Hartig, who oversaw the work of the climate change sub-Cabinet established by Palin, now dismisses the original reasons for its existence.
“I don’t look at climate change as a subject in and of itself,” he said. “Coastal erosion and flooding, well, we would have them even if we didn’t worry about climate change.”
He said he would prefer to deal directly with the effects, rather than be drawn into that “other debate.”
However, from Tom John’s perspective, it is hard to separate the two. John, now in his 50s, was for years counted among the best hunters in Newtok. The status is confirmed by the dappled hide of a muskox stretched out to dry outside his home. Inside, his wife, Bernice, has taken out a whole halibut to defrost for dinner from a freezer chest full of fish and meat from previous expeditions.
When John was younger, there was a rhythm to the seasons. April brought pike fish and white fish, seal and walrus. High summer on the Bering Sea brought herring, flounder and sometimes king salmon, and berries back on land. Winter brought mink, muskox and otter, which John used to sell to a fur trader.
A hunter could strike out in almost any direction and be assured of coming back with food. John’s favorite route was out towards the ocean, 8km or 16km south, to catch bearded seal. Those patterns have been thrown off, he says.
“It seems like during the fall-time the freeze-up is getting late. I used to travel through the month of October and I could travel through the snow without any problem, without jamming through ice,” he says. “But today winter is getting late. It comes late, probably November, and I also noticed the snow pack seems harder. When I try to shovel, it’s like cement. It’s really hard to dig.”
There are other changes on John’s calendar: shorter, warmer winters, earlier springs, and the floods and rising waters that could make Newtok disappear beneath the Ninglick River. The river has reduced Newtok into a small island. The villagers are trying to move to a new site, 14km south, before it is engulfed. The US Army Corps of Engineers estimates that the highest point could be under water by 2017.
John’s way of life, which survived the arrival of snowmobiles, food stamps and online shopping at Walmart, is threatened. The migration habits of the animals and fish on which the John family depend have changed. Some animals are scarce now on the Bering coast.
Seals of all variety are still plentiful. Outside one house in Newtok, seven are stacked up behind a snowmobile. However, walrus have grown hard to find.
“Twenty years ago, I could see walrus and hardly see the end of them. There were lots of them, thousands, but today I don’t see that any more,” John said.
Alaska is warming at twice the rate of the rest of the US, with a nearly 2.4°C increase in average statewide temperatures since 1949, according to the US National Climate Assessment draft. Temperatures could rise by up to 13.2°C by 2100 without bold action, the report says. On land, the glaciers are melting at a faster rate than ever recorded. Land that had been shored up by frozen layers of permafrost has softened and sunk. The first snow arrives on average two days later than it did a decade ago, and melts four to six days earlier in the spring. Rivers swollen by heavier rain and snow flood more often.