Kivalina: A Climate Change Story by Christine Shearer

A Reflection by Kelly McKisson

Cover image of Kivalina

For Kivalina, a small city on the northwest arctic coast of Alaska, “the rate of climate change is no longer measured in decades, but rather in years, months, or even hours.”[1] This information was reported by the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium in 2011—a decade ago now. Kivalina residents, about four hundred Alaska natives, primarily Inupiat, have long been fighting for their right to exist with everything from sandbags to tort law.

Christine Shearer centers this fight in her 2011 book Kivalina: A Climate Change Story. I purchased this book during one of the publisher’s sales, intrigued by the subtitle: as someone who works on literature and questions of environment, I am interested in what “climate change story” signifies. Kivalina offers an instructive case study on the narrative framing of climate crisis, partly because it centers a perspective from which climate change is not only in the future tense.[2] The book is a reminder that speculation is not the only mode of climate change storytelling.

Readers looking for a glimpse into life and culture of Kivalina might feel impatient with the text as it unfolds—but this marks an important aspect of Shearer’s book. Although the cover presents an attractive picture of whaling boat on the edge of sea ice, and although the book begins with “field notes” of the author’s journey to Kivalina, the book is not an armchair travel guide to Kivalina. The 2011 documentary film, Kivalina V. Exxon, does a perhaps more satisfying job of placing viewers on the arctic coast.[3]

After the short prologue, Kivalina diverges from travel writing, and this change in style and focus makes a rhetorical point: the bulk of the text turns to look at the corporations and the legal structures that have benefitted from the conditions that have led to Kivalina’s precarity. Readers are made to gawk, ultimately, at the U.S. settler nation, and at the rules of the political game that have made this ongoing climate change history legal and forgettable.

The book’s 200 pages orbit the Kivalina vs. ExxonMobil Corp. legal suit filed in February of 2008, a major piece of climate change litigation in the United States. This trajectory requires Shearer to cover a lot of ground, and each chapter of the text explains, generously and for non-specialists, some fundamental histories and terminology of this political and legal battle:

Chapter one introduces the “the product defense industry,” which “is made up of lawyers, public relations firms, think tanks, and sophisticated, specialized organizations that go beyond tradition PR duties to undertake the shaping of not just public opinion but also scientific research, government regulation, and legal opinion” (17). These organizations become an important villain in this climate change story, because they are effective at misrepresenting environmental and health risks as well as at deferring government regulation. Shearer’s walk through a brief history of asbestos, lead, and tobacco litigation evidences the growing power of industry influence on science and government during the same decades when the public was supposedly gaining environmental protections through the Environmental Protection Agency and the Clean Air and Water Acts. Chapter two looks at the changing shape of U.S. legal landscape as 1. the use of tort law, “designed to compensate individuals for damages in order to restore social equilibrium,” is reframed by industry to protect corporate interests; and 2. nuisance laws, a legal option for the public to bring claims against corporations for environmental issues, continue to allow corporations to avoid liability (36-7; 48). Chapter three ties industry and the law together in a U.S. history of power: Shearer begins in the 18th century, illuminating the efforts to protect electricity as a “centralized, privatized commodity,” and then moves through to the 2000 presidential election, which established not only Bush and Cheney but also the fossil fuel industry at the head of the national government (57).

Chapter four marks a turn more specifically to what readers might think of as environmental history and funnels to a central question: How can climate change be regulated and litigated in the U.S. if the legal process can dismiss a public nuisance global warming case as a “‘political question’ inappropriate for the courts, or nonjusticiable” (96)? In the end, as chapter five concludes, this is what happens to the Kivalina case: the ruling judge argues “that global warming is too ubiquitous to be ‘fairly traceable’ to the defendants’ emissions, as required for legal standing” (122). The claims against the defendant companies for damages from misinformation campaigns go wholly unaddressed by the judge. In addition, the judge denies Kivalina’s right to bring the public nuisance suit, denying Kivalina sovereignty.

Shearer’s narrative leaves the court case at a promise of an appeal, and the final chapter turns to focus on Kivalina’s commitment to relocation—an undertaking estimated to cost 400 million dollars.[4] This is, I think, the most heartbreaking chapter. What becomes clear is how often local administrators and residents go ignored as U.S. governmental teams intervene in Kivalina infrastructure. While the Wikipedia page “Kivalina, Alaska” reports, “To slow erosion, the US Army Corp of Engineers constructed a rip-rap revetment project,” Shearer explains how these projects were contracted out to corporations who profited off of resource extraction (NANA Pacific LLC); how the project plans were engineered counter to the knowledge and practice of Kivalina residents; and how the very revetment project referenced in the Wikipedia article only secured funding for half of the design proposal and, in 2009, had its funding repealed so that the Army Corps was unable to complete the job.

“Although climate change is often discussed as an environmental problem,” Shearer instructs, “its root causes are social” (151). The strength of Kivalina is that it helps readers to understand this truth, to practice this awareness. Facing each of the instructive chapters sits an epigraph from Kivalina Tribal Administrator Colleen Swan, whose words supplement this climate change story: “Kivalina is a small Inupiaq village in Northwest Arctic Alaska … The village sits there because, in 1905, the Bureau of Indian Affairs came and built a school on the island, informing the people who lived in the geographic area that they had to bring their children to the school to be educated or face imprisonment” (34). As Indigenous communities keep saying: climate change is not the first existential threat to humanity. The concept “natural disaster” keeps telling the wrong story. Kivalina argues that we must learn from the legal, political, and historical contexts of this crisis in order to get the story right.


[1] Climate Change in Kivalina, Alaska: Strategies for Community Health,

[2] Kivalina won an honorable mention for the 2012 Rachel Carson Environment Book Award from the Society for Environmental Journalists, and the judges note that Shearer “explodes the myth that climate change is a problem for the future” (“Winners: SEJ 11th Annual Awards for Reporting on the Environment,” SEJ,

[3] Ben Addleman’s film is replete with beautiful landscape shots across the ocean, terrifying action shots of waves eating at the coast, early twentieth-century historical footage of the settlement, and also more casual footage of contemporary everyday acts of community life on the island. I highly recommend at least the haunting opening sequence (Kivalina v. Exxon: The Most Dangerous Litigation in America, dir. Addelman, PHI Films and DRM Productions, 2011).

[4] Readers might be aware that the court’s decision was upheld in 2012, marking what some see as the “end of climate change tort litigation in the federal courts” (Quin M. Sorenson, “Native Village of Kivalina v. ExxonMobil Corp.: The end of ‘climate change’ tort litigation?,” in “Trends,” American Bar Association, 1 January 2013,