Cue Cards for Trudeau: Bringing Arctic Cooperation to DC Part II

Cue Cards for Trudeau: Bringing Arctic Cooperation to DC, Part II

Mieke Coppes and Victoria Herrmann, March 9, 2016

Photo: Pete Souza


Ahead of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s first official visit to the United States on March 10, 2016, The Arctic Institute is publishing a two-part series on opportunities for collaboration between the Prime Minister and President Barack Obama on climate change in the Arctic. The first, published Monday, focused on the cross-border exchange of renewable energy technology and expertise.  Part two, below, analyzes opportunities for a North American Arctic adaptation program to safeguard communities against the most immediate effects of a changing climate. Together, they offer a foundation to jumpstart US-Canadian cooperation in the age of the anthropocene. Part Two, below, will argue for President Obama and Prime Minister Trudeau to:     

  • Announce a collaborative, well-funded Arctic Adaptation program for North America. This announcement should be the first step towards establishing a cross-border program between the two countries to research, implement, and eventually evaluate pilot community-based adaptation projects across North America’s circumpolar region.

  • Establish a joint research program to collect social and natural science aseline data on the community impacts of climate change. Any bilateral adaptation efforts jointly pursued by President Obama and Prime Minister Trudeau must be based on reliable and accessible quantitative and qualitative data on climate change impacts on northern communities.

  • Create an inclusive project selection and development scheme to select pilot adaptation projects. The two countries must create a selection process inclusive of all local stakeholders to select which pilot adaptation projects to develop together.

  • Foster peer to peer exchange of best practices in adaptation through study tours and virtual platforms. Virtual and in-person exchange platforms and study tours across the border to experience how pilot projects operate in reality can help communities understand the successes and failures of adaptation projects.

Moving Beyond Mitigation  

Last Friday 10 provincial premiers, three territory premiers, and Prime Minister Trudeau ended Canada’s First Minister’s Conference by signing the Vancouver Declaration on clean growth and climate change. The document not only calls on the Canadian government to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions and promote a green economy to mitigate climate change; it also brings attention to the climate-induced hazards already present across the country. Furthermore, it actively involved the Indigenous peoples of Canada, a promise that Trudeau has made time and again in his nation-to-nation dealings.  As noted in the document’s opening, “Canada’s northern and coastal regions are particularly vulnerable and disproportionately affected.” The scope and scale of these changes and their impacts on northern communities cannot be understated. The Arctic is warming twice as fast as the mid-latitudes of Canada. Indicative of as much, Malte Humpert pointed out in a recent publication in High North News that “the Arctic experienced its warmest January since satellite-based record-keeping began 36 years ago.”

These unprecedented temperatures do more than make for dramatic photographs of melting ice and stranded polar bears. They have direct and immediate implications for the livelihoods, cultures, and personal safety of the Canadians and Americans that call the Arctic home. Climate change is a human rights issue. Kivalina, the barrier-island Inupiat community over which President Obama flew this summer, is expected to be completely underwater by 2025.

Tomorrow in Washington DC, President Obama will invite Prime Minister Trudeau to the first state dinner honoring a Canadian head of state in 20 years. They will, among other issues, discuss a climate change strategy for North America and work together to pursue efforts to limit global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees celsius, as urged by the Paris Accord set last December. Slated for discussion are how their two countries can slow the warming of the Arctic for future generations by limiting Arctic methane emissions, a joint science research initiative, and reducing diesel fuel use in rural communities as argued in Part I of this series. These areas of cooperation would mitigate greenhouse gas effects globally and reduce localized black carbon outputs that exacerbate snow and ice melt.

The Obama-Trudeau summit also presents an opportunity to discuss how to protect citizens endangered by a changing landscape. While much has been written on what the two leaders will do to mitigate emissions, there has been less discussion on how Obama and Trudeau can come together to safeguard Arctic communities against the immediate effects of climate change. Rapid ecological shifts in the Arctic result in unpredictable travel conditions, economic concerns, and cultural threats to communities across the North American circumpolar region. This includes, but is not limited to: less predictable weather conditions, which dramatically impacts hunting and fishing; changing quality of snow, which hinders the ability to make emergency shelters; melting permafrost, which negatively impacts housing and infrastructure integrity; and changing and declining sea ice, which alters not only routes of transportation but also access to culturally important hunting grounds.

