Written by Huma Khan
The Arctic has an enormous impact on the global climate and the environment, but climate change has severely affected it in the past years. Scientists and researchers began noticing thawing of permafrost and rising air temperatures in the polar regions ever since the early 1970s. Since then, the temperatures have drastically increased by around 0.5°C to 2°C, severely affecting the region’s flora and fauna. Experts also believe that if the current global warming rate does not improve, then the likelihood of complete depletion of ocean ice is predicted in the Arctic region by the year 2099. Subsequently, warming of the Arctic environment will trigger the melting of sea-ice, which will exacerbate the sea-level rise globally. Countries with substantial coastal boundaries like Bangladesh, Maldives, Mauritius and Vietnam are already experiencing sea-level rise effects. These developing countries have witnessed submergence of small islands and displacement of coastal dwellers which is becoming a growing threat of future climate refugees. According to the report “Evidence and Implications of Dangerous Climate Change in the Arctic” by WWF International Arctic Programme, the Arctic region’s temperatures had already risen to 2°C by 2005. The repercussions of this change are increasingly becoming apparent and visible in the ecosystem of the region. The temperature and sea-levels increase due to the increase in global GHG emissions since the 1960s have posed more significant burdens on the planet’s polar regions.
The after-effects of thawing of permafrost have already resulted in the Arctic region experiencing ordinary incidents like landslides, draining lakes, and changing vegetation.The social, economic and environmental characteristics of the region have also altered the lives of those residing in the area due to these anomalies. Due to a competition for resources and unusual living patterns, encounters between wildlife and humans have become more familiar with situations escalating into a conflict. For instance, the figure below was published in the quarterly magazine issued by WWF Arctic Programme “Sea Change: Managing the Arctic Ocean, 2021" which clearly shows the plight of polar bears who have had to migrate to areas they would normally not tread in search of food because their existing habitats and ecosystem have been destroyed. In the image below, they are shown in or near a human settlement, chewing on the electrical cables set up by researchers during the Polar Stern Expedition. To commit towards protecting the Arctic environment, Arctic inhabitants’ well-being and promoting sustainable development in the region, The Arctic Council was set up in 1996 in Ottawa, Canada. This Council recognises the need for traditional knowledge of the indigenous people of the Arctic and promotes cooperative activities that would include indigenous people and the inhabitants of the Arctic. The Arctic Council has eight member states: Canada, The Kingdom of Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, The Russian Federation, Sweden and The United States. Along with this, there are Organisations that represent Arctic indigenous people in the Council such as Aleut International Association, Arctic Athabaskan Council, Gwich’in Council International, Inuit Circumpolar Council, Russian Association of Indigenous Peoples of the North and Saami Council. These Organisations and bodies are working towards building resilience among those in the region against the climate crises. The Arctic Resilience is all about the region’s capacity to “cope and adapt to the climate change without losing essential identity and function of the region”. To ensure transparency in the decision and policy-making process, the International Polar Foundation, organised its 11th consecutive symposium on the theme of ‘Resilient Arctic Communities’. This event was also a platform to take an update on the effectiveness of the Arctic Council and the steps it took. I was fortunate enough to have had the opportunity to attend the event and engage with professionals, senior researchers, policymakers and government officials who are actively working with the Arctic Council and member countries to promote and support the cause.
Prior to attending the symposium, my knowledge of the subject matter specific to the impact of climate change on the Arctic region was fairly elementary. However, the event exposed me to various elements and specifically, the severity of the geopolitical issues looming in the Arctic. As discussed above, the Arctic sea ice-melt and thawing of permafrost is undoubtedly one of the biggest challenges for the entire world, but the situation is worse for communities residing in the region. Even after being aware of the case, some governments and industries are looking at it from the perspective of profit, since the region currently has had no (major) developmental projects. The increase in temperature would make the region hospitable to industrial development activities. In fact, some have already found their way into the region through shipping and fuel routes to harness the opportunities the place presents. To prevent such activities from escalating, the EU Green Panel has been putting pressure against these developments and demanding stricter regulations and international laws to regulate these newly paved routes. During the panel discussion, I noticed almost all the panellists agreeing that the response to handling these risks is “Climate Change Adaptation and Mitigation along with a sense of Collective Responsibility''. The statements made by the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Norway, Ms Ine Marie Eriksen Søreide held value for me and added majorly to the discussion. She was vocal about her concerns and highlighted the urgency for a space that promoted more robust research to improve the existing Arctic policy. This would additionally build trust and enhance geopolitical relations with and beyond the Arctic member states. In her statement, she also mentioned an increase in the military build-up in the Russian Federations’ Arctic region due to the recent climate policy changes and growing instances of geopolitical conflicts.
For this reason, Norway too, has made significant changes to its policy management. The discussion, debate and arguments at the event were growingly becoming more focused towards the acute issue of climate change and its impact on the Arctic communities of humans, flora and fauna. As mentioned earlier and extensively discussed during the event – In addition to the changing climate, the region is also struggling with geopolitical conflicts growing out of erratic policy changes and encroachment of some nations into the area for development opportunities.
As it is now commonly known, the Arctic has become highly vulnerable to resource exploitations, cross-polar routes and trade corridors; and substantial industrial development investment. The sea-ice melts, and permafrost has intensified the region’s geological explorations, which were not possible before. These developments are alarming and compromise the Arctic ecosystem’s ecological balance, going through a climate crisis at present. Furthermore, the Arctic communities are in grave danger due to this environmental and political turmoil. Even a small action taken by the Council and member states will have a massive impact on these communities. Thus, it is crucial that the needs of these communities remain at the centre of any policy formulation. The communities are regarded as important stakeholders in any decision-making process that is meant to have an impact on them or their environment. The process of policy-making and decision-making should be conscious of its social and economic impact on the region and its people. It cannot be said enough that there is a need for stricter regulations against development projects in the Arctic. This is crucial not only because it would displace and harm the communities but also because thawing of permafrost has harmful effects due to its vast deposition of methane and emission of other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere – impacting the climate and environment globally. Ultimately, climate change is impartial and affects all of us equally! As an aware generation of youths and future climate and policy researchers, we must ensure that developments that can have harmful impacts on the Arctic ecosystem are revalidated and reconsidered through a transparent and accountable process. Our opinions and voices matter. We must use our platform and voice to change how things are to make sure that the current climate and geopolitical crises are being closely monitored in the Arctic. This article is a brief yet hopeful attempt to bring the issue of what’s happening in the Arctic to the forefront using my knowledge, experience as a researcher and a resident of the earth. The International Polar Foundation is currently working to support scientific research in and about the Polar regions to promote informed action on climate change and support a sustainable society. To know more about them, visit http://www.polarfoundation.org/about. Additionally, keep an eye out for any polar symposium in the future where youth participation is actively encouraged.