The Arctic used to be a distant curiosity for most people. If it entered the minds of those who lived elsewhere, it was most likely as a symbol of elemental nature, an untamed wilderness of passing interest but no real consequence. What happened in the Arctic stayed in the Arctic, and what happened elsewhere stayed elsewhere.
Being ignored had its advantages. With relatively few disturbances, Arctic peoples have been able to continue many of their customary practices. And apart from targeted commercial hunting of species such as bowhead whales and walruses, the Arctic environment was largely overlooked.
But in the 1980s, evidence began to emerge that human activities far to the south were polluting the Arctic. By the 1990s, the Arctic began to see the impacts of climate change, an ominous harbinger. Now the rest of the world can no longer ignore that the effects flow in both directions: Changes in the far-away Arctic are affecting climate and daily life in lower latitudes. Arctic matters have become global matters.
Many such connections now seem obvious. The effect of melting sea ice on the path of the jet stream—and thus on weather along the Eastern Seaboard of the United States—makes sense, even if the resulting cold snaps and snowstorms seem an odd manifestation of “global warming.”
Loss of Arctic sea ice is thus not merely a symbol of climate change; it also has a direct bearing on billions of people throughout the temperate zone of the Northern Hemisphere. This goes beyond the discomfort of a severe winter. Changes in precipitation patterns and deeper frosts can be devastating for agriculture.
While some bird species are flourishing because of efforts to improve their winter habitats in southern latitudes, climate change and industrial development mean that Arctic summer habitats can no longer be taken for granted. And as water temperatures and currents change, subarctic marine mammals may range farther north and introduce new diseases and stresses to Arctic species known and valued around the world.
Arctic-related economic, social, and political systems are also becoming more closely intertwined. The global demand for minerals and energy combined with increasing technological prowess in reaching extreme environments and remote locations has, unsurprisingly, increased pressure to develop the Arctic.
While Arctic peoples are gaining greater political clout, increased reliance on natural resources often leaves Arctic communities at the mercy of economic forces well beyond their control. And this pattern affects not only small, remote communities. In just a short time, for example, the Alaska state budget has suffered greatly from the drop in oil prices and consequent loss of most of the state government’s revenue—nearly 90% of which used to come from North Slope oil.
A National Academy of Sciences committee, of which I was co-chair, noted these environmental and social patterns as part of the “connected Arctic” in its 2014 report The Arctic in the Anthropocene. But it is not enough to simply recognize a new normal. We must do more than watch as sea ice diminishes summer after summer and as weather patterns become less and less predictable.
Protecting the Arctic is more than just a symbolic gesture. It is a practical one. Arctic industrial development occurs not in isolation but as part of global markets responding to global demand. By the same token, conservation actions that protect one place by simply transferring impacts to another provide no net benefit to our world.
Such a shift in perspective does not diminish the importance of Arctic conservation efforts. Much can and should be done locally to address environmental threats. Involving Arctic peoples in those plans and actions is right and necessary. Nonetheless, there is a limit to what can be achieved by thinking locally. Arctic conservation needs to be at least as well linked with related efforts around the world as the physical, biological, and social systems of the Arctic are with their global counterparts. We must recognize and act upon the knowledge that, ultimately, we are all connected.
This piece was previously published in Environment Magazine.
Henry P. Huntington is a senior officer for The Pew Charitable Trusts, where he directs the science work of its Arctic programs.