These climate issues are unavoidable - they are already happening and are only projected to get worse. In extreme cases like Kivalina, a culmination of these hazards has resulted in the forced relocation of communities to safer grounds. This is why a comprehensive climate change strategy between Canada and the United States cannot stop at mitigation - it must also address adaptation to the impacts northern communities can no longer avoid.

President Obama and Prime Minister Trudeau can address the issue tomorrow by announcing a joint effort on North American Arctic adaptation. This announcement should be the first step towards establishing a cross-border program between the two countries to research, implement, and eventually evaluate pilot community-based adaptation projects across North America’s circumpolar region. Unlike their expected agreement on mitigating greenhouse gas emissions in the Arctic like methane, a joint Arctic adaptation program between the two governments would seek to reduce the vulnerability of Arctic communities to the current impacts of climate change and offset the effects of global warming. Even if countries were to reach the 1.5 degree target set by the Paris Accord, the effects of climate change will continue to endanger Arctic communities and adaptation will be essential. A joint adaptation program requires three components: (1) collecting baseline data, (2) establishing a project selection and development scheme, and (3) creating innovative, short-term evaluation programs to ensure pilot projects are effectively helping communities adapt to a changing climate in the North American Arctic.   

Establishing a bilateral Arctic climate adaptation program to help northern communities adjust to the impacts of climate change could both fulfill Obama’s pledge made last summer to help imperiled Alaskans and fulfill Trudeau’s campaign promises made last fall to empower Northern communities. Perhaps more importantly, such a program, if well-structured and well-funded, holds the potential to not only alleviate current climate impacts; but to also build more resilient future northern communities which will leave a lasting legacy long after both leaders leave office.

The Current State of Adaptation in the North American Arctic

For Canadian and American citizens living in the northernmost reaches of their countries, climate change is not a political talking point - it is a very immediate and dangerous reality. These natural hazards and socio-economic vulnerabilities result in hundreds of communities sharing stories of a changing, increasingly unpredictable lifestyle across the North American Arctic. During the 2012 spring narwhal hunt, for example, the Inuit peoples living near Baffin Island only shot three of the tusked whales, as opposed to the usual 60 due to the low quantity and quality of the sea ice. The changing and depleting sea ice has led to a decrease in the ability of these hunters to provide the sustenance on which many of their communities depend. In Newtok, Alaska, community members are embarking on a move to a new location further inland to escape from rising waters, shoreline erosion, and melting permafrost.

Adaptation needs for Arctic American communities have in part been addressed by President Obama in his 2017 Budget request to Congress. One of the largest monetary proposals, and perhaps the most symbolic, is his request for $400 million out of the Coastal Climate Resilience Fund to be set aside to cover the “unique circumstances confronting vulnerable Alaskan communities, including relocation expenses for Alaska Native villages threatened by rising seas, coastal erosion, and storm surges.” The Fund, hosted by the Department of the Interior, provides financial resources to at-risk coastal States, local governments, and their communities over a ten year period to prepare for and adapt to climate changes. In Alaska, it will assist communities like Shishmaref, Newtok, and Kivalina, among others, who are currently seeking financial assistance to relocate inland by 2020.    
An additional $19 million is proposed to support the Denali Commission, an independent Federal agency created to facilitate technical assistance and economic development in Alaska. The Denali Commission was called upon during the President’s visit to Alaska to play a lead role in coordinating federal, state, and tribal resources to assist in Arctic climate change adaptation. With the additional funds - $4 million more than in the 2016 fiscal year the Commission will be able to reach communities across the State to help develop and implement solutions to address the impacts of climate change, including coastal erosion, flooding, and permafrost degradation.

Newly elected, Prime Minister Trudeau has not made any major announcements on adaptation support for Canadians. In his 12 page election document on environmental and climate issues, A New Plan for Canada’s Environment and Economy, adaptation is only mentioned once, noting that “there is significant work required in the years ahead on climate change adaptation.” Most of Canada’s national adaptation work is at present dictated by the 2011 Federal Adaptation Policy Framework and a $148.8 million contribution that is due to run out this year. Through budget allocations, the framework encourages and supports provinces, territories, municipalities, and professional organizations to take action and adapt to climate change. The Framework, according to the document itself, was also “a first step towards addressing the urgent risks in the North, such as infrastructure, and human health.”

