• The Alaskan town of Kivalina is threatened by rising sea levels and coastal erosion. (SBS Dateline)
As the Trump administration pulls America out of international meetings on climate change, we visit communities who are already feeling its effects, and being forced to leave their homes.
Airdate: 
Tuesday, October 24, 2017 - 21:30
Channel: 
SBS

Climate change is often discussed as a problem that’s coming, but in reality it’s already here.

Rising sea levels caused by global warming are, right now, forcing some Americans out of their homes, while others fear for the future of their communities.

This week on Dateline, reporter Jeannette Francis meets Americans, from Alaska to South Beach, who are worried their cities and towns are at risk of going underwater.

Miami is one of the most populous cities in the US and one of its biggest tourist attractions, but its long-term future is uncertain. Hurricanes and flooding are becoming more regular and more damaging, sea level rises are having an effect on property development in the city, and residents are increasingly fearful for their safety. The city has spent hundreds of millions of dollars to address rising sea levels – but some scientists say Miami is unlikely to survive the century.

Professor Harold Wanless has been tracking the tides and sea levels in Miami for decades – he says current trends indicate the issue could be terminal for the city.

“[Miami] won’t be here in 100 years,” Professor Wanless predicts. “It will either be a few stragglers trying to hang on to a city that has no infrastructure, no fresh water, no sewage facility, or it will be abandoned completely.”

Other locals have noticed the changing climate in more observable ways.

“I grew up here, I got my first boat when I was 10 years old, I’m 67 now,” says Dan Kipnis, a local fishing captain and chair of the Miami Beach Marine and Waterfront Protection Authority.

Dan began to notice the effects of climate change on the Miami coast in the 1970s, “when I saw barnacles going up seawalls and pilings.”

“15 years ago it started to flood. It wasn’t very often, but then it was more and more and more, and now it’s flooding all the time.”

He’s now decided to sell his house and leave Miami, fearing the continued effects of rising sea levels.

It’s an issue residents of Isle de Jean Charles, in southern Louisiana, are familiar with.

Last year the Obama administration provided US$48 million to resettle families from the island, who have been impacted by long term coastal erosion – leading to the community becoming known as America’s first climate change refugees. Much of the population is Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw Indians, who have lived there since being forced from their native lands in the 1800s.

One family, the Billiots, are now contemplating having to relocate from land they’ve called home for more than 200 years.

“Of course nobody wants to leave, you know, but I think they understand that…it's for their safety,” says Chantel Billiot.

More than 6,000 kilometres northwest of Isle de Jean Charles, the Alaskan town of Kivalina is a victim of similar problems.

For decades the native Inupiat community has been pleading for help to relocate, due to arctic ice melts causing rising sea levels – in turn affecting homes and the ability of locals to hunt for produce.

“For us the debate about climate change was over a long time ago and maybe there was never even a debate,” local elder Colleen Swan tells Dateline. “When you live with the reality of things, there’s no debate, there really isn’t.”

Despite the observable impacts climate change has already had in cities and towns across the US, not everyone is convinced. The country’s president, Donald Trump, has largely inconsistent opinions on the issue, but has in the past called climate change “bullshit”, “mythical” and an “expensive hoax”.

On the streets of Miami, locals are also skeptical.

“There’s always going to be big storms, I’m not ready to say it’s because of climate change or global warming,” says one man. “I do believe that climate change is just a phase that the earth goes through to cleanse itself,” says an older woman.

According to Dan Kipnis, the fishing captain from Miami, global warming will have an irrevocable effect on his city – and will see many of its residents flee.

“If the water comes up, where do you go?” he asked. “Unless we want to live on a raft or something? I don’t think so.”

“Everybody's going to have to move. It could be millions.”

Watch the full story at the top of the page.

More

The Intern Diaries: America's First Climate Change Refugees
Coastal towns and cities across the United States will have to relocate now or in the near future, as rising sea levels threaten their homes and communities.
The US is relocating an entire town because of climate change
Some towns threatened by climate change are now faced with an ultimatum: Move or go underwater.
How do we deal with the prospect of increased climate migration?
People displaced by natural disasters are generally not regarded as refugees.
Will Miami be underwater in 100 years?
In the coastal US city of Miami, climate change is already on people’s doorsteps. Some residents, like local captain Dan Kipnis, are considering leaving before it’s too late.
One of America's largest cities is sinking
While President Trump regularly denies the danger climate change poses to the environment, the city of Miami is proof that the effects of global warming are already being felt.

