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Series Forward: A problem solving series on Utiqiagvik’s life altering climate change

Updated: Mar 6, 2020

The climate emergency is impacting all of us, but very unevenly. Some communities, such as Utqiagivk in the Alaskan Arctic Circle, are already on a knife’s edge.

The purpose of this forthcoming blog series, authored by Blake Gentry, Higher Ground Foundation’s Indigenous Communities Coordinator, is to promote understanding and solicit insights into the potentially existential threat that this poses for the mainly indigenous Inuit community. But I hope that it goes well beyond that. From what we understand of this community and its challenges - and we have much to learn - it already has to cope with transformational disruptions to its way of living thanks to a ‘perfect storm’, metaphorically-speaking, of climatic impacts.

With humility and full openness to learn and engage, I understand that this community (as with others in Alaska and Canada) may have to move or, in effect, disappear. It is facing much warmer temperatures that are resulting in longer ice-free seasons; melting of permafrost; rising sea levels; and increasing coastal and riverside flooding. Bears, walrus, and many marine species that the community relies on for food are shrinking in numbers. This doesn’t just mean many livelihoods are potentially devastated; it means that entire communities are likely to disappear entirely.

That is unless the community is able to change itself in a sustainable way and embark on what may need to be transformational adaptation. This assumes, however, that a precious set of conditions are present and subsequent actions unfold. It requires a collective knowledge and understanding of viable adaptation options in face of not only today’s immediate change, but in anticipating a radically different future due to escalating climatic disruption. This knowledge and foresight must be deployed with requisite skills to plan for a resilient and sustainable ‘future Utqiagivk’, quite likely to be in another location. Resources and the means to access and leverage them - money, and the mechanisms and agreements needed to invest and reap the returns of adaptation investment - must be found. Not least, sufficient political consensus, will, and resolve must be generated both from within and from outside the community including business, knowledge communities, and government at State and National levels.

The point that a broader set of stakeholders have a role is important and is a key reason why we are publishing this blog series. The history of indigenous communities and their engagement with outsiders is too often fraught with tragedy and sustained injustice has been fraught with loss of land, livelihoods, traditions. The climate catastrophe driven by greenhouse gas pollution, is a further example of this - and likely to be the most catastrophic yet.

The assertion of indigenous rights and climate justice, is, I believe, imperative. But while the community’s self-determination and knowledge are crucial to bring to the table, it is also essential that outsiders contribute scientific knowledge, planning skill, money, and political will, in order to support the adaptation and survival of the Utiqiagivk community.

It's also important to recognise that communities are complicated, and the climate emergency and how communities perceive it and anticipate future climate conditions are not always following a single (all too often romantic) narrative. What's more, the Utiqiagivk community benefits financially from oil production, while it faces the impacts of sea level rise and permafrost melt.

Higher Ground Foundation presents this blog series because we want to learn about – and hope we might contribute to - the transformational adaptation of Utiqiagivk and similar communities. We believe that the climate Vulnerability Reduction Credit (VRC™) and our Standard Framework, which includes the Standards for Indigenous Communities Consultation, can be a useful tool to support the structuring the required planning and to mobilise all necessary resources.

The first of the blog series sets the stage for what is happening in Utiqiagivk. Further blogs will consider possible adaptations and explore the resources and political assets that can make or break a transformed and sustainable climate-ready community. Click here for a synopsis of the blog series. Throughout, we shall be continuously seeking feedback that can support climate adaptation action. As Higher Ground Foundation is in its Pilot Implementation and Partnership Phase (PIPP) we are actively seeking collaborators to pilot the VRC metric and look forward to working together with all interested parties.

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