Tomorrow’s meeting provides an opportunity to both work towards and expand the commitments detailed above. Through a joint North American Arctic adaptation program, outgoing President Obama and recently inaugurated Prime Minister Trudeau can solidify the former’s commitment to helping Northern communities and jumpstart the latter’s circumpolar responsibility. A bilateral adaptation program for the Arctic could combine baseline data research, inclusive project selection and development schemes, and best practice exchanges across country borders to be more resilient against ecological challenges.

Starting with Baseline Data to Upgrade Arctic Adaptation

Any bilateral adaptation efforts jointly pursued by President Obama and Prime Minister Trudeau must be based on reliable and accessible quantitative and qualitative data on climate change impacts on northern communities. Thus, at the foundation of any North American adaptation effort must be a joint US-Canada agreement on adaptation research and data collection.

Baseline data underpins all stages of adaptation projects and policies. In selection and development of projects, baseline data is used to decide what investments will be the most impactful to help communities adapt to climate changes. Once a project is completed, baseline data is used again in evaluation and monitoring of the project outputs and impacts and any subsequent improvement.

The United States has used this past year as Chair of the Arctic Council to enhance its collection, analysis, and publication of Arctic data. The US Arctic Research Commission, activities mandated by the Arctic Executive Steering Committee, and projects funded by the National Science Foundation’s Arctic Program have all contributed to Arctic research projects. Agencies, departments, administrations, and various other groups across the US federal government have begun research on maritime traffic, aviation safety, telecommunication infrastructure, oil spill prevention, climate change, biodiversity, and expanding international cooperation. While this is a good start, there are still major gaps in baseline data for Alaska. For example, there is a lack of up-to-date information for rural North American Arctic communities on hazard evaluation, cost-benefit analyses, and socio-economic risk. In Alaska, cost-benefit analyses that quote relocation costs between $100 and $200 million for a single village are seven years old, and do not take into consideration emerging environmental hazards or advances in research and technology. Despite flooding being one of the major hazards throughout Alaska, only a handful of villages have accurate floodplain information. This lack of reliable data affects capabilities for accurate adaptation planning and projected damage pricing, which directly affects the personal and community safety of Arctic residents. Once baseline data is collected and assessments are performed, it can then help communities manage risks from increasingly frequent and severe extreme weather events and slow onset trends through adaptation projects based on reliable data.

Canada also faces gaps in baseline data, particularly after the Canadian government’s lack of climate, social and natural science research under former Prime Minister Harper. In order for Canada to fully engage on an equal partnership with the United States in issues such as climate adaptation, it will need to further push its current boundaries of knowledge in the North. To deal with the issues of infrastructure and climate change, there must be a push for knowledge and education in the north - combining knowledge that is already known with questions that need to be answered. But Canada is the only Arctic nation that currently does not have a university in the north, and furthermore has no think-tanks based out of the area. And although there will soon be a federal agency, Polar Knowledge, working directly from Cambridge Bay in Nunavut, there is still a scarcity of research and knowledge production in an area that desperately needs it. The only way that Canada will actively continue to engage in the north, and maintain its role as a meaningful partner to the United States in climate adaptation efforts, will be if it invests in obtaining baseline data.

Polar Knowledge Canada is a federal agency, which will soon based out of the North, that has the potential to set precedent for the country.  Two of the four priority areas are directly related to creating baseline data and analyzing the realities of climate change in the north.  They are: Baseline information to prepare for northern sustainability and predicting the impacts of changing ice, permafrost, and snow on shipping, infrastructure, and communities.  Canada can no longer ignore its role in the north, and it’s potential to lead in a region of the world that covers 40% of the country’s landmass.

