A School Bus for Kivalina, AK: The Consequences of Climate Change
By Bishop Mark Lattime
On November 9, 2022, the children of Kivalina, a small Inupiaq village on the coast of the Chukchi Sea of the Arctic Ocean in Western Alaska, rode a bus to school for the first time ever. There has never been a school bus in the village of Kivalina, a community of about four hundred people where a person can walk the entire length of the village in about 15 minutes. In fact, there’s never been a bus of any kind! For the village’s entire history, no one could have imagined Kivalina would ever need a school bus. But then the loss of sea ice and increased storm activity on the Chukchi Sea–both the result of climate change, increased coastal erosion and the village began to be washed into the sea.
Kivalina would have to relocate.
I first visited Kivalina when I was a candidate for the 8th Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Alaska. I went there to meet with members of the Episcopal Church of the Epiphany in Kivalina who were hosting representatives of the other 3 Episcopal Churches located in villages on the Arctic Coast. I will never forget that first visit to Kivalina. It was winter, late February 2010. Since there are no roads to Kivalina, we flew out to the village in a small single engine plane. Looking out the window of the plane everything below was white. The sea was frozen, and the tundra was featureless save for a few low hills. This was my first view of the Arctic wilderness. It was beautiful—a vast frozen world where land and sea were fused into one in ice and snow.
From the airplane’s low altitude, Kivalina appeared as just a small gathering of houses. The whole community looked no bigger than a city block. Stepping off the plane the air stopped my breath. It was cold. Colder than anything I had ever experienced before. Yet, there were people bustling and singing all around, warm faces welcoming us to their home—a home where people have thrived for more than ten thousand years.
And, yet, within my 12 years as bishop, this home was disappearing.
Kivalina has begun a multistage process of relocating the community to a new site several miles inland. The new school was one of the first projects completed. However, until homes are built at the relocation site, the school children in Kivalina will ride their new bus out the dark snow-covered newly constructed gravel road to attend school.
As one of the Presiding Bishop’s online delegates to the United Nations Climate Conference (COP 27) I have listened to presentations report on the fact that women and children suffer the consequences of climate change in a disproportionate amount. This made me think about my Episcopal Church family in Kivalina. Clearly everyone living in Kivalina is experiencing the consequences of climate change and the loss of their traditional village site, but I ask you to especially join me in holding the children of Kivalina in prayer as they ride their big new yellow school bus out that dark frozen gravel road away from their homes, away from the shore of the sea that has sustained and defined their people and traditions for millennia.. May they grow up always knowing who they are and where they come from as they experience changes their ancestors could not have imagined. And pray that we, as their brothers and sisters in Christ, may have the wisdom, courage, and passion to take action to address our global climate crisis.
As Bishop of a Diocese that encompasses the entire state of Alaska, Lattime spends much of his time traveling. He serves among a diverse population of Episcopalians including traditional Alaska Native communities. Alaska is on the forefront of climate change-changes that disrupt and endanger ecosystems and indigenous cultural identity. One of Bishop Lattime’s passions is supporting the voices and knowledge of Alaska Native communities as they struggle to maintain their traditional subsistence lifestyle and sacred identity with the land. He is committed to “walking the land” with the people of Alaska as a living expression of stewardship.