Why it Matters to Discuss Why the Arctic Matters

By: Laurie Geller, Senior Program Officer and Julie Brigham-Grette, Chair National Academies' Polar Research Board

Polar Research Board

The environmental changes affecting the Arctic region—warming temperatures, shrinking sea ice cover, coastal erosion from melting permafrost, expanding wildfire seasons, shifting ranges of plant and animal species—provide plenty of motivating concern for people living within the Arctic region. However, for the large percentage of humanity that lives outside that region, Arctic change is something we may hear news reports about from time to time, stoking a few moments of interest before we quickly turn back to the other ever-present lower latitude and local issues of concern that seem far more relevant to our lives.

The Conference on Global Leadership in the Arctic: Cooperation, Innovation, Engagement and Resilience (GLACIER), held in Anchorage, Alaska on 31 August 2015, was part of an effort by the U.S. government to help expand international public understanding of how climate change is affecting the Arctic region, and why "what happens in the Arctic does not stay in the Arctic." Fast-paced Arctic change is part of a wide array of global changes that are impacting societies everywhere. The conference and surrounding side events provided an excellent venue for meaningful discussion between people who live and work in the Arctic region. It was also a forum for representatives of many governmental, civic, and academic organizations to share concerns that address Arctic change issues from afar though a phrase often heard at the event was that these people were "preaching to the choir."

The substantial media coverage that resulted from the conference and President Obama's related travel around Alaska did certainly boost the visibility of Arctic change issues for a while. That is an important accomplishment, but sustaining broad public interest requires more. How can we build a much bigger choir?

Members of the Polar Research Board with John Holdren at the recent GLACIER conference. From left, Larry Hinzman, Interim Vice Chancellor for Research, University of Alaska Fairbanks; Julie Brigham-Grette, UMass-Amherst and Chair of the NAS Polar Research Board; John Holdren, Chief Science Advisor, White House Science Office OSTP; and Rafe Pomerance, consultant, formerly with the U.S. State Department. Photo courtesy of Julie Brigham-Grette.Members of the Polar Research Board with John Holdren at the recent GLACIER conference. From left, Larry Hinzman, Interim Vice Chancellor for Research, University of Alaska Fairbanks; Julie Brigham-Grette, UMass-Amherst and Chair of the NAS Polar Research Board; John Holdren, Chief Science Advisor, White House Science Office OSTP; and Rafe Pomerance, consultant, formerly with the U.S. State Department. Photo courtesy of Julie Brigham-Grette.

As one contribution to this long-term goal, the National Academy of Science's (NAS) Polar Research Board is undertaking a public engagement campaign to enhance appreciation of the unique landscapes, ecosystems, and cultures that exist across the region. The campaign will also work to explicitly connect the dots between Arctic change and impacts on the coastlines, the weather, the fish supplies, and the security of people around the world. At the GLACIER conference, we presented the foreign ministers with an overview of National Academies' reports that provide a factual basis for understanding the urgent need to dramatically decrease the use of fossil fuels while still meeting the energy needs of a rapidly expanding global population. We also discussed why strange weather patterns in the lower latitudes very well could be the result of changes in the Arctic cryosphere; and why even if we can decrease future atmospheric CO2 concentrations, some impacts such as sea level rise will, regrettably, not be reversible.

The science behind these reports on Arctic-global linkages can be difficult to convey in an unambiguous, even-handed way given that many such linkages are the focus of ongoing research and are thus far only partially understood. But even without "complete" scientific understanding, the basic evidence is clear—what happens in the Arctic doesn't stay in the Arctic. Broadening public understanding of this concept can help inform important public policy decisions and international agreements about how much investment to make in the mitigation of pollution emissions, in adaptation actions that reduce vulnerability to environmental risks, and in scientific research and observations that allow us understand how and why our environment is changing. Despair or fear about the state of the world is not useful; rather, we must use knowledge and compassion to seek solutions for the greater good and we must better appreciate how "remote" parts of the world, like the Arctic, are relevant to us all.

More information about the National Academies' Arctic Matters Initiative is available here.

The National Academy of Sciences invites the public to attend "Arctic Matters" day on 14 January 2016 in Washington D.C. The day will include a program of engaging presentations and discussions with top Arctic science and policy experts as well as interactive exhibits and displays.

The event is free and open to the public. Visit the National Academy of Science website to see the agenda, register for the event, and to read about sponsorship and exhibitor opportunities. The suite of Arctic Matters educational resources including a layman-friendly booklet, website, and classroom poster can also be accessed free from this site.

The goal of this event is to reach well beyond the small circle of specialists who typically attend Arctic-themed events in the D.C. area. Please encourage your friends, neighbors, and colleagues to participate!