Arctic climate change: An Indigenous perspective

Photo of a port in Nuuk Greenland. there is a snow capped mountain in the background and boats in the harbour.
Photo credit: Filip Gielda, Unsplash. Location: Nuuk, Greenland

Martina Beshparova, an Imperial student studying MSc Climate Change, Management and Finance , discusses the socio-economic implications of rising temperatures in the Arctic – and how a fusion of science and traditional knowledge can ensure effective climate action and sustainable development in the region.

With temperatures rising more than twice as fast as global averages, the Arctic is spearheading our battle with climate change. The Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Programme estimates that average surface temperatures in the region rose by 2.7°C from 1971 to 2017. Sea ice extent in the month of September declined sharply by 75% relative to what it was in 1979.

News headlines have transformed the changes in the Arctic’s natural ecosystems into a powerful tool to communicate the perils of climate change inaction. Images of distressed polar bears (whose population is predicted to decline by two-thirds by 2050) have inundated popular media. So have concerns about Arctic permafrost thawing, which can release vast amounts of carbon dioxide and methane and cause irreversible changes to the climate system. However, away from the spotlight, global warming has had considerable impacts on Arctic residents, especially Indigenous peoples, whose livelihoods, culture and way of living have been inextricably intertwined with the environment for centuries. 

Case study: Greenland 

“Climate change is not a theoretical faraway problem for future generations to solve. It is already happening in the Arctic […]. Communities are contending with vanishing historical sites, gravesite erosions, and community disruption and relocation.”

Duane Smith, President of the Inuit Circumpolar Conference Canada, for the UN Chronicle 

Approximately 88% of Greenland’s 56,081 inhabitants are Greenlandic Inuit. According to the Greenlandic Perspectives Survey, a whopping 76% of Greenlandic residents indicated that they have personally experienced the effects of climate change and half of the population believes that climate change will harm people in Greenland. These figures should not come as a surprise, given that increasing temperatures have significantly altered ice, the Arctic’s social and economic lifeline.

Examples of recent Arctic changes paint a picture of a rapidly and irreversibly changing Arctic cryosphere: A) Extreme winter 2016 Arctic temperature anomalies of ∼6 °C in the central Arctic. These anomalies were roughly double the maximum of previous years (Overland and Wang, 2016). Winter 2018 had similar extremes. Data from the NOAA/NCAR reanalysis using the NOAA/ESRL online plotting routines. B) Winter sea ice extents were below previous values during winter 2015–2018. Sea ice data were obtained from the National Snow and Ice Data Center. Blue dot denotes 2018. (For interpretation of the references to color in this figure legend, the reader is referred to the Web version of this article.)
Temperature anomalies and maximum winter sea ice extent in the Arctic. Graph A shows the temperature anomalies of ~6°C in the central Arctic in winter 2016. Graph B shows how winter sea ice extents were below previous values during winter 2015–2018 (blue dot denotes 2018).
Source: Overland et al. (2019)  

In Greenland, ice is considered as a critical transport infrastructure for local communities, which are scattered across an island known for its lack of roads. Ice melting has already contributed to a rapid decline in the number of sled dogs – central to Inuit culture and typically utilised for travel and hunting. An increased lack of connectivity can also lead to social isolation, mental distress, and anxiety, especially for rural and marginalised residents, in a country where suicide among the Inuit youth is growing at a concerning rate.

Disruptions in land transport and more frequent extreme weather events such as storms and wildfires (yes, wildfires in the Arctic!) further jeopardise access to critical resources and services.

Shorter winters and extended periods without sea ice have had a direct impact on hunting, dog sledding and other traditional activities. Hunting practices are a fundamental part of Inuit culture, with older generations passing on their valuable knowledge to the younger generation. However, thinner, and slowly disappearing sea ice has made access to marine marine animals, such as fish and seals, much more challenging and rendered hunting conditions increasingly unsafe. Traditional food represents a significant amount of the energy intake of Greenlandic Inuit. A decline in subsistence hunting, reinforced by reduced availability of some species and westernisation of diet can threaten food security and have considerable implications for the health and wellbeing of Greenland’s Indigenous residents.

Graph illustrating the percentage of energy derived from traditional food among Inuit. There is a clear decrease from 1999 levels compared with 2008 levels, especially among women.
% of energy derived from traditional foods among Inuit.
Source: AMAP

In the future, warmer temperatures can extend the growing season for plant crops and are likely to have positive effects on agriculture. The melting of ice and glaciers has also uncovered economic opportunities such as new shipping routes, tourism, and increased access to valuable natural resources, including oil and gas, as well as minerals and rare earth metals. Whether the distribution of the expected gains from these activities will be equal and fair remains to be seen. Presently, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) predicts that non-Arctic stakeholders are likely to benefit the most. As for Indigenous communities, they will most likely find maintaining their traditional ways of life increasingly challenging.

The path forward

The example of Greenlandic Inuit demonstrates that Indigenous populations are extremely vulnerable to climate change because of their close link to the environment and heavy reliance on natural resources. However, the very same relationships transform these communities in powerful actors in global efforts to address the effects of rising temperatures. Over centuries, Indigenous Peoples have accumulated traditional knowledge which is unique and locally relevant.

An effective climate agenda should seek to understand further the interplay between science and traditional knowledge, and thus enable local and Indigenous communities to be part of the global and regional climate decision-making processes. In the case of the Arctic, as well as other regions around the world, it is critical to remember that we should avoid considering climate change in isolation of other socio-economic challenges. Climate mitigation and adaptation policies will succeed only if they acknowledge the local context and adopt a systematic approach that complements rather than contradicts efforts for sustainable development.

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