The Climate Apocalypse Has Already Arrived for People Living in the Arctic

The 60,000 Inuit people living in 53 communities throughout the Arctic are already seeing immediate concerns.

by VICE Staff
Nov 21 2016, 7:50pm

Photo via Flickr user Mike Beauregard

This post originally appeared on VICE Canada.

It's pretty easy to get apocalyptic when describing US President-elect Donald Trump's stance on climate change.

He has said global warming is a hoax made up by China for to disadvantage American manufacturers (which China's government has since refuted).

He's tapped fellow deniers for key roles, including a Republican congressman who believes the Earth's atmosphere is actually cooling as energy adviser, and a turtle cleverly disguised as a fossil fuel–loving think tank analyst to head up the transition for the Environmental Protection Agency.

In his first 100 days, Trump is also planning to withdraw the US from the Paris Climate Agreement, approve the TransCanada's Keystone XL pipeline, and rescind federal regulations on drilling, fracking, and coal mining.

It's a disaster for the environment.

But let's not kid ourselves. For people living in the Arctic—especially the 60,000 Inuit people living in 53 communities throughout four massive regions—the climate apocalypse is already here.

"The sea level rise and melting permafrost have combined for some of our communities to have literally fallen into the sea, especially in the Western Arctic," Natan Obed, president of Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, told VICE. "There are immediate concerns that we have about the sustainability of some of our communities based on climate change."

Climate scientists and analysts agree the globe must stay below two degrees Celsius—or 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit—of warming above pre-industrial averages by 2100 in order to have a chance of avoiding catastrophic levels of climate change.

Some countries, including Canada, agreed to an "aspirational goal" of a 1.5 degrees Celsius limit at the 2015 Paris Climate Conference; the difference between 1.5 and 2 degrees of warming "marks the difference between events at the upper limit of present-day natural variability and a new climate regime," according to a recent study written by climate researchers.

But in the Western Canadian Arctic, the annual average temperature has already gone up five degrees Celsius since pre-industrial times, says Michael Byers, Canada Research chair in Global Politics and International Law and author of Who Owns the Arctic?: Understanding Sovereignty Disputes in the North.

The entire region is warming at twice the rate as the rest of the world due to a trend known as "polar amplification." There's ongoing debate about what causes this phenomenon, with potential factors including large weather systems transporting heat to the poles, increasing snow and ice cover loss, and changes in cloud cover and atmospheric water vapor.

Whatever the reason, the situation has reached absolute crisis level. Sea ice levels in both the Arctic and Antarctica are currently at record lows, while temperatures over the Arctic Ocean are currently 20 degrees Celsius hotter than usual.

"The Arctic exists in a balance between ice and water, between the frozen and unfrozen," Byers told VICE. "A change of just a couple of degrees can dramatically change the Arctic environment. It can transform ice-covered ocean into open water. The effects of climate change are brutally visible in the Arctic today."

To be sure, the trend has been noticed for decades by Inuit elders, hunters, trappers, and fishers.

Paul Crowley, director of the WWF's Canadian Arctic Program, says that indigenous people had long observed the sun was coming up at a different time of year and angle than usual, only to be dismissed as "crazy" by white southerners. It turned out that atmospheric conditions had indeed changed, resulting in more humidity and refraction. The elders were right.

That was only the beginning. There have been major shifts in caribou populations in the Eastern Arctic, requiring a hunting moratorium on Baffin Island. Obed says elders have noticed a decline in the quality of the taste of meat from animals, as well as skins for use in clothing.

Invasive species have spiked with the shrinking of tundra; there's been new growth of willows, shrubs, and other non-tundra organisms. Skidoos collapse through paths that have been driven on for the past 40 years. Roads are becoming more dangerous. Weather is becoming less predictable. The ice, which Obed describes as "our highway for eight to ten months of the year," is forming later in the fall and disappearing more quickly in the summer.

"The very basis of of the foundation of our safety in the Arctic is being undermined from a world that now is very different than it once was," says Obed, who emphasizes that Inuit communities still depend on traditional food sources.

Many northern mines rely on permafrost to contain tailings waste; Crowley—who served as principal secretary to former Nunavut premier Eva Aariak—notes the potential consequences of a warming Arctic on such structures are "considerable."

He says there's much more in common between Arctic communities and "small island developing states" that are going to literally disappear with rising sea levels: "What's at stake here is much more dramatic and impactful than it is perhaps in the more temperate areas of Canada," says Crowley, who helped create the organization Many Strong Voices that connects the struggles of, for instance, Fiji and Iqaluit.

There are very critical needs on the climate policy front.

Canada will have to find a way to cut annual emissions by an additional 91 megatons to meet its moderate 2030 targets and Paris Agreement obligations, which will likely require burning of political capital in Alberta to reject proposed projects like the Kinder Morgan's Trans-Mountain pipeline and TransCanada's Energy East pipeline (which experts suggest would allow for oil sands expansion that would push emissions far past acceptable limits).

Any international progress made on climate change will have to be expanded as the Americans withdraw.

That will require a decision to help Arctic communities decarbonize as quickly as possible. Obed says all 53 Inuit communities currently operate on diesel generation. More than 70 communities in Alaska use "hybrid renewable systems," in which multiple power sources such as wind, solar, and hydro are combined. There aren't any such systems in Canada.

Climate-resilient infrastructure for drinking water, wastewater, and solid waste disposal will also have to be built in order for communities to maintain self-sufficiency.

But that necessitates a reminder: The Canadian government has never cared about the north, save for access to resource extraction projects such as Giant Mine and the Mackenzie Valley Pipeline (the latter of which was rebuffed in the 1970s following heavy opposition from Dene, Inuit, and Métis people, but has since been resurrected).

There's been a "distinct underinvestment in the Northern territories," to quote Crowley. That's resulted in a serious "poverty trap" and inability for territorial governments to invest in climate change mitigation and adaptation measures.

There have certainly been some strong initiatives taken at the local level. In early November, the Nunavut government announced the creation of a climate change secretariat, while the WWF and Ecojustice are teaming up with ongoing Inuit-led fight for an expanded national marine conservation area in Lancaster Sound.

Much more will be needed. That's where the federal government must start investing serious dollars in the north.

"You address the suicide crisis," says Byers, who notes funding is the one thing the feds can bring to the table that indigenous people cannot. "You address the housing crisis. You address the education crisis. It is complex, but the fact of the matter is that northern indigenous peoples need increased supports from the federal government, so they can become those strong allies in the fight against climate change and other challenges in the north."

Byers says the surprising resignation of former fisheries minister Hunter Tootoo, who was the lone representative of Arctic constituents in cabinet, "resulted in a lack of focus on Arctic issues." He also notes the election of Trump will likely result in six months of "wait and see in Ottawa with very, very little decision making on policy."

But the deadline to be able to take action by is coming very soon. It may have already passed. There's been more positive rhetoric about climate policy and the Arctic since the Liberals were elected. Obed says there needs to be far greater urgency, with mitigation and adaptation measures implemented as soon as possible.

"I don't think we have a lot of time," he says. "It isn't just a matter of it being five degrees hotter in the summer and having to put on an extra layer of sunscreen. It is a matter of us being able to rely on the foundations of our society and pass that information onto our children. It's that foundation because our society is so much based on ice and snow and cold."

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