Phase one of a joint US-Canada adaptation effort can fill those gaps in baseline data through a collaborative research project. A cross-border research initiative must be based in both social and natural science research and should include government research agencies, universities, and local partners. The bilateral program could support and promote updated risk assessment, management, and mitigation tools to facilitate the selection of quality adaptation projects in the next phase. Baseline data that is inclusive of many disciplines permits selection and evaluation to be comprehensive and consistent. Such evaluations have the ability to include less tangible measurements of success like quality of life, environmental impacts, equity, and social cohesiveness. Indicators for both selection and evaluation should be flexible as well as modifiable to reflect the values, needs, and conditions of a particular locality’s challenges.

Including Traditional Knowledge

Beyond including both natural and social science disciplines in joint adaptation research, it is also important to include different ways of knowing in adaptation data collection. Communities in the Arctic have a long record of not only adapting to environmental changes, but thriving in shifting ecological conditions from generation to generation through transfer of traditional knowledge. Traditional knowledge is important in constructing historical environmental baselines, identifying impacts that need to be mitigated, providing observational evidence for modeling, offering technologies, and identifying culturally appropriate values to be protected from direct impacts or from the impacts of adaptation measures themselves. In the Arctic, communities use traditional knowledge to adapt to changing conditions with flexibility. They utilize their intimate understanding of the surrounding environment and ecosystem to avoid emerging hazards.

Citizens of the Arctic have the potential to play a large role in lending their adaptation knowledge to any joint research initiative. As Trudeau declared in Paris, Indigenous peoples “have known for thousands of years how to care for our planet. The rest of us have a lot to learn. And no time to waste.”

Obama and Trudeau’s meeting this week presents an opportunity to discuss the best ways to collaborate with North America’s northern Indigenous peoples on climate change adaptation. Supporting agencies like Polar Knowledge Canada, an agency focused on augmenting our understanding on polar issues through diverse sources of knowledge and tackling issues deemed important by the people living in the North, should be a priority for both Canada and the United States. This use of both traditional knowledge and western scientific knowledge is a crucial step forward. It should no longer be acceptable to be fixed in one mindset; instead it should be important to foster and recognize the importance of different kinds of knowledge and the ability for these types of knowledge to answer questions in modern, cutting-edge ways.

Multi-stakeholder Involvement in Project Selection

Once a baseline data research program has been established between Canada and the United States in the Arctic, the two countries must then create a selection process to select which pilot adaptation projects to develop together. Any selection scheme for joint adaptation projects enacted should use baseline data from already existing sources of research. Baseline data that is inclusive of many disciplines and ways of knowing permits selection and evaluation to be comprehensive and consistent. Indicators for selection should be flexible, and should be able to be modified to reflect the values, needs, and conditions of a particular locality’s challenges.

In order to best understand a locality’s challenge, stakeholders across different sectors of society, economy, and government must be engaged in the decision making process. In the Arctic, this includes local communities, Indigenous groups, state and municipal government, and non-governmental organizations.

President Obama has acknowledged this need for cross-sector engagement in his budget proposal. To address this need for cross-cutting work, the President allocated $100 million in his proposal to build capacity and critical infrastructure in high-need Alaska Native villages across several federal agencies, including the Department of Interior, Agriculture, and Energy.

Across the border, Trudeau has pushed for the inclusion of Indigenous peoples in his newly formed government and at a meeting in December claimed that "it is time for a renewed, nation-to-nation relationship with First Nations peoples, one that understands that the constitutionally guaranteed rights of First Nations in Canada are not an inconvenience but rather a sacred obligation.”  The March 2nd discussions in Vancouver showed that Trudeau does indeed plan on involving Indigenous peoples in the discussion surrounding climate change and climate change adaptation. This was not without its critics however; as two of the  main five Indigenous groups, the Native Women’s Association and the Congress of Aboriginal Peoples were not invited to the discussion, even though Trudeau promised to engage with the all five. However, The Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, the Canadian national Inuit group was present for the discussions, and during their speech they reinforced the idea that their participation must not be qualified. Instead they argued that the government needs to follow through with the rhetoric of inclusion with a new, respectful, and structured way of doing business with the Inuit peoples.

