Policies of change: adapting to a warming Arctic

The Arctic has warmed at twice the rate of the rest of the world, and the polar region now presents both challenges and opportunities for policy-makers in the US. Deborah Williams reports from Alaska.

More than anywhere else in the world, Alaska and the entire polar region are undergoing profound changes because of global warming. Temperatures are rising significantly; habitat losses are substantial; cultures and communities are becoming endangered; animals are facing extinction; and maps are being redrawn by severe coastal erosion. These significant changes present challenges and perceived opportunities in the policy arena, and afford some of the strongest arguments for taking national and international action to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions quickly and meaningfully. 

A warming Arctic

Overall, the Arctic has warmed at twice the rate of the rest of the world. In some areas, such as Alaska, temperature increases have been much greater.

Scientists, indigenous peoples and others have documented the pervasive and significant changes from global warming in the Arctic. The Arctic Climate Impact Assessment, a groundbreaking report published in 2004, compiled research and traditional knowledge from hundreds of international experts into a thorough description of the effects of global warming on the circumpolar north. Since then, virtually all adverse changes have accelerated.

For policy purposes, three impacts have been most critical: the record breaking melting of the Arctic ice cap; massive coastal erosion; and substantial changes in marine ecosystems associated with warming and acidification. All of these costly changes provide specific policy challenges, only a few of which are currently being addressed.


Decimating previous records, the Arctic ice cap shrunk in 2007 to less than 80% of the prior record low. The Arctic ice cap has many important functions as habitat for humans and other species, and as a heat reflector in global temperature and weather regulation. Alaska and Russia are experiencing the largest impacts from the loss of the ice cap, since the retreat has been the greatest from these shores.

The US Department of Interior is currently deciding whether to list polar bears as threatened under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). (Their determination is due in January 2008.) To inform this decision, the United States Geological Service recently undertook a study to predict polar bear population trends over the next 50 years. Their prognosis is dire, indicating that by 2050 there will be an overall decrease in polar bear numbers by two-thirds, with the only residual populations of polar bears in Canada and Greenland. To protect these remaining populations, and what’s left of the Arctic ice cap, substantial cuts in national and international greenhouses gases will need to be made. Listing polar bears under the ESA could result in higher levels of scrutiny for proposed major new polluters such as coal power plants and other coal related activity.

As the Arctic Ice Cap melts, and Europe’s most direct shipping route to Asia is suddenly ice-free (the fabled Northwest Passage), several countries are rushing to claim new territory. In a high profile mini-submarine expedition, a team of Russians planted a flag on the seabed at the North Pole, four kilometres under the sea ice, and claimed ownership. In a parallel effort, a Danish expedition is also exploring their bases for future claims to land under the Arctic Ocean. Canada, too, is exhibiting a strong interest in the Arctic, and is planning on spending $7 billion on eight new Arctic patrol vessels.

Among other repercussions, this rush to claim land, and opening up of the Northwest Passage to shipping, should motivate the United States to become a signatory to the Law of the Sea Convention. This convention, which has been signed by over 150 countries, sets rules for the use of the world’s oceans, including submerged land ownership and navigation.

The melting of the ice cap also provides challenges and opportunities for offshore oil and gas development. As the recent experience of oil company Royal Dutch Shell can attest to, courts are looking more critically at the cumulative impacts of oil and gas activities in light of global warming, citing environmental risks such as marine pollution and threats to polar bears and whales. This year, courts stopped the company from conducting planned exploratory activities in offshore Alaska waters due to their inadequate analyses of potential impacts, especially in the face of global warming.

Coastal erosion

The coastal erosion occurring in Alaska presages the kind of costs and dislocation issues that will be faced by the rest of the world from rising sea levels. Alaska’s coastal erosion has been accelerated by melting permafrost and greater damage from autumn storms due to the absence of ice protecting its shores. Several government agencies have examined some of the communities most at risk. According to the US Army Corps of Engineers, three villages in Alaska must be relocated within the next 10 to 15 years, and the US General Accounting Office (GAO) has confirmed that these communities are in “imminent danger.”

Addressing the critical relocation issue will be costly. Estimates of the price of moving the single community of Shishmaref, a small village just north of the Bering Strait, range from US$100 million to US$200 million. Many believe that revenues from a future greenhouse-gas cap and trade programme would be the most appropriate source of this funding. Currently, one legislative proposal in the US Congress addresses this need: The Low Carbon Economy Act, introduced by Senators Jeff Bingaman (New Mexico) and Arlen Specter (Pennsylvania), and co-sponsored by both of Alaska’s Senators, Ted Stevens and Lisa Murkowski. Clearly, providing for Alaska’s legitimate costs from global warming helped motivate Alaska’s two senators to co-sponsor this economy-wide, cap and trade legislation – in addition to the public outcry. Hailing from a fossil-fuel producing state, they also are the most conservative members of the senate to co-sponsor any cap and trade proposal.

At the same time, coastal erosion made worse by global warming has resulted in accelerated habitat loss, especially in low-lying areas in northern Alaska, which are prime breeding grounds for internationally significant geese and other waterfowl populations. In adjacent areas, the US government and at least one oil company, Exxon, have had to conduct costly emergency clean-up and well-capping projects as former on-shore exploratory well drilling sites are claimed by the sea and become submerged. Currently there are no defined regulatory policies to address either of these issues, especially how to manage wildlife and ecosystems in recognition of global warming.

Marine impacts

Alaska’s Bering Sea is America’s fish basket. Altogether, Alaska waters produce approximately 50% of US fish landings. But global warming is changing Alaska’s marine ecosystems, as fish move north into cooler waters and as the benthic (bottom-based) ecosystems receive fewer nutrients.

In one of the most forward-thinking actions taken yet in response to global warming, the North Pacific Fisheries Management Council voted unanimously to ban bottom trawling in the northern Bering Sea until there is evidence that these areas can be opened safely. The council intends to encourage a successful northern migration of species without the complications associated with bottom trawling’s habitat destruction.

Ocean acidification presents another challenge. The Center for Biological Diversity (CBD), an NGO, has filed petitions with several states, including Alaska, to classify carbon dioxide as a pollutant. When carbon dioxideis absorbed into the ocean, it creates carbonic acid. Since the Industrial Revolution, human emissions of carbon dioxide have raised the acidity of the ocean by about 30%. Increased acidity jeopardises the entire marine food chain. States such as California and Washington will be examining the CBD petition, and some states will likely grant it, resulting in greater regulatory authority over carbonemissions.

Which way forward?

The profound, adverse impacts from global warming in the Arctic provide compelling evidence for the need to adopt comprehensive greenhouse gas reduction measures throughout the world. As one visitor, Arizona Senator John McCain, noted: “Anyone doubting the effects of human activity on global climate change should talk to the people it affects in Alaska and the Yukon.” Unfortunately, US President George W. Bush continues to reject mandatory emission reductions, despite the evidence, and in the face of urgent calls for action by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and other international leaders. Bush’s most recent gathering and statements have been, as California Senator Barbara Boxer notes: “little more than empty words.”

While a national administrative policy to respond to these changes has yet to materialise in the US, other entities including courts, Congress, councils and international bodies will increasingly be faced with the need to address the challenges posed to Alaska and the circumpolar north from the drastic impacts of global warming.

Deborah L Williams is President of Alaska Conservation Solutions. A graduate of Harvard Law School, she has previously served as Special Assistant to the Secretary for Alaska (a presidential appointment) and as Executive Director of the Alaska Conservation Foundation.

Homepage photo by Stijn Vogel