An urgent call for change from the Arctic

Nowhere are the effects of climate change being felt faster and more dramatically than in the Arctic. Inuit are already sharing stories of encountering killer whales in waters they’ve never been able to inhabit before, of towering trees where only shrubs used to grow, of birds that usually flock to warmer climes. Permafrost is melting and the ice on which wildlife and Inuit depend is changing, in some places disappearing altogether, making it unreliable for migration and movement from one area to another in the search for food.   

Breaking sea ice, Canada Sea ice breaking up to form leads, Foxe Basin, Nunavut, Canada. © Peter Ewins / WWF-Canada
Sea ice breaking up to form leads, Foxe Basin, Nunavut, Canada. © Peter Ewins / WWF-Canada

The world has committed the Arctic, its wildlife and Inuit peoples to substantial warming and ice loss. Even if the world manages to significantly curb emissions and limit temperature change to 1.5˚C to 2˚C, that increase will mean approximately 3.5˚C to 5˚C warming in the Arctic. We’re already talking of whether it’s possible to save the Last Ice Area that area within and to the north of the Canadian Arctic Archipelago where Arctic summer sea ice is projected to remain the longest home to polar bears, narwhals, walruses and other ice-dependent wildlife.
Most of us couldn’t imagine that it would come to this, at least not in our lifetime. The Arctic is changing from a white, ice-covered, predictable environment to one that is increasingly unstable. And because of the tight linkages between Earth’s systems, changes in the Arctic will reverberate around the world. As permafrost thaws, stored carbon is released. Loss of ice means less sunlight is reflected back to space, accelerating warming more. Mid-latitude weather patterns may be affected. Scientists are predicting a global chain reaction.

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And as the Living Planet Report 2016 indicates, mammals, birds, fish and other wildlife the world over are already struggling to survive. A mass migration has already begun, with some plant and animal species heading north in inevitable conflict with those who already make the Arctic their home. Major change is urgently needed, and that cry for action is loudest from the Arctic.

Killer whales (Orcinus orca) surfacing in Prince William Sound, Alaska, United States. © Scott Dickerson / WWF-US
Killer whales (Orcinus orca) surfacing in Prince William Sound, Alaska, United States. © Scott Dickerson / WWF-US

Last month, in a briefing paper entitled “A 5˚C Arctic in a 2˚C World” published ahead of the first Arctic Science Ministerial in Washington, D.C., Arctic scientists from around the world called on leaders to launch a massive and immediate transition to renewable energy. What’s more, they called for the immediate deep decarbonization of the energy system – to the point of negative emissions.
The lead author of the paper, Peter Schlosser, director of research at The Earth Institute at Columbia University, put it succinctly: “We literally have run out of time. If we are not acting within the next few years, then we are committing the Arctic and other global systems to yet another set of changes that are, in essence, irreversible.”
That’s not the future WWF-Canada wants for the Arctic or for the world. The World Wildlife Fund Energy Report lays out the path to a future powered entirely by renewable energy by 2050. Canada’s 2016-2019 Federal Sustainable Development Strategy sets this target: “By 2030, 90 per cent and in the long term, 100 per cent of Canada’s electricity is generated from renewable and non-emitting sources.” Currently, WWF-Canada is partnering with Northern communities, the government of Nunavut, academia and Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada to speed the transition to renewable energy in the Canadian Arctic, which research has shown can be both reliable and cost-effective.
The world has already pushed past planetary boundaries, and the Arctic is bearing witness. If we are serious about protecting and preserving the Canadian Arctic and the wildlife that call it home, we cannot afford to wait.