Recognizing the role of grassroots organizations is also important. Until this point, the dominant role has not been assumed by the Canadian government in climate change action, but instead by NGOs, Indigenous groups, and  concerned citizens. Groups such as the 20/20 Catalysts Program, a project which is designed to actively engage and involve First Nations, Metis, and Inuit communities, are pioneers; leaders that governments can learn from and mimick. This collaborative program strives to strengthen leadership, focuses on community readiness, and works towards the building of stronger and more resilient projects for generations to come.  This is the type of Indigenous ownership that countries like Canada and the United States should focus on, and when discussing future Arctic energy goals, it is these types of collaborations that Canadian and American leaders, as well as leaders around the world, should have in mind.

Implementation And Evaluating Projects through Exchange Programs

Once adaptation projects have been selected, the US and Canada can then move to implement pilot “living laboratories” projects in northern communities to test a given theme aimed at improving adaptation to climate change. Each pilot project would help a community address a specific climate change impact based on the baseline data and research collected. Themes addressed could include food security, sea level rise, fresh water, sanitation needs, and public health. The contours of these project will be determined by both the data collected and the inclusive selection process.       

Once projects are implemented, a best practice exchange program can be established between Canadian and United States to understand which aspects of pilot adaptation projects are successful. Virtual and in-person exchange platforms and study tours across the border to experience how pilot projects operate in reality can help communities understand the successes and failures of adaptation projects. An example of this is the Arctic Adaptation Exchange run by the Sustainable Development Working Group of the Arctic Council. The exchange provides an interactive online platform for communities across the circumpolar region to upload stories of adaptation projects to both learn from each other and build connections for future collaboration. Peer-to-peer best practice exchange can traverse national boundaries and highlight common challenges faced by communities to encourage cooperation and build local knowledge. Such programs can provide real time evaluation of projects, so that adjustments and project improvements can happen in a timely manner. Putting the lessons learned from these exchanges and study tours into a best-practice design guidelines could both formalize and archive the knowledge gleaned from the communities’ experiences.

Adapting to Unavoidable Impacts  

Up until this point it seems clear that the most important mitigation and adaptation techniques dealing with climate change have come directly from movements led by Indigenous peoples, non-governmental organizations, and citizens in Canada. But this is not enough. There needs to be bilateral agreements about how to best mitigate and more importantly handle the impacts of climate change that have already come to pass. People living in the Arctic are facing real and constant threats to their livelihoods and both Obama and Trudeau need to deal directly with stark reality. It is not simply the Arctic that is being impacted either, but peoples across North America and the world.  

The North can be seen as a proverbial canary in the coal mine. Other parts of our world are also being affected, however. Florida, for example, whose primaries are being held the same night as the Presidential State Dinner, is but one example. Where the larger rhetoric around the presidential elections has been one of mudslinging and personal attacks, the recent Democratic debate in Flint showed the possibility of bringing regional issues onto a larger national scale. Ideally this can carry on to the debates that will be happening in Miami, where several mayors, on both sides of the aisle, have asked that climate change be addressed. This shows that there is a wider scope of climate change action that needs to be taken into account, one that encompassess the coastal regions around the world, and Obama and Trudeau have the opportunity to set the stage for future discussions.

There is tremendous opportunity to set precedent this week through cooperation in the Arctic. As two important Arctic nations meet, their ability to not only discuss, but actively create important adaptation solutions will be put to the test. This is the first opportunity for Trudeau to put flesh on the bones of the climate change promises he made during the campaign. And, as President Obama looks past 2017, it is likewise an opportunity for him to leave a lasting climate legacy in the north. Trudeau has, much like Obama in 2008, gained international fame for being a charismatic young politician. But this is not enough to enact meaningful change for those Northern citizens facing the first effects of climate change. He must now focus on creating substantive policy, and what better area to do that then climate change mitigation and adaptation in the Arctic? Northern policy reinforces Canada's climate position in the world, as well as at home, where a fundamental aspect of what it means to be a Canadian stems from.  What is Canada if not a Northern, Arctic country?

Both President Obama and Prime Minister Trudeau have much to prove, especially when it comes to such a crucial topic that will not only define the way the modern world is today, but also the way future generations will be able to live. For communities from Alaska to Nunavut, from Florida to British Columbia, these leaders can not shy away from the realities of today and the imminent crisis of tomorrow.