Climate change is real and the need for urgent action is personified by the warnings from the Arctic communities who are already being pushed to the brink because of it.
But two years on from the Paris Climate Agreement, we are still waiting for the UK Government to demonstrate global leadership and get on track to meet our international targets. We need this to happen urgently.
On December 12, I participated in an event in Westminster arranged by the Polar All Party Parliamentary Group featuring representatives of indigenous Arctic communities. There we heard from Sarah James, an elder and spokesperson for the Gwich’in Nation from Arctic Village, Alaska, (Josie) Okalik Eegeesiak who chairs the Inuit Circumpolar Council, based in Canada and Jannie Staffansson, an environmental campaigner and a representative of the Saami Council in Finland. These three engaging and inspirational leaders talked about their experiences of climate change and the important role that the UK, as the Arctic’s closest neighbour, can play in promoting sustainability in the region. These people and their communities are on the frontline in the fight against climate change, and have seen first-hand the impact that it is having on people.
The Arctic is already warming at twice the rate of the global average, and a rise in temperatures of 2°C will equate to an increase of about 5° C in the Arctic. Permafrost is thawing, undermining the foundations of buildings, roads and other critical infrastructures. Lakes are drying up. Coastal and river banks are eroding, and warmer waters are killing spawning fish. More unpredictable weather is affecting communities’ traditional subsistence ways of life.
And Sarah told the meeting plainly that “climate change is a human rights issue” for her community, adding, “our human rights cannot be separate to our land, our water and our air.”
The decline of Arctic sea ice is perhaps the most visible sign of climate change on our planet. Sea ice supports unique ice ecosystems from plankton to bowhead whales, and supports traditional way of life of indigenous people. But sea ice is now in long term decline in all seasons.
This is important, because what happens in the Arctic will not stay in the Arctic. The Greenland ice sheet is melting with untold future consequences for global sea levels. The Polar Regions are our global thermostats – their snow and ice reflecting heat back into space. Remove that white, reflective ‘lid’ on the world and you replace it with a dark blue ocean that further absorbs heat. Without immediate action, the Arctic will continue to change dramatically, damaging wildlife and aiding sea level rise.
Voters in the UK know climate change is important and this is increasingly seen as an important electoral issue, to the young in particular. This is confirmed by recent polling by the think tank, Bright Blue, which shows that climate change is the second highest issue younger people want politicians to discuss more, second only to health. For 18- to 28-year-olds it’s the number one issue.
In response, the UK Government has recently reaffirmed its commitment to tackling climate change and meeting the commitments agreed by both the Climate Change Act of 2008 and the Paris Agreement through the Clean Growth Strategy and the Industrial Strategy. Neither plan, however, has outlined how it specifically will combat climate change or provided the funding necessary.
Politicians must heed the warnings from the people most impacted. They have borne witness to our changing climate and know that the impacts are far reaching. Unless we act now, we will not only see the Arctic virtually free of sea ice within a generation, but we will see seismic changes to our environment closer to home.