President Obama visited Alaska in 2015 to observe first-hand the extreme disruptions affecting the Arctic region due to climate change and highlight the role of science in understanding and responding to these changes. While there, he spent time listening to the people who live in Alaska, to learn how climate change is impacting their way of life. Communities around the world are dealing with the effects of climate change, but changes are happening most rapidly and dramatically in the Arctic region. Alaskan communities that have relied on traditional ways of life for centuries are seeing their homes threatened by storm surges and coastal erosion, their land altered by thawing permafrost, and their food security at risk as changes to the ecosystem threaten subsistence hunting and gathering. As President Obama said in Kotzebue, a town that sits 26 miles north of the Arctic Circle:
“I don’t need to tell people here in Alaska what’s happening. Over the past few years, I’ve been trying to make the rest of the country more aware of a changing climate, but you’re already living it… I met Alaska Natives whose way of life that they’ve practiced for centuries is in danger of slipping away.” –President Barack Obama, Kotzebue, Alaska, September 3, 2015.
Moved by what he had seen in the Arctic, President Obama called for the convening of the first-ever Arctic Science Ministerial, to discuss Arctic research and drive forward the pace of international efforts to understand climate effects in the Arctic region. Tomorrow, delegations from 25 governments will meet in the White House to discuss how to respond to Arctic-science challenges; strengthen Arctic observations and data-sharing; expand regional resilience; and incorporate Arctic science in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education.
Today, in order to inform discussions at the Ministerial and continue the important dialogue President Obama has had with Alaskans, more than 30 Alaska Native leaders and representatives from five Indigenous organizations from across the Arctic shared their concerns and priorities with the U.S. delegation to the Ministerial— Dr. John Holdren, the President’s Science Advisor and Director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy; Dr. France Córdova, Director of the National Science Foundation; and The Honorable Fran Ulmer, former Lieutenant Governor of Alaska and Chair of the Arctic Research Commission.
Attendees of the briefing represented organizations, communities, and issues spanning the Arctic. The unique opportunity for an open dialog with the U.S. delegation to the Arctic Science Ministerial highlighted the importance of science in addressing issues of ecosystem changes and food security. Beyond these fundamental issues, attendees drew attention to the need for increased capacity building to advance rural power production, sanitation, and economic opportunities. As an Arctic Nation—one of only eight—the United States must continue to advance global understanding of the changes taking place in the Arctic and how those changes impact people living there and worldwide.
Tomorrow’s Ministerial seeks to deepen international scientific collaborations while promoting an inclusive approach to decision making in the Arctic, ensuring that policies and actions are based on scientific evidence and the input of Indigenous peoples. Today’s meeting with Arctic Indigenous leaders highlighted the need to deepen collaborations with Alaska Native and Arctic Indigenous people in research and priority-setting. There is an urgency to the issues facing people of the Arctic and all Americans that makes it necessary to sustain and expand the momentum of research and the dialog with Alaska Native and Arctic Indigenous peoples. Only by working together can the emergent issues and challenges facing Arctic people, and all people, be addressed. The Administration’s dialogue with Alaska Native and other Arctic Indigenous peoples is critically important in order to inform ways to address the problems facing the Arctic region as a result of climate change.
Renee Crain Wagner is Policy Advisor and Executive Secretary of the Arctic Executive Steering Committee at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.