Credits

Reporter: Jeannette Francis

Producer: Lanneke Hargreaves

Camera / Editor: Adam Rosenberg

Transcript

CAPTAIN DAN KIPNIS, RETIRED FISHERMAN:  Got you this time.

REPORTER:  Did you get one?

CAPTAIN DAN KIPNIS:  Yeah. They are little though. Right there, that’s the spot.

REPORTER:   Hey!

CAPTAIN DAN KIPNIS:  A little bigger.

REPORTER:   What have you got?

CAPTAIN DAN KIPNIS:  Another sea trout, look at that?

REPORTER:  Yeah.

CAPTAIN DAN KIPNIS:  Now they get this big so he's a little baby.

REPORTER:  Right, so that’s a little baby.

CAPTAIN DAN KIPNIS:  Be free!

REPORTER:  How long have you been fishing on these waters?

CAPTAIN DAN KIPNIS:  Well I grew up here. I got my first boat when I was 10 years old, so I'm 67 now, long time, long enough to see changes.

REPORTER:  And when did you first notice that things were starting to change?

CAPTAIN DAN KIPNIS:   Really in the middle 1970s when I saw barnacles going up seawalls and pilings, 'cause they don't grow where there's no water. And then 15 years ago it started to flood and it wasn't very often but then it was more and more and more, now it's flooding all the time.

REPORTER:  Do you think you and the people in your community will be climate change refugees?

CAPTAIN DAN KIPNIS:  Oh, absolutely. If the water comes up where do you go? Unless we want to live on a raft or something, I don't think so. Everybody's going to have to move.

REPORTER:  And by everybody?

CAPTAIN DAN KIPNIS:  Oh, it's not a small amount of people. It could be millions.

Because Captain Dan doesn’t exactly live in a small fishing village…. He lives in one of the biggest cities in America:  Miami.

CAPTAIN DAN KIPNIS:  That's an original sea wall it's 80 years old.

REPORTER:  And you're saying that the water would have been lower than that?

CAPTAIN DAN KIPNIS:  Lower than that at high tide.

REPORTER:  At high tide?

CAPTAIN DAN KIPNIS:  At high tide.

REPORTER:  Why do you think people are still building here?

CAPTAIN DAN KIPNIS: They're in denial. All these people are in denial. You would think people that have this much money, that are so rich, would understand what's happening with climate change at Miami Beach. They don't. They don't care, I guess. Nice houses, huh?

Dan also has a nice house here, but he thinks the warning signs are overwhelming and he’s doing something about it.

CAPTAIN DAN KIPNIS:  I never thought I'd have to leave here. It's a great house.

REPORTER:   So what's happening with it?

CAPTAIN DAN KIPNIS:  Well, sea level rise is happening with it and I don't want to have to go through the issues that we have on Miami Beach, so it's for sale.

REPORTER:  You're selling this house that you built.

CAPTAIN DAN KIPNIS:  Right.

REPORTER:  To move out of here because you're worried about climate change?

CAPTAIN DAN KIPNIS:  I'm worried about climate change, I'm worried about the sea level coming up and me having a life that I don't like, so I'm going to sell the house. Let's go and you can see what I'm leaving.

REPORTER:  Thank you.

CAPTAIN DAN KIPNIS:  I have people telling me it's a bit of a drastic move. In my mind, it's not. I'm being timely about this where I have time to actually get out and still be able to afford to go somewhere else and do something else.  And this was my office, it’s all bare walls right now but it used to be covered with world records, mounted fish, trophies from fishing tournaments, my whole life was in this room, it’s all in boxes in storage now. It hurts me to leave here. I built everything here, to stay here, to live out my life here the next 20 years until I die. And I'm not going to be able to do it and it pisses me off. I'm not a happy camper.

For Dan, climate change is a pressing issue, but right now, it is not for President Trump and Trump’s not alone. The Governor of Florida, Rick Scott, refuses to comment on the issue and has reportedly banned parts of his office from using the terms “climate change” or “global warming” in official correspondence. Governor Scott declined to speak to Dateline for this story.

A study published last year found that Florida has more people vulnerable to climate change than any other US state, but still some locals are sceptical.

MAN:  I’m not sold on climate change. I think there’s always going to be big storms, I’m not ready to say it’s because of climate change or global warming or anything that we’re doing particularly.

WOMAN:  I do believe that climate change is just a phase that the earth goes through to cleanse itself.

MAN 2: Up until it’s proven I think it’s more of a natural thing.

MAN 3:  I don’t really care about climate change.

REPORTER:  Harold, good to meet you.

PROFESSOR HAROLD WANLESS,UNIVERSITY OF MIAMI:  Jan, it’s a pleasure.

