Arctic People Talk about Life on the Frontlines of Climate Change

In Washington, lawmakers often talk about global warming as something that will affect us sometime in the future. In the Arctic, people don't have that luxury any longer. Life is already changing rapidly for the First Nations people living around the Arctic Circle, from the Inuit in our north to the Sami in Russia. Those of us who live down south have a lot to learn from their front-line experience.

As I mentioned in my last post, I just traveled to Canada for a meeting of the Aspen Institute's Commission on Arctic Climate Change. Although we met in Winnipeg, the actual changes occurring in the Arctic were brought powerfully home to us by our fellow commissioners from the First Nations, Patricia Cochran from Alaska and Sheila Watt-Cloutier from Canada.

Both women described how changes in climate have created challenges in daily life and have added significant risk and danger to hunting and fishing traditions. As the ice thins, (see these remarkable military-satellite-photo comparisons of summer ice melt) for instance, the number of people drowning or dying in hunting accidents has risen each year. (Just this week, NPR's Morning Edition ran a story about how warming temperatures are impacting people who herd reindeer and caribou.)

We discussed at length the human consequences of climate change and the challenges to future generations as the traditional life ways, passed down through the generations by elders, now face considerable uncertainty.

Here is just one example. These First Nations have developed centuries-old traditions that are finely attuned to the natural world and seasonal changes. But now, as a result of global warming, community members can no longer safely predict when the seasons will shift.

Loss of culture and lifestyle translates to a basic loss of human rights for these age-old cultures.  The recognition and respect that the First Nations have fought so hard to wrest from modern governments over the last century could now be lost, not due to legal challenges, but to changes in the climate brought by our undiminished use of fossil fuels. 

The changes in the Arctic will not only affect the First Nations--and the eight Arctic nations who confer through the Arctic Council. These changes will ripple around the planet. The concerns of people of low-lying Pacific Island nations who watch as sea level rise threatens the very existence of their entire countries are closely linked with the First Nations' concerns. If global warming continues unchecked, more and more of the world's population will share those same concerns.

Our discussions about global warming and the First Nations were juxtaposed by new information that the Russians launched two ICBMs into their airspace from ships in the Arctic just two weeks ago.

Both the ancient and modern uses of the Arctic are thrown into uncertainty by the fast-paced changes of global warming.

And that is what the Aspen Commission is trying to address. We are exploring how this fragile region--the world's last, largely undeveloped ocean--can be best managed in the years ahead.

We focused on what new governing approaches would be needed for the Arctic, not only to handle the race to exploit the region's oil, gas, and fisheries that is expected to kickoff shortly, but also to preserve the rich biological resources and to support the communities being hit hard by an altered climate.

We adopted ten principles of governance that we will use as the basis of different approaches of governance that the Commission will explore.

One idea we are exploring is creating a science reserve in the Arctic high seas, the international water surrounding the North Pole. We would set aside this science reserve for 30 years, so scientists could study and understand the significance of the changes to this fragile region--the region that affords a cooling mechanism for the entire planet--before exploration and development take over.

The science-reserve approach to understanding the Arctic is an emerging idea, and we welcome your comments about it. But one thing is certain: the more we can learn about what global warming is doing to the Arctic, the more we will comprehend what the future holds for the rest of the globe.