For the two years leading up to the fall release of the Special Report on the Ocean and Cryosphere in a Changing Climate, Gary Kofinas served as one of 104 lead authors, reviewing the state of knowledge on human responses to climate change in polar regions. As he explains, the report paints some frightening possible futures—but also offers room for hope if the world acts quickly enough.
The key message of the IPCC report is sobering: a 2°C increase in the global mean temperature is likely to cause significant melting of the Antarctic and Greenland ice sheets as well as the world’s glaciers. As a result, rising sea levels may negatively impact almost 700 million people, or 10% of the world’s population, requiring many to relocate. Ocean acidification is affecting marine shell species; ocean warming will harm many fish species; thawing permafrost will have an impact on Arctic vegetation, wildlife and human infrastructure; and Arctic residents, particularly Indigenous Peoples, will experience major disruptions to their livelihoods and health.
Cause for despair - and cautious optimism
The report notes that without action to mitigate the causes of climate change, the consequences for ecosystems and society will be dire. But if we act immediately, we may be able to limit these impacts through adaptive and transformative change.
My experience as a lead author has left me extremely frightened about the future of the Arctic and the Earth. However, the report offers signs of hope and recommendations for a way forward.
A key take-home message is:
While there is no way to know if—or to what extent—our global community will respond, there are steps we can take now to create climate resilient pathways.
Internationally, the Arctic Council and several key international agreements are among the most important tools for facilitating cooperation. At the national to local levels, some regions have established cross-scale institutions, such as co-management arrangements, where local communities have a voice and all stakeholders can plan ahead. But other regions have serious institutional deficiencies that require transformational change in governance. Regulations to address the risks of the increase in Arctic shipping are lacking. The rising costs of adaptation—for example, to relocate communities or maintain public infrastructure—will require major budget allocations. Finally—well before we find ourselves in crisis situations—we need to ensure that Arctic governance for all sectors is more responsive to climate changes and better supports adaptation.
Climate change requires us to look to multiple sources of evidence and diverse disciplinary and cultural perspectives to better understand ecological systems, human systems and their interactions. Without a holistic approach, government policies are likely to result in unintended consequences. But the Arctic’s rich cultural diversity and its people’s close relationships with land and animals position it well to draw on multiple knowledge systems to observe, understand and respond to climate change. Community-based monitoring systems that include Indigenous knowledge are being developed in several areas, with promising results so far. Some researchers are building databases to track and understand abrupt and fundamental changes in social-ecological systems. Others are identifying and monitoring indicators that reflect human well-being and the adaptive capacity of communities.
Linking knowledge with policy-making
Connecting best available knowledge with policy is problematic in all regions. This means that addressing climate change requires a shift in research culture toward resolving real-world problems. Areas of the North are making progress using innovative practices like scenario analysis with high stakeholder participation, selfassessments of community resilience, climate adaptation planning, and structured decision-making (using computer simulation models and visualisation tools).
Resilience-based ecosystem stewardship
Rapid climate change will require us to rethink the goal of sustaining ecosystems in states of equilibrium. To that end, several resilience-oriented stewardship initiatives have been implemented in the Arctic, such as networks of marine protected areas. Adaptive management—a forwardlooking process of monitoring and regularly evaluating past decisions—is now used for fisheries in some regions. As well, regulatory agencies increasingly recognise the importance of accounting for people’s livelihoods when creating resource policy.
These strategies are only a few of the many pathways we can follow to build resilience in an uncertain future. While they all show promise, they also need further development.
Reflecting on my own experience with this IPCC report, I am simultaneously hopeful that opportunities for resilience-building exist and petrified by the consequences of our not responding decisively.
As a global society, we can only achieve climate resilient pathways by acting immediately. This will require each of us to step off the sidelines as bystanders and actively work to explore, formulate, test and implement solutions. Your engagement and participation are required.
is Professor Emeritus of Resource Policy and Management at University of Alaska Fairbanks. His research has focused on the resilience and adaptation of northern communities to climate and land use change.
The pandemic has disrupted clean-up efforts on Svalbard.
Disappearing snow, sea ice, glaciers and permafrost means the polar regions have become profoundly different from what we imagine. All that melting means massive changes for the rest of the world too.