REPORTER:  Let’s take a tour of Miami.

PROFESSOR HAROLD WANLESS: How about it.

University of Miami professor Harold Wanless has been tracking the tides here for decades.

REPORTER:  How long have you been trying to warn people about the rising sea levels here in Miami?

PROFESSOR HAROLD WANLESS, :  My first talk is, was, I know I gave one in 1981.

REPORTER:   In 1981!

PROFESSOR HAROLD WANLESS:  Yes.

In the last decade alone flooding in Miami Beach has increased by 400 per cent. The city has spent hundreds of millions of dollars trying to stem the problem.

PROFESSOR HAROLD WANLESS:  This road has been raised about two feet. You can see. I can go down here and this is, this is would be the sidewalk level of the old place, okay? And so they raised it up where you are.

REPORTER:  And is this enough of a raise do you think, to stem the water?

PROFESSOR HAROLD WANLESS:  Well we are going to have another two feet of rise according to US government projections, probably by 2048 or maybe earlier.

REPORTER:  So they're going to have to raise this again?

PROFESSOR HAROLD WANLESS:   And again, and again and it's going to get faster and faster.

These predictions from Florida International University show what Miami will look like over the next few decades, in 150 years only 3% of it’s land – according to the study - will remain. Predicting sea level rise is still an active area of research meaning some scientists would argue that it may not rise this quickly or by this much. But Professor Harold Wanless says even with conservative estimates the future for Miami does not good.

REPORTER:  Do you think this city as we know it, will be here in 100 years?

PROFESSOR HAROLD WANLESS:  It won't be here in 100 years. It will either be a few stragglers trying to hang on to a city that has no, no infrastructure, no fresh water, no sewerage facilities or it will abandoned completely.  Well here we are, there’s one more property we should probably look at here.

REPORTER:  Alright.

PROFESSOR HAROLD WANLESS: It’s quite vulnerable.  So this is Palm Beach and this is Mar-a-Lago, one of Trump's residences.

It’s President Trump’s pride and joy. The sprawling estate of Mar-a-Lago has become a de facto White House.

REPORTER:  So will this place exist as we know it in 100 years?

PROFESSOR HAROLD WANLESS:  If I'm right, this will be something you can go snorkel on. It will be quite famous - it will be a former president's mansion.

REPORTER:  It will be a former president's mansion, in Atlantis.

PROFESSOR HAROLD WANLESS:  In Atlantis, right. This will no longer Palm Beach, this will be Atlantis 2. This will be a very popular dive site.

Trump has called climate change “bullshit”, “a myth”, “a very expensive hoax”. He’s pulled out of the Paris Climate Agreement and he’s cut funding to the Federal Environmental Protection Agency. Trump’s Environment spokesperson did not respond to requests by Dateline to take part in this story. Yet, it’s Trump’s presidency that will oversee the relocation of America’s first ever climate change refugees.
It’s an autumn afternoon in Louisiana.

CHANTELL COMARDELLE, FORMER RESIDENT:   Look, you’ve got a friend, you didn't think you were gonna have a friend.  How are you?... We're at my grandma and grandpa's house on the island. We are all down here celebrating their 70th wedding anniversary.

REPORTER:   Your grandparents have been here all their lives, right?

CHANTELL COMARDELLE:   All their lives. They're 90 and 91.

REPORTER:   Hi, thanks for having me.

This is one of the last family milestones the Billiots will celebrate here.

FAMILY:  Happy anniversary!

The Billiots have a house in Louisiana's Isle de Jean Charles that for seven decades has been a home for their sprawling family.

WOMAN:  I am not touching the fish.

BOYO BILLIOT, FORMER RESIDENT:  Well you don’t need to touch it, you let him touch at?

But after years of watching the land around them disappear they’ve had to turn to the US government for help, last year the Obama administration granted them $48 million. It was the first time federal tax money had been granted to move an entire community reeling from the effects of climate change. That is why the residents of Isle de Jean Charles were dubbed America’s first climate change refugees.

CHANTELL COMARDELLE:   Of course nobody wants to leave you know but I think they understand that for safety, it's for their safety.

This Island is about to stop being home to the Billiots. They are Biloxi Chitimachi Choctaw Indians whose ancestors moved here in the 1830s after being forced from their lands. For 200 years the Billiots have lived, loved and died here.

BOYO BILLIOT:  Well, I was born in 53.

GRANDFATHER:  When I was a kid, I used to go walk over there. It had marsh land.

REPORTER:  So it was marsh land?

GRANDFATHER:  You can walk over there. It was hard but now, nothing but water on both sides of the island, same way.

