How does climate change affect the movement of people?

The very first report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change recognized that one of the main consequences of climate change will be the movement of people. The effects of warming temperatures–sea level rise, drought, coastal erosion–and an increase in the severity, frequency and unpredictability of storms are likely to make areas of the earth uninhabitable. And people will do what they have always done to cope with a deteriorating habitat–they will move. Some will move before conditions become desperate. Others will be forced to leave their communities by the effects of climate change. Still others will be relocated by their governments. Although mobility will take different forms in different places, large number of people will likely move because of the effects of climate change over the coming decades.

And how does this play out in the Arctic?

The effects of climate change are perhaps most evident and most alarming in the Arctic. In the last few decades, the average Arctic temperature has increased twice as much as the average global temperature and temperatures are projected to continue to warm by as much as 18 degrees Fahrenheit by 2100. During the last thirty years, about half of the Arctic sea ice cover, 80 percent of sea ice volume, and much of the old multiyear ice have been lost. Warmer temperatures mean not only that there is less ice, but also that permafrost melts and coastal erosion increases. Sea ice forms a natural barrier against storm wave action and when that ice is no longer there, coastlines are battered. Warming temperatures in the Arctic mean a physical loss of territory.

It is also important to note that these warming temperatures not only have major consequences for the physical environment, but also impact the vegetation, animals, and the lives of humans in the region.

Who lives in the Arctic, and how are the people living in the Arctic particularly affected?

About 4 million people presently live in the Arctic, of whom 400,000 are considered indigenous. Mobility has long been recognized as characteristic of Arctic communities as they have traditionally moved in response to seasonal changes and to support livelihoods such as hunting, reindeer herding, fishing, or foraging. In fact, one of the challenges of recent decades has been the decreased mobility of indigenous groups in the Arctic, driven in large part by governmental efforts to provide services, particularly education. As in other parts of the world, when nomadic people become sedentary, their traditional livelihoods and cultural traditions change.

Around 30 years ago, indigenous groups began reporting that their climate was changing and that this was impacting their livelihoods. Although there are important differences among indigenous groups (for example, the Inuit depend on ice and the Saami on forests, tundra and coasts), the changes in climate and weather patterns are changing the ways that almost all indigenous groups survive in the polar region. For example, changes in habitat affect the foraging habits of reindeer, which many communities depend on for herding. Reindeer-herding is also more than a livelihood; for the Saami it is tied up with many aspects of their culture–such as language, songs, child-rearing, and marriage. If climate change limits their ability to herd reindeer, the impact on culture and traditions could be monumental.

Inuit tribes have also reported massive drops in the walrus and seal populations, two vital commodities for their own livelihoods.” Hunting is becoming more unpredictable as a result of the effects of climate change. In Greenland, winter fishing–essential to feeding families–is becoming hazardous or impossible. Even warming water means that some fish species, such as cod, are moving further northwards.

Climate change also impacts infrastructure as melting permafrost affects foundations of houses and buildings. This is perhaps most dramatically evident in Alaska where indigenous communities face crumbling infrastructure, damaged sewage systems and destroyed schools and public facilities. Climate change not only affects livelihoods and infrastructure but also traditional systems of communications and transportation. With less ice, people can no longer cross rivers and lakes as they did before and travel by dogsled is more difficult.

Finally, as warming temperatures make new economic opportunities possible, non-indigenous people are moving into areas traditionally inhabited by indigenous, which is also likely to impact the demographics of the Arctic.

The lives of indigenous peoples of the Arctic are constantly being changed by the effects of climate change. How has climate change affected their mobility?

While everyone living in the Arctic is affected by warming temperatures, indigenous peoples are particularly impacted given their dependence on the environment for their livelihoods and, indeed, survival. Moreover, the close relationship they have with their natural environments is usually linked to their culture, identity and spirituality. While the indigenous peoples of the Arctic are likely to be among those most affected by warming temperatures, they have contributed very little to global warming and already practice low carbon life styles. The UN’s Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights has recognized the particular vulnerability of indigenous peoples to the effects of climate change.

How have indigenous peoples responded to climate change?

Indigenous groups have, to varying degrees, been active in urging their governments to recognize their claims and rights in decisions regarding the economic development of their habitats–decisions which are changing as global warming offers new possibilities to them. In the Arctic, for example, new possibilities for resource extraction, sea routes, and tourism are a likely result of warmer temperatures. Indigenous peoples have also been active on the international level. In fact, bringing their concerns to global forums and developing strong cross-border networks has likely strengthened their case at the national level.

For example, five years ago, the Indigenous Peoples’ Global Summit on Climate Change was held in Anchorage, Alaska with the participation of over 400 indigenous people from 80 countries. The declaration that came out of the Summit emphasizes that indigenous peoples have contributed the least to climate change and already practice low carbon lifestyles, but yet they are the most vulnerable to climate change. The Anchorage Declaration states: “We are deeply alarmed by the accelerating climate devastation brought about by unsustainable development. We are experiencing profound and disproportionate adverse impacts on our cultures, human and environmental health, human rights, well-being, traditional livelihoods, food systems and food sovereignty, local infrastructure, economic viability, and our very survival as Indigenous Peoples.”

When is displacement likely to occur in the Arctic?

In Alaska, some indigenous communities have already made the decision that they can no longer survive in their present habitats and are actively seeking the opportunity to relocate. Robin Bronen examined twelve of the most threatened indigenous communities in Alaska, showing that in some cases communities have tried to relocate their infrastructure to higher ground, near their original village sites, while others needed to relocate their entire communities.

The adverse effect of climate change on the indigenous population is clear. Are there any positive effects to warming temperatures?

While warming temperatures threaten traditional indigenous ways of life, it is true that warming temperatures are also opening up new possibilities for mining, exploitation of hydrocarbons, and tourism. There are diverse views among indigenous peoples about these new opportunities. In particular, the case of Greenland suggests that at least some Inuit see opportunities for independence for Greenland due to climate change. The warming climate offers not only opportunities to develop fishing and mining and stimulate economic growth, but also to decrease reliance on subsidies from Denmark.

Greater access to the Arctic also offers new possibilities for tourism and for trade. These present both opportunities and threats for indigenous communities whose livelihoods are changed by the effects of climate change.

Any final thoughts?

Indigenous people throughout the world are likely to be among those most affected by climate change. But the changes seem to be occurring more rapidly in the Arctic ecosystem. The way in which the indigenous are able to organize and to have a say in decisions that affect their traditions are likely to have an impact far beyond the region. People are watching what is happening in the Arctic–watching to see how international institutions, such as the Arctic Council, are able to respond to indigenous concerns, watching to see if indigenous peoples are able to mobilize broad support, and waiting to see what the indigenous hope to achieve.