Helping Vulnerable Communities Adapt to Climate Change

Increasing sea levels, coastal erosion, changing sea ice conditions, and permafrost thaw threatens municipal infrastructure, such as transport links, the survival of Inuit subsistence hunting and fishing activities, and the fabric of Inuit culture and society.

by / May 29, 2009
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For the 165,000 strong Inuit community dispersed across the Arctic coastline in small, remote coastal settlements in Alaska, Canada, Greenland and Siberia, t is already too late to prevent some of the negative effects of climate change, according to James D. Ford from McGill University in Montreal, Canada.

Increasing sea levels, coastal erosion, changing sea ice conditions, and permafrost thaw threatens municipal infrastructure, such as transport links, the survival of Inuit subsistence hunting and fishing activities, and the fabric of Inuit culture and society.

Ford's research, which details why we must all act now to help the Inuit and other vulnerable communities adapt, will be presented at the Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences annual conference on 28 May. A paper is also published in Environmental Research Letters.

With many scientists agreeing that we are near to or beyond the "tipping point" for climate change, there is still a need to reduce Greenhouse Gas emissions. But we must now also focus on how we can help those who are going to be hit hard by climate changes already well under way, says Ford.

As one of the first regions to experience climate change, the international community's response to the Arctic communities' crisis will set an important global precedent, especially as Inuit communities share many characteristics with developing nations around the world, many of which are also at risk, such as limited access to health services, high unemployment and concerns regarding basic services like the quality of drinking water.

As Ford writes, "For the Arctic's Inuit population, adaptation offers a tangible way in which dangerous climate change can be potentially avoided and livelihoods protected. Realistically, it offers the only means of achieving these goals given the absence of political will globally to stabilize emissions at a level that will prevent significant change in the Arctic climate system, or even the possibility of preventing such change."

In recent years, there have been several efforts to call attention to the changing Artic climate and its impact on Inuit communities. The International Institute for Sustainable Development, for instance, has put out a film entitled "Inuit Observations on Climate Change" that documents the impacts of climate change from an Inuvialuit perspective. Focusing on Banks Island in Canada's High Arctic, the film shows how the residents of Sachs Harbour have witnessed dramatic changes to their landscape and their way of life. Exotic insects, fish and birds have arrived; the sea ice is thinner and farther from the community, carrying with it the seals upon which the people depend for food; the permafrost is melting, causing the foundations of the community's buildings to shift and an inland lake to drain into the ocean. In the fall, storms have become frequent and severe, making boating difficult. Thunder and lightning have been seen for the first time.

Ford is now making the point that as one of the first regions to experience dramatic effects of climate change, the international community's response to the Arctic communities' crisis will set an important global precedent. The Inuit communities share many characteristics with developing nations around the world, many of which are also at risk. Similarities include limited access to health services, high unemployment and concerns regarding basic services like the quality of drinking water.

Ford writes, "For the Arctic's Inuit population, adaptation offers a tangible way in which dangerous climate change can be potentially avoided and livelihoods protected. Realistically, it offers the only means of achieving these goals given the absence of political will globally to stabilize emissions at a level that will prevent significant change in the Arctic climate system, or even the possibility of preventing such change."

Adaptation seeks to develop measures to reduce or moderate the

negative effects of climate change and take advantage of new opportunities. In recent years, with the realization that we are committed to some degree of climate change, adaptation has re-entered policy discussions, Ford notes in his paper. Some have even argued that dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system is inevitable regardless of mitigation strategies due to historic emissions and combined with future emissions trajectories makes adaptation too important to ignore.

That view is shared by economist Jeffrey Sachs, director of the Earth Institute. "Countries need to invest in adaptation to climate change," he says. "Moreover, a new science and profession of climate change adaptation must be encouraged given the scale of the change and dislocation that lie ahead."

Ford's paper, "Dangerous climate change and the importance of adaptation for the Arctic's Inuit population,"is avalable at http://www.iop.org/EJ/article/1748-9326/4/2/024006/erl9_2_024006.html

Photo by Jerry Hollens. CC Attribution-Noncommercial 2.0 Generic

 

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