Isle de Jean Charles is sinking! Since 1955 the island has lost more than 98% of its land. What you’re seeing is the 2% that’s left. And as the land disappeared so too did the people.

REPORTER:  So there were about 150 families here when you were growing up?

BOYO BILLIOT:  When I was growing up, yeah.

REPORTER:  And now there's like...

BOYO BILLIOT:  25.

Boyo, Wen’s son left the island in the 1980s.

REPORTER:  This place right here was where your house used to be.

BOYO BILLIOT:  Yeah, where the, where they cut from right there to by that tree over there with that other tree.

REPORTER:  And what happened in '85?

BOYO BILLIOT:  Hurricane took it, Hurricane Juan and we got flooded twice in the same year.  In August, we has just finished fixing up the whole house and then October that’s when Hurricane juan hit us, I said that’s enough.

REPORTER:  Yeah, final straw.

BOYO BILLIOT:  Final straw. We ain't spending no more money for nothing.

Just down the road from the Biliots lives Chris Brunet. For years his family has resisted leaving the island.

CHRIS BRUNET, RESIDENT:  We go back here on Isle De Jean Charles around seven or eight generations.

REPORTER:  Because your parents left you this house, do you feel on some level that you would also  like to leave something there that you can pass down to future generations?

CHRIS BRUNET:  Yeah, I have my niece and nephew that live with me over here and so whatever is over here it would be theirs. But then by the time they would be my age, that's a great uncertainty you know I could see 10 years down the road Isle De Jean Charles will still be here but then another 40 years after that?

For Chris, leaving is less about his family history and more about his family's future.

CHRIS BRUNET:  Looking at the difference now you see all the trees and you don't see them anymore.

JULIETTE BRUNET, RESIDENT:  It was so much prettier here.

Chris’s niece Juliette will be the last of the Brunets to grow up on the island.

JULIETTE BRUNET:  If we stay here maybe, his generation it will be okay for it but not for like me and my brother. Me and my brother, it will probably land will be gone 'cause look at that picture here, you can see how much land they had before and, now, they barely have any.  It’s kinda sad because my whole family lived here and, like, having to move away from live where all my family lived is kind of hard but you've got to do what you've got to do.

REPORTER:  And so how far is this location from the island?

ALBERT NAQUIN, CHIEF:  Probably about 35, 40 miles I guess. Give or take.

Albert Naquin is the chief of Isle de Jean Charles, he’s in charge of the relocation project.

REPORTER:  So what are we looking at here?

ALBERT NAQUIN:   We're looking at the new site for our new community.

REPORTER:  And what kind of things were you looking for in a new property?

ALBERT NAQUIN:  The highest property we could find in Terrebonne Parish. So this area is out of the flood zone so that's what we're looking for.

REPORTER:  And how big is it all up?

ALBERT NAQUIN:  It's probably right there around 500 acres.

What you’re seeing here is precious in Louisiana. On average, the state loses a football field of land every hour. Decades of dredging, manmade levees and naturally occurring storms are eroding the state’s coastline. Scientists say, this is exacerbated by rising seas levels caused by man-made climate change. But a recent Yale University study found that in this part of Louisiana, almost 40% of people don’t believe that to be true.

REPORTER:  What do you think is causing all of the problems that you're facing with the environment on the island?

ALBERT NAQUIN:  It’s washing away.

REPORTER:  Do you believe it has anything to do with climate change or with global warming and warming sea levels?

ALBERT NAQUIN:  sort of yeah, but not completely. I mean climate change is here but I don't believe that the island was affected that much by climate change as we know it today.

REPORTER:  But people would point to you guys and say that you're ground zero of climate change.

ALBERT NAQUIN:  Well, maybe we are. But I don't know if we really are. We see the changes as, as manmade and Mother Nature together that rooted up all the land around us. Okay.

REPORTER: Do you think if Donald Trump was to visit do you think that he would come around?

ALBERT NAQUIN:  I think he would. Think his heart in the right place, it's just that he's hard headed like I am. It's hard to, to kind of change, make changes in what you see until you actually see it.

If seeing is believing, then President Trump should visit Kivalina, Alaska. 130km above the Arctic Circle, Kivalina is in a region that is warming twice as fast as anywhere else on Earth. Like Isle de Jean Charles, Kivalina is predicted to soon be inundated by water. Unlike the people of that island, the people here are stuck. For decades the local Inupiat people have been pleading for help to move their community.

ALEXIS HAWLEY, RESIDENT:  Welcome to Kivalina.

REPORTER:  Hi, how are you doing?

ALEXIS HAWLEY:  Good, how about you?

