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Opinion
Christopher Flavelle

The Toughest Question in Climate Change: Who Gets Saved?

The federal government has no good way to decide which coastal towns ought to be relocated.
Should this town survive? Let's decide with a contest.

Should this town survive? Let's decide with a contest.

Photographer: Andrew Burton/Getty Images

Last fall, two towns at opposite ends of the country entered a new kind of contest run by the federal government. At stake was their survival: Each is being consumed by the rising ocean, and winning money from Washington would mean the chance to move to higher ground.

On the western edge of Alaska, the remote town of Newtok was losing 50 to 100 feet of coastline each year to sea-level rise and melting permafrost. It was about to lose its drinking water, its school and maybe even its airport. Its 350 or so residents had been trying to move to safety for 20 years; in 2003, they obtained new land, about 10 miles to the south.