created a disincentive for mobility in Kivalina almost 100 years ago. For the people of Kivalina, I’m wondering if resettlement is not about mobility (something normal that happens all the time, as suggested applies to people in the Pacific) and more like migration, which is more of a one-way affair. Although a lot more research would be needed to support this idea, I see at least initially that the consequences of migration—as may be the case in Alaska—as opposed to mobility are much more profound.

I’d highly recommend listening to the presentations in the following video, which do much to clarify the distinction between migration and mobility. Speakers for the session are Professor Richard Bedford, Professor Jon Barnett, and Dr. Maryanne Loughry. Our sincere appreciation to Dr. Jane McAdam for her leadership on issues surrounding climate-induced displacement and for organizing such an important conference.