As leaders and the publics they represent negotiate the future of climate change mitigation and adaptation in Paris at the United Nation’s COP21, The Arctic Institute is publishing articles, infographics, and event videos to provide an Arctic perspective on COP21. Through seven installments, Institute experts and affiliates will explore the negotiation’s impacts on the Arctic’s peoples, communities, ecosystems, political relations, and energy systems. This is the third installment. You can find other publications in the series below:
- Quickstart to COP21
- Indigenous Involvement in the COP21: Climate Change Talks
- COP21 and the Arctic: What’s at Stake? Infographic
- COP21 and the Arctic: Adaptation, Damage, and the Work to be Done
- Closing Week One and COP21: India, the Arctic, and Reaching an Agreement
- 100 Days In: COP21 and the Arctic’s Future – An Era of Energy Transition
Beginning today, 40,000 state leaders, advocates, and experts will convene in Paris to seek a binding solution to climate change at the 21st UN Climate Summit, COP21. They will, through negotiation, compromise, and strong resolve, shape the very contours of what Earth’s future will be for the next generation. This two-week meeting is seen by many to be the world’s last chance to limit global temperature rise to the elusive two-degree target. Two degrees Celsius, or 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit, is oft-cited as the threshold to how much humanity can warm Earth’s atmosphere before day-to-day life is disrupted by climate catastrophes like severe drought, extreme storm surges, and wider-ranging wildfires.
The rally for a two degrees limit has been echoed across government meetings, newspaper headlines, and climate marches for over four decades. It was first conceived as a planetary temperature boundary in 1975 by Yale economist William Nordhaus as a number that would take “the climate outside of the range of observations which have been made over the last several hundred thousand years.” Two degrees above preindustrial levels has been reaffirmed as the maximum warming world leaders should allow by NASA scientists, the Stockholm Environment Institute, the Rio Earth Conference, the Kyoto Protocol, and this week by leaders of over 190 countries. It is, according to CNN, “the most important number,” a number that will decide our future.
Two degrees offers an easy, definite target for policymakers to understand and work towards in a field often defined by intangible future scenarios and cumbersome climate models. But the number is misleading.
Earth, its climate, feedback loops, and ecosystems, are complex. One number does not adequately reflect the temperature rise that must be avoided in order to ward off the worst climate change consequences in geographies as different as Tuvalu and Germany. Two degrees is without doubt an important focal point for advocacy towards action. But it holds the potential to obscure the complexities and inequities of climate change. A two-degree temperature rise would see most of the world’s coral reefs perish, Small Island states inundated, and large swaths of African farmland made non-arable. While two degrees may not cause daily disruptions in New York or London, it will have devastating effects for thousands of communities worldwide in vulnerable socio-economic conditions.
Rather than a single tipping temperature to avoid climate catastrophe, Earth demands several. This is perhaps most true in relation to climate change in the Arctic. The circumpolar north is warming twice as fast as global average temperatures due to polar amplification. Two degrees in the Arctic means a near future of no sea ice; the relocation of dozens of rural communities; serious food insecurity for subsistence hunters, gatherers, and herders; and new concerns about public health and warm weather disease. A two-degree target for average global temperatures is too high for those who call the Arctic home. Two degrees would translate to at least a three to six degree Celsius increase by 2100. It does not reflect the local realities of positive feedback loops nor climate consequences that are being felt today. This has led to Okalik Eegeesiak, the Arctic indigenous delegate for the Inuit Circumpolar Council and the Saami from Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Russia, to call for a 1.5 degree limit to temperature rise in Paris this week.
In August 2015 at the Glacier Conference in Anchorage, Alaska, President Obama told Americans, “Climate change is no longer some far-off problem. It is happening here. It is happening now…. Even if we cannot reverse the damage that we’ve already caused, we have the means – the scientific imagination and technological innovation – to avoid irreparable harm.” A two degree static target holds the potential for causing that harm. But a gradually decreasing mitigation target it not the only necessity for safeguarding Arctic communities – they also need financial assistance to adapt to the damage already caused by limitless greenhouse gas emissions over the past two centuries.
