Voices of Alaska: Gwich’in vs. climate change

  • By Sarah James and Kathleen Rogers
  • Sunday, April 12, 2015 10:23pm
  • Opinion

The disastrous effects of climate change are impacting Alaska harder than any other U.S. state. The Arctic is heating up more than twice as fast as the rest of the planet as a result of amplification effects. As snow and ice melt on land and in the water due to global warming, dark regions that were once covered are exposed, absorbing more heat and leading to accelerating temperatures. Shorelines are eroding at an accelerated pace, bodies of water are shrinking, and forests are more vulnerable to disease and fire. In February 2015 Arctic sea ice reached its lowest maximum extent on record according to the National Snow & Ice Data Center. These adverse effects of climate change, which frankly sound straight out of disaster movie, have become a part of the daily lives of a large group of people who live in the epicenter of Alaska’s accelerated global warming.

Located seventy-five miles north of the Arctic Circle along the banks of the Beaufort Sea lies Arctic Village, Alaska. Arctic Village in northeast Alaska is home to the northern most of all North American Indian nations, the native Gwich’in. This area encompasses fifteen villages and small towns comprising of approximately 7,000 Gwich’in. Because of their close association with the land, water, vegetation, animals, and weather conditions,

Alaska Native cultures, including the Gwich’in, are experiencing many consequences of global warming.

The Gwich’in live along the migratory route and winter habitat of the Porcupine caribou herd. They rely heavily on the caribou for physical, cultural, spiritual, social and economic needs. Gwich’in, in fact, means “people of the caribou.”

Climate change and environmental degradation threaten the caribou’s habitat and survival. Warming events have altered the route and time of migration for the Porcupine caribou herd. The forage habitat of caribou is shrinking with increased forest fires and a shifting tundra. As temperatures warm, the loss of permafrost increases and with it an increase in the loss of caribou habitat. As climate change reduces critical habitats, declines in their populations threaten not only the livelihood of the Gwich’in, but also their cultural and social identity.

Continued increases in temperature are predicted for Alaska. Climatologists have estimated that average annual temperatures in Alaska are projected to increase an additional 3.5 to 7 degrees F (1.9 to 3.8 degrees C) by the middle of this century. Increased temperatures will only exasperate current warming trends and lead to further disruptions in and destructions of habitats, populations and lifestyles.

Immediate mitigation is necessary in order to further avoid disastrous climate change impacts. Over the past 20 years, there have been a series of failed attempts to create an effective international treaty on climate change mitigation. In December 2015, global leaders are meeting in Paris to commit to emission standards and mitigation practices to address climate change. We need a universal climate agreement in Paris that limits global warming to 2 degrees C. Emitting greenhouse gases that increase global temperatures beyond 2 degrees C will have far spread consequences, altering climatic regions all over the world and creating fierce natural weather phenomenon.

The issue of climate change needs advocates, activists and engagement now more than ever. We must take the lead by demanding action from our lawmakers to address climate change mitigation and adaptation strategies. A more extensive adaptation plan is necessary to reduce vulnerability to climate change. The solution begins by passing meaningful and comprehensive climate and energy legislation.

This year marks the 45th anniversary of Earth Day. On April 22, more than 1 billion people in 192 countries will participate in Earth Day activities and events, making it the largest civic observance in the world. This Earth Day, let us plant the seed of a new direction towards more comprehensive climate mitigation. Raising awareness and advocating for change is a global responsibility.

Sarah James is board chairperson for the Gwich’in Steering Committee and an environmental advocate. Kathleen Rogers, president of Earth Day Network, has worked more than 20 years as an environmental attorney and advocate.

More in Opinion

Opinion: Rural broadband is essential infrastructure

Broadband funding is available. The rest is up to Alaskans.

Nurse Sherra Pritchard gives Madyson Knudsen a bandage at the Kenai Public Health Center after the 10-year-old received her first COVID-19 vaccine on Friday, Nov. 5, 2021. (Camille Botello/Peninsula Clarion)
Alaska Voices: A mom’s and pediatrician’s perspective on COVID-19 vaccines for children

I want to see children and their parents who have yet to get vaccinated roll up their sleeves.

Larry Persily (Peninsula Clarion file)
Opinion: State defends its right to cut nonexistent taxes

This from a state that has no property tax on homes or businesses, only on the oil industry.

Gavel (Courtesy photo)
Opinion: The foolish men claiming self-defense

It’s not just misguided teenagers carrying guns who find themselves in trouble with the law.

Dr. Jay Butler, former chief medical officer for the State of Alaska, is seen in this undated photo. (Courtesy photo)
Alaska Voices: Feeling grateful this Thanksgiving for the COVID vaccines

The COVID vaccines remain our strongest tool in combating the pandemic and helping us return to our lives and the things we love and cherish.

A resident casts their vote in the regular municipal election Tuesday, Oct. 6, 2020 at the Kenai Peninsula Fairgrounds in Ninilchik, Alaska. (Photo by Megan Pacer/Homer News)
Voices of the Peninsula: All votes matter

In the beginning, only property-holding white men could vote.

Cristen San Roman. (Photo provided)
Point of View: Is management of Cook Inlet catered to special interest groups?

If these fish are so at risk, why is BOEM able to move forward with lease sale 258?

Homer Foundation
Point of View: Grateful for the hidden ‘good’

Gratitude: Noun The state of being grateful; thankfulness. The state or quality… Continue reading

Homer High School Principal Douglas Waclawski. (Photo provided)
Point of View: What is Homer High School about?

What I consider Homer High’s strength is that we are a place for learning.

UAA Chancellor Sean Parnell. (courtesy photo)
Alaska Voices: Invent your future at UAA

At UAA we’re providing the tools to help students of all ages and skills chart a new course forward.

A registered nurse prepares a COVID-19 vaccine at the pop-up clinic on the Spit on May 27. (Photo by Sarah Knapp/Homer News)
Alaska Voices: Vaccination is the still best protection from COVID-19

The Alaska State Medical Association encourages you to protect yourselves and your community from preventable illness by getting recommended vaccines.

(Ben Hohenstatt / Juneau Empire File)
The sad diminishment of Rep. Don Young

Young seems afraid to demand his party leader defend the dignity of the institution he loves.