The Obama administration has warned the US will need to deal with a wave of “climate refugees” as the Arctic continues to warm, joining with the Canadian government to express alarm over how climate change is affecting indigenous communities.
Sally Jewell, US Secretary of the Interior, painted a stark picture of communities relocating and lives disrupted in her first official visit to Canada. The Arctic, which is warming at twice the rate of the global average, has just recorded its lowest recorded peak ice extent after what’s been called a “warm, crazy winter.”
“We will have climate refugees,” Jewell said. “We have to figure out how to deal with potentially relocating villages. There’s real tangible support we need to do from a government basis, working alongside indigenous communities as they make very difficult choices about what is right for them.
“We can’t turn this around. We can stem the increase in temperature, we can stem some of the effect, perhaps, if we act on climate. But the changes are underway and they are very rapid.”
The escalating Arctic temperatures, diminishing ice and rising sea levels are having consequences for humans as well as other animalssuch as polar bears and walruses. The ability to catch fish and travel – or even to hold the famed Iditarod dog sled race in Alaska – is at risk.
Jewell said the remote town of Kivalina in Alaska is “washing away”. The coastal town, located around 80 miles above the Arctic circle, has been visited by Barack Obama following warnings its 400-strong population will have to be moved due to thinning ice that exposes the town to crashing waves.
It’s a problem that is expected to be replicated elsewhere in Alaska and in Canada. Jewell said political leaders need to “act and support” efforts to make communities more resilient to climate change. US Republicans have, so far, opposed any funding to protect or relocate Alaskan towns.
“The changing climate isn’t just about melting permafrost, it’s having a huge impact upon cultures,” said Catherine McKenna, Canada’s environment minister, who met with Jewell in Quebec. “When your ice highway has gone, communities can’t interact. It’s having a huge impact upon food and food insecurity.”
McKenna said there is a “huge commitment to do more” from Obama and Justin Trudeau, Canada’s prime minister. The two leaders met in Washington DC in March to agree to help lead the world to a low-carbon economy and to bolster efforts to protect the Arctic and the people who live there.
Scientists expect the Arctic to be completely ice-free for at least a few days during the summer by the 2040s. The area of summer ice has shrunk by around 3m sq km since 1980.
The disappearance of this ice is set to open up new opportunities for shipping lanes through previously inaccessible areas, raising concerns over oil spills and further disruption to indigenous livelihoods.