A Complex Constellation: Displacement, Climate Change and Arctic Peoples

Elizabeth Ferris

Ferris coverThe Arctic is home to unique human communities whose livelihoods and communities are increasingly challenged by the effects of climate change. Melting ice, stronger storms, growing erosion, thawing permafrost, more unpredictable weather and other direct effects of climate change are already impacting indigenous communities. But warming temperatures and melting ice are also making possible more commercial, transport and military initiatives in the region. New sea routes are being opened, new enterprises are being planned, new drilling and mining licenses are being issued and new tourist destinations are opening up. The movement of more people to the Arctic region will have significant effects on indigenous populations, cultures and livelihoods.

What will be the impact and potential impact of climate change on the mobility of indigenous communities in the Arctic region. Will indigenous populations be forced to move elsewhere because of the effects of climate change? Will they be relocated by governments to protect them from an increasingly unstable environment – or perhaps for other less altruistic reasons?

This paper is part of a collaborative research project within the Foreign Policy program of the Brookings Institution which is examining issues and trends related to the Arctic including energy exploration, maritime security and governance. This study seeks to complement those efforts by focusing specifically on indigenous communities – the people who inhabit (albeit sparsely) the northernmost reaches of planet earth. It draws on three research papers commissioned for this project which examine the effects of climate change on human mobility in three Arctic countries: Alaska Native communities, the Russian North and the Scandinavian Arctic.

The Arctic is inhabited by approximately 4 million people[1] of whom 400,000 are considered indigenous. Approximately two-thirds of the total population in the Arctic lives in relatively large settlements, although indigenous peoples living in circumpolar countries is characterized by small, widely separated communities.

Based on study of the relationship between the Arctic’s indigenous communities, climate change, and different forms of mobility, a few general observations can be drawn:

  1.  Mobility is not new for Arctic peoples. Migration for livelihoods – whether hunting or reindeer herding – has been central to the indigenous way of life for centuries.
  2. Limitations to mobility occurred long before climate change appeared on the international agenda, particularly as the result of indigenous groups settling in villages in order to access education and other public services.
  3. Climate change is likely to affect the mobility of Arctic peoples in many different ways. In some cases, they may be forced to relocate because their habitats are no longer habitable (as in the Alaskan cases examined by Robin Bronen). In some cases, their traditional livelihoods will become more difficult (e.g. reindeer in Scandinavian Arctic and cattle among the Viliui Sakha in the Russian North will have more difficulties in finding food in winter months.) Changing fish and animal species (often with knock-on effects) may mean different patterns of hunting. Traditional transportation is likely to change as sea ice melts.
  4. But people in the Arctic will likely be influenced as much by new realities made possible by global warming as they are by melting permafrost and melting sea ice. With “longer ice-free periods now available to explore for hydrocarbons, a new scramble for oil and gas could occur” especially if the price of oil and gas increase and new technological developments take place.[2] In 2009, 15 percent of petroleum production came from onshore Arctic production. But 30 percent of the world’s undiscovered gas and 13 percent of world’s undiscovered oil is in the Arctic.[3] New maritime routes in the Arctic raise new issues about sovereignty and offer expanded opportunities for military operations. The stakes are getting higher for control of territory in the Arctic and indigenous communities should engage in these discussions – and not just on issues of maintaining traditional lifestyles.
  5. The issue of adaptation to climate change is an intensely political issue. A focus on climate change adaptation “downplays the fact that climate adaption is to make societal choices informed by many other concerns and challenges than climate.” The question is who in the Arctic will make these choices.[4]

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[1] Stefansson Arctic Institute, Arctic Human Development Report, 2004. http://www.svs.is/ahdr/AHDR%20chapters/English%20version/Chapters%20PDF.htm. Note that using a broader definition of the circumpolar North, the population is estimated at 13.1 million.

[2] Ebinger and Zambetakis, op. cit., p. 1216.

[3] Bruce Jones et al, op. cit., p. 3.

[4] Sejersen, op. cit., p. 239.