Reassigned climate official worries “nobody home” on village relocation

Joel Clement thinks his job reassignment was retaliation. (Photo courtesy of Joel Clement)

In June, the Washington Post reported that dozens of senior officials in the Department of the Interior would be reassigned to new jobs. Now, one of those officials is speaking out. Joel Clement was part of a working group, focused on village relocation and coastal resilience in Alaska. He thinks he was targeted for his views on climate change.

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Clement was a director at the Office of Policy Analysis. For over a year, he’d been meeting with different agencies about how to protect Alaska villages from the effects of climate change.

There are concerns about major erosion in Shishmaref, Kivalina and Shaktoolik. Parts of Newtok are sloughing into the water. And while relocation efforts have a ways to go, Clement said the conversation at the federal level had at least started.

“The political will and the coordination were finally in place,” Clement said.

Then last month, Clement got an email that said he was being reassigned. He believes it was retaliation from the new administration.

“It said we’re going to reassign you to the place that has the least to do with what you do and understand,” Clement said.

Instead of working on climate change resiliency, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke assigned Clement to an accounting job, collecting oil and gas royalties.

Clement doesn’t think the Trump administration understood the urgency of his work. That he was trying to help Alaska communities adapt to an imminent threat. He thinks they just saw “climate change.”

“Just because this is caused by… climate change and warming doesn’t mean you can’t focus on it,” Clement said.

So far, no one has taken Clement’s old position. He hopes an investigation can shed some light on why he was reassigned.

And Clement said he doesn’t know who in D.C. will be the point person for Alaska villages trying to relocate or adapt.

“There’s really nobody home on this issue right now. So I’m really worried it will fade from priority,” Clement said.

There is one federal official still working on this issue in Alaska. Joel Neimeyer chairs the Denali Commission. In 2015, President Barack Obama asked the Denali Commission to spearhead federal efforts on village relocation.

“This will have to be something the country’s going to address sometime in the future,” Neimeyer said.

Niemeyer hopes the Trump administration won’t drop the issue completely.

“Every new administration wants to do things in their style. We don’t know what that is yet,” Neimeyer said. “If they pick up the issue, we’ll continue. If they choose not to, then I suppose the state will take up full leadership on this issue.”

Niemeyer said the effects of climate change are perhaps most clear in Alaska. But relocation isn’t just an Alaska problem, and it’s one the federal government will have to grapple with, one way or another.

On Monday, eight Democrats from the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources sent a letter to the Department of the Interior asking for a close examination into the reassignments.

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