This two-part COP21 article explores both the current challenges of and necessary solutions to mitigate climate change in the Arctic. The first editorial to follow provides a survey of “the damage that we’ve already caused” in the North American Arctic. At the start of COP21, it serves as a reminder of what’s at stake for circumpolar communities to public and policymaker alike. On Wednesday, part two of the editorial will explore “the means to avoid irreparable harm” — what must be done over the next two weeks, and beyond, to ensure the integrity of those who call the Arctic home and support community resiliency through international adaptation financing and mitigation efforts to limit greenhouse gas emissions well below the deceptive two-degree target.
The Damage already done
Advocacy efforts and visual narratives presented about the already-seen effects of climate change commonly highlight the environmental consequences of warmer temperatures in the Arctic – activists in polar bear costume, shrinking sea ice extent maps, and jarring videography of collapsing ice sheets and melting glaciers. The human felt effects of climate change in the North, though rarely visualized, are no less devastating. Shelia Watt-Cloutier, an award-winning Inuit and climate rights activist, will be in Paris during COP21 to challenge those present to “think of climate change not just as the ice depletion, or the challenge to wildlife in the Arctic, but the people who live there.”
In many ways, Ms. Watt-Cloutier was one of the first people to give a human face to climate change by forging a link between ecological shifts and human rights in the Arctic. In 2005, she submitted the Petition to the Inter American Commission on Human Rights Seeking Relief from Violations Resulting from Global Warming Caused by Acts and Omissions of the United States. The Petition was submitted to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights on behalf of herself, 62 named Inuit, and all Inuit of the Arctic regions of the United States and Canada. It sought to obtain relief from human rights violations resulting from climate change in the high north caused by “acts and omissions of the United States.”
Though the Petition was ultimately rejected by the Commission, the text itself and the Inuit testimony heard in 2007 on the relationship between human rights and climate change in the Arctic created a foundation on which world leaders and international organizations built in the decade to come. It opened the dialogue of climate change beyond the physical environment to include a human dimension. By introducing the connection between human rights and ecological shifts, the petition broke down the then – and to an extent still – dominating scientific and economic discourse surrounding climate change at the national and international levels to incorporate its effects on humans, communities, and health.
In 2008, the United Nations Human Rights Council passed Resolution 7/23, stating that, “Climate change poses an immediate and far-reaching threat to people and communities around the world and has implications for the full enjoyment of human rights.” It goes on to cite a number of international treaties on human rights that apply to the consequences of climate change. These included the Charter of the United Nations, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
Three years later the Human Rights Council reaffirmed the universality, indivisibility, interdependence, and interrelatedness of human rights and environmental shifts. It noted that, “Climate change-related impacts have a range of implications to the right of life, adequate food, the highest attainable standard of health, adequate housing, self-determination and safe drinking water and sanitation.” The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights went further to highlight the greater exposure and further needs of at-risk groups, including women, children, rural communities, and indigenous people.8 Over the next century, climate change is projected to accelerate, contributing to major physical, ecological, social, and economic changes. World leaders at international forums speak of meeting deadlines in twenty, fifty, and even one hundred years for stabilizing the global average temperature. Their diction speaks to future generations, future threats, and future solutions. However, as the global community adapts for the long-term effects of climate change, those at the top of the world are already experiencing its effects.
The Human Face of Arctic Climate Change
The Arctic is now experiencing some of the most severe and rapid of climate change’s effects on Earth. The Arctic Climate Impact Assessment asserts that the Arctic, and in consequence its indigenous populations, are “extremely vulnerable to observed and projected climate change and its impacts.” Higher temperatures create dangerous ice conditions; decrease the quantity and quality of annual snowfall; change weather patterns; and shift landscapes as permafrost thaws. Such drastic changes have caused slumping, landslides, and severe erosion in coastal areas. With these ecological shifts, climate change is having a very real and immediate impact on communities that live in the Arctic today.
