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.

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