REPORTER:  Nice to meet you.

ALEXIS HAWLEY:  Nice to meet you too.

REPORTER:  I’m Jan.

ALEXIS HAWLEY:  I’m Alexis.

The year Alexis Hawley was born, 1992, was the first time Kivalina voted to relocate.

REPORTER:  This is your home hey?

ALEXIS HAWLEY:  Yeah.

She’s now 25 years old and the village is still here.

ALEXIS HAWLEY:  It's a race against time, race against the ice melting. There's no telling how fast it will go away anymore, how long it will stay.

REPORTER:  Have things gotten worse here in your lifetime?

ALEXIS HAWLEY:   The most reliable animal that we rely on for food is the seal and we haven't been getting much of that over the last three years due to the ice going away quickly than usual.

REPORTER:  Are you worried about that?

ALEXIS HAWLEY:  Yeah, I'm worried about it 'cause I can't go without eating seal. I was raised on it, you can't buy it at stores. You know, we make it, we make it.

ALEXIS HAWLEY:  We're at the Kivalina native store where we shop for groceries, where we get all our fresh produce and store bought like potatoes and fruit.

REPORTER:  Where does all this stuff get brought up from?

ALEXIS HAWLEY:  From Seattle, this is the only fresh produce we get. We mainly buy like side dishes like rice and mashed potatoes and then 'cause the meat is so expensive we like to hunt for our own meat.

REPORTER:  Right. And if climate affects hunting and fishing and you don't hunt as much and you don't fish as much but you can't afford to come to a place like this, what happens?

ALEXIS HAWLEY:  We'll starve.

Kivalina prides itself on being a sufficient community, but it’s been feeling the effects of shorter hunting seasons for almost two decades. It is becoming increasingly reliant on food flown in from outside.

COLLEEN SWAN, RESIDENT: Things started to become chaotic because the ice was not forming and we need the ice in order to hunt. During the winter the ice becomes part of our landscape and we set up camps out there, we go whaling, seal hunting but in early 2000s beginning we noticed that the ice just wasn't forming to the thickness that it once did.

Colleen Swan is a Kivalina elder. For years she’s been fighting to relocate her community.

REPORTER:  Where do you see Kivalina in twenty years, ideally for you?

COLLEEN SWAN:  On higher ground.

REPORTER:  So, not in this location?

COLLEEN SWAN:  No, this is not a good place to be, it’s never been a good place to be. Our elders knew that from the beginning, this was just a seasonal hunting ground for them.

That was until 1905 when the US government built a school on the island and forced the community here permanently.

COLLEEN SWAN:  They were forced to bring their children to school so if they didn't they would either be fined or imprisoned. It was an invasion, it was an invasion by the government.

Now the same government that forced Kivalina’s people here won’t help them leave. Kivalina, like Isle de Jean Charles is sinking, but this island has been given no federal funding to relocate.

REPORTER:  How confident are you that government is going to come to your aide?

COLLEEN SWAN:  I'm not confident at all because nothing is more important than their bottom line so we get pushed aside. Our issues get pushed aside.

REPORTER:  Are you less hopeful now that Trump is president?

COLLEEN SWAN:  He is already taking actions to take funding away from what existed before from previous presidents.

For Washington the arctic has long been out of sight, out of mind. A US government report from back in 2003 warned 180 native Alaskan villages were also at risk of flooding and erosion due, in part, to rising temperatures. But in 2017 it is not just remote villages like Kivalina struggling with the impacts of climate change, making it harder and harder for governments to ignore.

COLLEEN SWAN:  Our only hope for a better life in the near future is to rely on the private sector. Government is not going to help - they're going to keep debating. For us the debate about climate change was over a long time ago and maybe there was never even a debate. When you live with the reality of things, there's no debate, there really isn't.

Colleen Swan may very well live out her lifetime on the island ,but the majority of Kivalina’s residents almost certainly won’t. That’s because of the 400 people who live here - half - are under the age of 18.

COLLEEN SWAN:  From year to year something different happens? Every time I think that we have experienced just about all the changes that will happen something different happens the next year.

What 2018 holds for Kivalina, Isle de Jean Charles and Miami is uncertain. What is certain is that climate change is not a top priority for the Trump Administration, despite the small but growing number of Americans dealing with a rapidly changing environment. And the fallout could likely turn what President Trump believes to be a “very expensive hoax” into an even more expensive reality.

reporter
jeannette francis

story producer
lanneke hargreaves

camera/editor
adam rosenberg

editors
micah mcgown
simon phegan
david potts

title music
vicki Hansen
24th October 2017