Thinner sea ice with sudden thaws and later freezes make traditional practices of travel, hunting, harvesting, and communication between communities more dangerous and difficult. Decreased snow coverage makes hunting hazardous, forcing hunters to rely on cumbersome, colder tents instead of traditional igloos. The melting of permafrost, combined with more violent storms hitting the coastline that exacerbate erosion and flooding, puts homes, infrastructure, and livelihoods at risk. In extreme cases, such terrain devastation requires the relocation of entire communities. The marine species upon which the Inuit rely for subsistence harvests and traditional knowledge transfer, including polar bears, walruses, ice-living seals, and many birds, are or will soon be in decline as a result of warmer temperatures and less sea ice. Some face extinction by the end of this century. Decreased access to traditional food sources force Inuit hunters to move to new, more dangerous locations that further exacerbate the travel issues resulting from climate change. Effects on hunting also affect the overall culture, as hunting provides spiritual and cultural affirmation, and is a key activity for passing skills, knowledge, and values from generation to generation.
It was these changes, and the resulting threat to Inuit life and livelihood, that motivated Watt-Cloutier into authoring the Petition that would link environmental transformations to the damage already done to human communities. As she remarks in the Petition, “the culture, economy and identity of the Inuit as an indigenous people depend upon the ice and snow.” As climate change threatens the wellbeing of the Arctic’s ecosystem, so too does it threaten the security and rights of the Inuit.
These ecological shifts, and their corresponding socio-economic impacts, will only be further exacerbated if weak mitigation and adaptation commitments are adopted at COP21. While the Petition to the Inter-American Commission may itself be written in legal technicalities, human rights both provides a useful frame to understand the climate effects already being felt in the Arctic and highlights the daily reality of what’s at stake in Paris. While there are many human rights to be considered in a rapidly changing landscape, the following offers a brief look into four challenges Arctic communities are facing today. For more information and the scientific and traditional impetus for each, please refer to the legal text of the Petition to the Inter American Commission on Human Rights.
Right to Benefit Culture: A subsidence-based way of life that is close to traditional land is central to the Inupiaq, Inuit, and other northern indigenous groups’ cultural identities. It focuses on an intimate dependence on traditional methods for hunting and fishing, housing, sharing of food, and travel on snow and ice, among many others. This provides a long-established spiritual and cultural communal existence through an intimate relationship with their surroundings. Even the development of northern indigenous languages are intimately connected with ice, land, sky, and wildlife. But as climate and geophysical changes occur with warmer temperatures, performing basic tasks vital for both food and cultural development, like hunting trips, are becoming not only challenging, but also dangerous with thinner, less stable ice. Some traditional travel routes to camp sites, neighboring communities, and hunting and fishing areas have become unreachable. A changing climate also has implications for the passage of traditional knowledge from one generation to the next, particularly their weather predicting skills. Their weather and climate-related knowledge of hunting conditions from cloud and wind pattern observations do not fit with today’s changing climate.
Right to Means of Their Own Subsistence: Many villages are heavily reliant on subsidence lifestyle activities based around Arctic waters, including the Chukchi Sea, Baffin Bay, and the Northwest Passage. However, the massive thinning of ice sheets and glaciers have negatively impacted the abundance and distribution of Arctic wildlife species, including the ringed seal, salmon, walruses, and caribou, many of which will be pushed to extinction by 2070–2090. In addition to less access to wildlife and flora like berries for collection, changes in see ice thickness and distribution, permafrost conditions, and extreme weather events also increases risks for personal injury. Food storage is also being undermined by climate change. Traditionally, outdoor meat caches were used to keep community food fresh and preserved in the cold. Today, these traditional storage methods are no longer viable, as higher temperatures spoil communal preserves. There is also the potential that climate change could increase human exposure to contaminants like organic pollutants, heavy metals, and radionuclides through shifting air and water currents.
