Time to act: Creating the path to a more resilient Arctic
3 December 2019
This fall, the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released its Special Report on the Ocean and Cryosphere in a Changing Climate. The IPCC is the most authoritative global organisation for assessing climate change science. Its report paints an extremely concerning picture of the status and future of our oceans and cryosphere and of the impacts of the climate crisis for ecosystems and people. Impacts are already evident and will worsen under all possible emission scenarios, with some projected to be irreversible on the time-scale of centuries in a high-emissions future.
Considering that the ocean and cryosphere (comprising ice sheets, glaciers, sea ice, freshwater ice, snow and permanently frozen ground) together cover more than 90 percent of the Earth’s surface, this assessment has huge global significance, and reaches a sobering conclusion: All people on Earth depend directly or indirectly on the ocean and cryosphere. Highlighting to people around the world the need for urgency in choosing the future we want, the report concludes: “This assessment reveals the benefits of ambitious mitigation and effective adaptation for sustainable development and, conversely, the escalating costs and risks of delayed action. The potential to chart Climate Resilient Development Pathways […] depends on transformative change."
But how do we “chart Climate Resilient Development Pathways” for the Arctic?
One thing is clear: Arctic resilience depends heavily on urgent and ambitious reductions in greenhouse gas emissions.
The report makes it crystal clear that only if we limit the global temperature increase to 2°C or less will substantial portions of the Arctic, as we know it, remain by the end of this century.
(Ice, snow, permafrost and the ecosystems and cultures shaped by them may still exist, though at much smaller scales.)
While some Arctic countries are beginning to act on their “common but differentiated responsibilities” under the 1992 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, overall, current commitments to the Paris Agreement are dangerously insufficient to ensure the survival and resilience of Arctic ecosystems and peoples.
Aside from this global agreement, there is no single navigator at the helm charting resilient pathways for the Arctic. The report finds that instead, Arctic resilience can and must be strengthened—urgently—by fortifying the many ecosystems and societies (and their interactions) that make up the living Arctic. As a result, tools and practices that embrace and act upon such a systems approach—and that support ecosystems and biodiversity, sustain ecosystem services, strengthen cooperation and empower participation—are at the heart of resilience strategies.
While we are beginning to understand where and how to engage to strengthen resilience, bringing forward such an agenda is not a straightforward exercise. Our institutions are not equipped to consider all available knowledge or govern in the integrated fashion and at the speed needed to respond to rapid, pervasive change. We need information about the status, trends and futures of physical, ecological and social systems to support decisions that balance short-term risks and long-term resilience—but this information is often not available. Tools and practices that broaden participation and allow informed decisions are available, but are rarely linked to policy processes. Dedicated funding and capacity, including at the local scale, are needed but lacking.
As the impacts of climate change mount in the Arctic, the urgency to respond and build resilience cannot be overstated. Governments must act urgently to prioritise, initiate and fund an agenda focused on strengthening resilience, and must coordinate and implement or incentivise it across institutions throughout the region.
Such a comprehensive, integrated approach would bring about the opportunities linked to Climate Resilient Development Pathways in the Arctic while addressing climate change risks.
This issue of The Circle presents a collection of views on how to move the agenda forward. The time to act is now.
MARTIN SOMMERKORN is Head of Conservation for the WWF Arctic Programme.
WWF Arctic Coordinating Team
Let’s take a moment to look back on some big wins from 2019.
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.