Protecting Arctic National Wildlife Refuge from the effects of climate change

Jasmine Huggins | March 23, 2016

Advocates recently reminded us that unless rapid and urgent action is undertaken, the world is at risk of irreversible damage; not within centuries, but decades. Just last week, retired NASA  Scientist James Hansen said that “we are at risk of handing over a planet to our children and grandchildren that is out of their control.” While this may be a worst case scenario, his warning reinforces my belief that young people need to be encouraged to understand the implications of climate change for the planet they will soon inherit.  

I believe that they are equal to this task, and then some.

For instance, take 8-year-old Astrid Tuuli Grace Determan, to whom I was introduced during this year’s “snowmageddon” in Washington DC, which shut down the city for four days.  Passionate about the arctic wolf, she has been advocating about them and other endangered species since the age of 5.  Before her 7th birthday, she had testified before Maryland State’s House of Representatives’ Environmental Committee in support of the Catoctin Wildlife Preserve and Baltimore Aquarium, stating “if we don’t take action, we will lose these beautiful creatures; we will lose ourselves.” When I actually met her a few weeks later, the discussion was all about the Arctic. She explained that many of her favorite species – moose, ash sheep, migratory birds, grizzly bears and porcupine caribou, and other marine species – have lived for centuries in the Arctic Refuge, a region which is now at risk of irreversible change due to melting of glaciers.   She insisted that children take action.

Temperatures in Alaska have risen twice as twice as fast as in the rest of United States while Arctic temperatures were warming twice as fast as the rest of the world. What is happening in the Arctic region is therefore an indicator of climate change elsewhere. Called Arctic Amplification, this process has far reaching consequences for all of us, and it is one that the US State Department is now taking very seriously.  

CWS first highlighted the importance of the Arctic some months ago, when Princess Daazhraii Johnson, a member of the indigenous community in Alaska, wrote for the CWS Blog. “The land is speaking to us – the animals and birds” she said.  She told us that Gwich’in elders in particular have been calling for respect for the porcupine caribou herd and all other animals. In almost fortuitous fashion, meeting Astrid in 2016 seemed to be a response to this call.

CWS has long known that glacial melt in the Arctic had consequences for the entire globe.  What is emerging today is just how fast it is all happening. The dramatically increasing pace of thawing today is twice what it was between 1950 and 2000. Since 1979, summer sea ice has decreased by nearly 40 percent. The pace of erosion of the Alaskan coast caused by rising sea levels is one of the fastest in the world. In addition to the changing animal migration patterns that Princess and Astrid are so worried about, warming temperatures have caused a dramatic surge of wildfires. In 2015, these consumed nearly 5 million acres in Alaska.  More than 100,000 people in the Arctic have been affected by these changes. Entire communities are now considering relocation due to the combination of environmental damage and loss of their livelihoods. Fishing and tourism industries have been negatively affected.  The income,  traditions and settlements of Gwitch’in are at risk.

The voice of children and young people will not only add to existing campaigns to save the Arctic; they can also help change the minds of those who still believe that climate change is not real. Their engagement also prepares them to better manage the planet, which soon will be theirs.

Meanwhile, to protect the Arctic and prevent devastating climate change impacts across the world, CWS now adds its voice to a nationwide U.S. campaign on the Arctic.  We call on the Obama Administration to grant the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge its strongest possible protection from resource exploration, to preserve its ecological integrity and to safeguard the subsistence rights of the Gwich’in, and all other beings.

Jasmine Huggins is the Senior Policy and Advocacy Officer at CWS.