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Responding to rapid Arctic climate change: Is the future cancelled for lack of interest?

13 October 2021

This article originally appeared in The Circle: The Climate Crisis: There's No Going Back. The Circle shares perspectives from across the Arctic, and the views expressed here are not necessarily those of WWF. See all Circle issues here.

SEA ICE determines much of the nature of life in and around the Arctic Ocean. Research published this year by Nature demonstrated how historic changes in ice conditions in the channel between Greenland and northernmost Nunavut, Canada were linked not only to biological productivity and abundance of species in the area immediately south, but also to the very presence of people in Greenland.

This unique area, Pikialasorsuaq, is the largest, most productive polynya (area of open water surrounded by sea ice) in the northern hemisphere. It is home to stunning biodiversity and underpins livelihoods, communities and Inuit culture. Efforts are underway to safeguard and manage Pikialasorsuaq for the benefit of future generations.

But these endeavours face huge challenges: a concerning insight arising from the above research is that the historic changes in climate and sea ice that coincided with the regional collapses and onsets of animal and human populations were subtle compared to what the Arctic is now experiencing. Small shifts in climate will determine whether adaptation is possible or whether some areas will need to prepare for major transformations—or even collapses.

This insight points to an existential need to plan adaptation and tightly integrate the efforts to do so with international efforts to transform our fossil-fuelled economic model to limit the crisis. This issue of The Circle shows many encouraging examples of attempts to come to grips with what lies ahead. However, neither the scale of these initiatives nor their level of integration with emission reduction efforts is doing justice to the existential dimension of the interdependent adaptation and transformation issues that affect life in the Arctic.

With science painting an ever-clearer picture of what kind of future we can expect under different emission scenarios—and given the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s “virtual certainty” that warming in the Arctic will continue to be multiple times stronger than the global average—it seems like the pilot has asked us to brace for immediate impact, and collectively we have decided to continue watching the movie instead.

This fall, parties to the Paris Agreement will meet in Glasgow to take stock of countries’ pledges to reduce emissions. The agreement is spurring some governments to adopt stronger targets, but few countries have submitted updated pledges or put policies in place to meet them. A prominent recent analysis found that the current policies would lead to 2.9˚C of global warming by 2100—a figure nearly double the Paris Agreement target and insufficient to leave
the Arctic with at least some sea ice most summers. So what’s next?

The nationally determined contributions (known as NDCs) made by the Arctic and other countries know little about the plight of the Pikialasorsuaq region and its people, or about the natural and cultural diversity that we all depend upon, which will be increasingly lost with every tenth of a degree of warming. So we must rise to tell them from the floe edge, from the coastlines, hills and plains, and from the fishing, hunting and calving grounds. We must create the NDCs we want to see. We must make the next iteration of pledges more just.

An all-hands-on-deck approach to adaptation planning will empower participation in decision-making on climate issues and leverage more just national and global climate targets along with support for building resilience. We can promote it as the “3Ps”: Participate, Plan, Pledge. I would like to add a fourth one: Please get involved. We need a whole-of-society approach to the climate crisis, and there is no time left to lose.

Martin Sommerkorn
Head, Conservation
WWF Arctic Coordinating Team