Climate change puts Arctic communities in peril

Rising seas, erosion, severe storms hurt coastal Alaskans

Jun 21, 2017

Whether living in the Arctic or an urban center in the Lower 48, we all have a stake in the health of America’s Arctic.  Alaska holds the only Arctic region in the United States, and that area is warming at twice the rate of the rest of the country due to climate change. The impacts reach far beyond U.S. borders.

Waves washing against an eroding wall of dirt with a house precariously close to the edge, all due to climate change.

The people of Shishmaref voted to move its entire village because of erosion caused by climate change. Photo courtesy Alaska DCCED.

 

Alaska is at the forefront of climate change

With the accelerated warming of the Arctic, melting permafrost and sea ice cause sea level rise and coastal erosion, increasing the need for relocating Alaska Native communities. More than 30 Alaska Native villages need to relocate. Facing a dire future, the village of Newtok, located on the Ningliq River in western Alaska, felt compelled last year to ask the Federal government to declare a disaster.  The impacts of several decades of climate change has led to a crisis that many leaders refuse to address.

Pulling out of Paris Agreement puts Arctic at risk

The impacts of climate change threaten wildlife and birds.

Clearly, we should protect the Arctic and its communities, but the President’s actions have strained these efforts.  On June 1, he announced the withdrawal of the United States from the Paris Agreement, an accord signed by 195 countries in 2015. The agreement set a global milestone in terms of addressing the causes and outcomes of climate change.

That the President might withdraw the U.S. from the Paris Agreement was the elephant in the room at the Arctic Council meeting the month before.

 

U.S. hands Arctic Council leadership torch to Finland

The Arctic Council is an intergovernmental advisory committee that provides information to member governments to help create Arctic environmental policies. The Council comprises eight Arctic countries, six Arctic indigenous organizations, along with dozens of working groups and Observer members. The U.S. recently wrapped up its two-year Chairmanship of the Council.  The country holding the chair position determines which challenges will take priority during its term.

The 10th Arctic Council Ministerial meeting took place on May 11 in Fairbanks. At the conclusion, the U.S. passed the chair’s torch to Finland.

The change of leadership has come at a time of great unknowns for environmental policies in the United States. At the meeting, all eight members signed the Fairbanks Declaration, a legally binding agreement that enhances international Arctic scientific cooperation. There’s uncertainty about what that really means, particularly in light of the presidential decision to pull out of the Paris Agreement.

Surprisingly, the U.S. and Russia spearheaded the cooperative agreement, a glimmer of hope in the recently strained relationship.

 

Protections take a huge blow

The President, who has referred to climate change as a “hoax,” backed out of the Paris Agreement and its goal to reduce emissions, an essential step to keeping the average global temperature increase below two degrees Celsius from pre-industrial levels. The U.S. sits second highest on the list for carbon emissions globally. Since climate change has an impact worldwide, the effects of the U.S. withdrawal will reach far beyond its borders.

The U.S. is now one of only three nations—along with Nicaragua and Syria—that is not part of the climate agreement. Notably, Nicaragua refused to sign because it felt the accord did not go far enough in addressing climate change.

 

The Western Arctic Caribou Herd is an important subsistence resource. NPS Photo.

The resolve of other leaders offers a silver lining

The President waited until after the Group of Seven (G7) summit at the end of May to make our withdrawal from the Paris Agreement public. The G7 includes industrialized democracies: Canada, Germany, France, Italy, Japan, the United Kingdom, and the United States. They meet annually to discuss issues such as global economic governance and energy policies.

The G7 is often criticized for its lack of follow through, and the decisions made by the current U.S. administration makes this concern even more pertinent.

The resolve of other U.S. leaders provides a silver lining.  City mayors, a handful of U.S. governors and the CEOs of companies such as General Electric and Coca-Cola have expressed their disappointment with the White House’s decision to withdraw from the Paris Agreement, and stated their commitment to continue to work to meet the emission reduction targets.

 

People in the Arctic need us to act

One component of the Paris Agreement is to recognize the various adverse effects of climate change and provide risk insurance. Without the Paris Agreement or any financial aid, the people of Newtok and many other Alaska Native villages will find it nearly impossible to keep their people and culture intact. Without help, these communities and their families will be displaced, people will scatter, and they will face the same obstacles to health and stability as other refugees throughout the world who have been forced to move because of drought, floods, erosion and the other disastrous outcomes of a changing climate.

This makes our changing climate not only a threat to the environment and all its assets, but also to the culture and identity of Arctic communities.

 

About the author: Madeleine Arbuckle interned at Trustees for Alaska the winter and spring of 2017 as a junior at the University of Alaska Anchorage. After getting her Bachelor of  Science degree in Environmental Studies, she hopes to obtain a law degree in British Columbia, Canada, with a concentration on environmental law and sustainability. 

 

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