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If we can’t preserve the Arctic as we know it, what next?

As Douglas Clark writes for Arctic Deeply, change has always characterized the North. But with climate change accelerating the pace, it’s time to ask what sort of Arctic we want to have.

By: /
13 January, 2017
The crew of the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Healy, in the midst of their ICESCAPE mission, retrieves supplies for some mid-mission fixes dropped by parachute from a C-130 in the Arctic Ocean in this July 12, 2011 NASA handout photo obtained by Reuters June 11, 2011. REUTERS/Kathryn Hansen/NASA
By: Douglas Clark

Associate Professor, University of Saskatchewan

We’ve known for decades that the Arctic is experiencing changes just like those projected to come from a warming climate. The Arctic Council’s recently released Arctic Resilience Report asked how vulnerable the Arctic is to specific abrupt environmental changes resulting from climate change and human activity — essentially, “tipping points.” Its sobering conclusion is that many of the big impacts long-feared are now well underway. We are on a new planet now, one that’s going to keep changing underfoot, and those changes are being realized much faster in the Arctic than elsewhere. 

We have lost the ability to preserve the Arctic as we know it, and we don’t have a very good idea of what happens next.

The essence of the Arctic Resilience Report can be expressed in just three points. First, the Arctic is undergoing rapid and major ecological, social and economic changes, all of which interact in complex ways that have real consequences for Arctic peoples’ well-being. Abrupt changes have been documented and risk pushing across thresholds past which new ecosystem states become irreversible. The decline in sea ice is just one example, and not even the most abrupt: The decline in spring snow cover is occurring even faster.

Second, what happens in the Arctic doesn’t stay in the Arctic. These changes have global impacts. Prairie folks may have basked in unseasonable warmth lately, but the farmers whose land I hunt on every autumn were not pleased to see the early October snowfall, which persisted — unusually — and affected their harvests. Unfortunately, we need to get used to such weirdness, because there’s compelling evidence that weather changes in the temperate latitudes are a consequence of the jet stream being altered by the loss of Arctic sea ice. This is bad news for the regions of the planet where most of our agricultural products come from.

We have lost the ability to preserve the Arctic as we know it.

Third, although there is a long legacy of colonization of Arctic Indigenous peoples, there is also a more recent history of remarkable governance innovations, mainly driven by those peoples. A prominent example of this is the settlement of aboriginal land claims in Canada’s territorial north, along with the novel power-sharing institutions they spawned. 

There’s a catch, though: Political innovations take time to create and perfect, often decades. The biophysical changes we now see are outpacing the improvements in our governance capabilities. We need to close that “ingenuity gap” because good governance is ultimately what makes the difference between a resilient society living in a healthy environment and one that isn’t.

Change has always characterized the Arctic. It’s a dynamic place, socially as well as ecologically. The difference now is that acceleration and unpredictable changes are the new reality there. We no longer have a choice about embracing this uncertainty; like it or not, it’s our shared destiny now. This does not mean complacency or despair though, since we cannot shirk our responsibility to stay on the safe side of those biophysical tipping points we can still avoid crossing. 

Unfortunately, such thresholds are difficult to detect until they’ve been crossed, so we will have to pay close attention going forward. Continued change will create winners and losers, both within the Arctic and worldwide. Who — or what — will determine who those losers and winners are? Figuring that out demands thinking carefully about what kind of actions to take in the name of doing something for the Arctic, and why. 

If there’s an upside, it’s that whether the Arctic Resilience Report’s findings mean we are “too late” or not really is up to us to decide. That depends on what kind of Arctic we want to have, which is an especially important consideration for the people who live up there and are most affected by these changes. 

Perhaps more than anything, in a world that seems to be abandoning civility and cooperation, we need to remember that the hard work of finding common interests and inventing new ways to achieve them is the only way we are going to get through the changes the Arctic is bringing to all of us.

Both the full Arctic Resilience Report and its executive summary are available online. This article was first published on Arctic Deeply.

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