Right to Reside and Inviolability of the Home: Thawing permafrost from changes in the climate cycle has resulted in unstable housing structures and fracturing of essential energy, water, and transport networks throughout Arctic communities. Sea level rise, which is projected to be greater in the Arctic than anywhere else in the world, has also caused severe damage through shoreline erosion and storm surges that jeopardise infrastructure integrity. Out of 200 coastal Alaskan native villages, 180 are currently hurt by flooding and erosion, some to the point of relocation. Kivalina, an Inupiaq village of 400 people, and Shishmaref, an Inupiaq village of 600 people, are both projected to be under water in less than ten years. Newtok, a village on the Bering Sea coast, is estimated to no longer be viable by 2017 and is currently being relocated to Mertavik. However, the relocation and security of new lands are being stifled by regional and national political disputes over funding, further undermining these rights.
Right to Health: Climate change has also undercut the health of many indigenous communities. Changes in the physical environment and weather patterns have increased both temperatures and sun intensity, which in turn heighten the risk of previously rare health problems. Cataracts, immune system disorders, sunburn, and skin cancer have all become new health concerns in the Arctic. A number of families along the Arctic coastline no longer have running clean water or sewer services due to environmental change in permafrost, sea rise, and storm surges. The deformation of roads has led to a high cost of transporting fresh foods; this complication, combined with changing flora and fauna patterns, has exacerbated community malnutrition, leading to further health difficulties.
The Damage To Be Stopped
These dangers to the wellbeing of North American Arctic communities stem, in large part, from a failure to safeguard ecological sustainability, which has in turn affected both the social and economic sustainability of Arctic indigenous communities. Environmental sustainability is, at its core, what the 2005 Petition demands. And it is what will be needed at COP21 today and tomorrow. It ensures a healthy, diverse, and productive ecosystem that provides essential goods for both human and non-human organisms. Such sustainability is guaranteed when renewable resource harvest does not exceed the rate of regeneration; when the rate of waste generation does not exceed the assimilative capacity of the environment; and when the depletion of nonrenewable resources parallels a comparable development of renewable substitutes for that resource. It also includes the securement of social sustainability in supporting human adaptation and community resilience; promoting social justice and health equity; and creating a liveable, supportive environment that sustains social capital. The neglect of these three principles by state leaders has resulted in extreme shifts in earth’s natural cycles and systems. Overconsumption of both renewable and nonrenewable resources and unsustainable generation of pollution, including greenhouse gases, have caused earth’s average temperature to rise one degree Celsius. In this Arctic, average temperatures have risen two degrees since the industrial revolution.
Temperature changes translate to dangerous shifts in climate and weather patterns that provide the context for social cohesion, economic opportunity, and human rights. Storm surges, shoreline erosion, and changing flora and fauna accessibility have stifled many Arctic communities’ ability to support an appropriate level of economic production to ensure a healthy community and local economy. Climate change’s effects on local economic sustainability are interconnected with violations of the right to the means of their own subsistence, among other economic rights outlined in international and regional laws. The social sustainability of Arctic communities is also threatened by climate change. Social sustainability occurs when the formal and informal processes, systems, structures, and relationships actively support the capacity of current and future generations to create healthy and liveable communities. Sustainable communities are equitable, diverse, connected and democratic, and provide a good quality of life. Environmental changes in permafrost, sea ice, and storm surges have led to a dramatic decrease in the health, wellbeing, and liveability of many communities. Fractures in water systems, transportation networks, and home infrastructure visibly connect sustainability, climate change, and the human rights of Arctic residents.
On Wednesday, part two of this article will explore what’s needed at the COP21 negotiations to stop future damages. But as world leaders gather today to begin working towards a binding, universal agreement on greenhouse gas emissions, there must be an acknowledgement that the unsustainable use of fossil fuel and overconsumption of natural resources has already influenced key natural and human living conditions in the Arctic, affecting their basis for social and economic well-being. Climate change compounds existing impediments to achieving sustainability, particularly in places like Arctic barrier islands that are dependent on natural resources and have limited capacity to adapt in situ. In Anchorage, President Obama ended the Glacier Conference with a call to action to help those American citizens in the Arctic who are suffering the consequences of climate change today. “It’s not enough just to talk the talk. We’ve got to walk the walk. We’ve got work to do, and we’ve got to do it together.” Mr. President, the time for action has come.