Arctic communities: between adaptive capacity and adaptation action

Arctic communities: between adaptive capacity and adaptation action

By Elisa Jiménez Alonso

The Arctic is warming at a rate three times the global average. Predictions from climate models show this trend will continue and lead to significant climate impacts on humans and the environment.

Newtok has been in the news numerous times over the past years. The little village lies on the Ningliq River in western Alaska and has become somewhat of a symbol for the impacts of climate change, especially on indigenous peoples. In Alaska, about 90% of native communities are threatened by the effects of climate change; the two most important impacts are land erosion and melting permafrost.

In Newtok, which is home to the Yup’ik people, the Ningliq river has been eating away at the land the village sits on, land that at the same time is sinking due to melting permafrost. A network of boardwalks connects the buildings of the village and allows for a bit more stability on the melting ground. For years, villagers have been trying to resettle, but missing funds, politics, and infrastructural issues have been making their relocation efforts almost impossible.

Newtok is a place where people still rely on the subsistence economy to survive; they hunt moose and seals, and they collect berries and local plants. Most importantly, though, they fish King Salmon. This practice is not only important because of the food the salmon provide, but because it is part of the Yup’ik’s faith and tradition.

Over the past years, King Salmon numbers have dropped dramatically. The reasons for this are not quite clear, but most hypotheses are climate-related. The Department of Fish and Game banned fishing for King Salmon in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta in June 2012. 23 Yup’ik fishermen violated this ban and ended up on trial. During this trial the fishermen, often with tears in their eyes, described why they had to violate the ban and did so consciously. All of them were found guilty; they were put on probation for a year and had to pay fines of 250$ to 500$.

The speed of climate change often signifies a limit to adaptation options and involves loss of cultural and livelihood activities as described above. This illustrates how climate change not only threatens material wellbeing but also people’s value systems and traditions.

This is also known as non-economic loss and damage and it is very hard to quantify – you can put a price on someone’s house, but how do you put one on a person’s faith? While climate related non-economic loss and damage is recognised under the Paris Agreement, it is still a very new issue and there is no real recipe for dealing with it.

However, while people in the Arctic remain highly vulnerable to climate change, a study published in Nature Climate Change last November found that the adaptive capacity of indigenous communities in the Arctic is actually very high. Of course, adaptive capacity does not automatically translate into adaptation action. There are significant barriers stopping this from happening, many of them relating to ongoing societal and environmental changes and needing targeted attention. Often the barriers are institutional: lack of mandate, time, funding, clear jurisdiction for how to address certain climate-related issues, etc. An institutional response that integrates climate change issues has yet to be developed.

Unfortunately, there is also a long history of maladaptation. Strategic long-term planning or engagement of different levels of government are rarely part of the recipe, which is probably part of the reason why proactive adaptation happens rarely in institutions. Autonomous actions at the community level often do not include consideration for future risks. And, even though short-term coping mechanisms do demonstrate some level of adaptive capacity, they can also increase a community’s vulnerability.

Climate change adaptation in the Arctic is without a doubt a serious challenge. But, as the study suggests, many barriers could be overcome, avoided or reduced, if the adaptive capacity and existing knowledge of local communities are more effectively considered and utilised.


Cover photo by Joseph (CC by SA-2.0): Yukon Kuskokwim Delta, Alaska.

About the Author