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What Will Climate Change And Development Mean For The Arctic?


Climate change is happening faster in the Arctic than anywhere else on the planet.

Disappearing glacial ice is a heavy contributor to rising sea levels. New shipping lanes are opening up in previously impassable regions.

With climate change, Arctic ice is breaking up and making inaccessible waters accessible to people for the first time. Photo credit: Roxanne Desgagnés / Unsplash
With climate change, Arctic ice is breaking up and making inaccessible waters accessible to people for the first time. Photo credit: Roxanne Desgagnés / Unsplash

New access could mean increased fishing, shipping, tourism, mining, or drilling for oil, each of which has the potential to improve and harm livelihoods, depending on how new activities affect the sensitive ecosystems upon which the Arctic’s four million people depend. Development choices also will affect people living outside the region who are already feeling the effects of climate change that are compounded by feedbacks of Arctic change on the globe. This includes ice-albedo feedback through the loss of capability to reflect sunlight back into space, highlighted in a briefing paper for the Arctic Science Ministerial, led by Columbia Climate Center, in partnership with World Wildlife Fund, Woods Hole Research Center, and Arctic 21.

In light of these rapid climate-driven changes, the Natural Capital Project is working with World Wildlife Fund (one of our founding partners), and with the support of a global investment and advisory firm, Guggenheim Partners, to gather information for an initiative that aims to lay foundations for inclusive, informed decision-making in the Arctic. The team is actively seeking additional partners.

Still in its early scoping stages, the effort, called “Informing Decisions for Ecological and Economic Arctic Sustainability,” or “IDEEAS,” seeks to identify the cultural, ecological, social, health, and economic values of biodiversity and ecosystems to people, institutions and governments in the Arctic. IDEEAS participants aim to work together with a broad and representative group of partners to develop data sets, publications, and decision-making tools that further a collective commitment to support sustainable development, says a brief about the project.

“To succeed, the project must not only make knowledge available, but knowledge must inform real decisions that contribute to conservation and sustainable development,” said Emily McKenzie, Chief Adviser for Economics and Sustainability at WWF and member of the Natural Capital Project leadership team.

Also on the agenda in the Arctic is to align competing science priorities, which was the subject of a recent opinion piece in Science, lead authored by Clive Tesar, Head of Communications for the WWF Arctic Programme, who is also leading communications for the IDEEAS initiative. “There are opportunities to better shape aspects of the science that should be focused on the needs of Arctic policy and management, in addition to fundamental curiosity-driven science,” the essay states.

The four million people who live in the Arctic – including 500,000 indigenous people –  are already being affected by rapid change. Climate change is causing shores to erode, threatening entire communities. It’s threatening trails across the ice that have been used for centuries, connecting communities to each other and to resources–and which are no longer safe. Arctic cultures also rely on the seasonal abundance of animals that live on and around the ice, and weather systems are becoming more unpredictable.

At a recent Arctic Circle conference in Reykjavík, Iceland, WWF CEO Carter Roberts described the moment the seeds of the IDEEAS project were planted, when he and Scott Minerd, Global Chief Investment Officer at Guggenheim Partners, exchanged views at last year’s Arctic Circle board meeting (link to video here).

“Scott talked about the Arctic investment protocol, and the inventory of hundreds of investment projects ready to go in the Arctic,” Roberts said, addressing the crowd gathered for the annual Arctic Circle Assembly — the largest annual international gathering on the Arctic, which attracts more than 2000 participants from 50 countries.

“I said, that’s great but you really need an inventory of all of the values in the Arctic, to go next to your inventory of your investment projects, so you can hold your investment projects accountable for how they influence the values that are here. Whether that’s ecological values, community values, or cultural values, and to make decisions on that basis.”


In his remarks, Roberts also described gathering with meeting attendees to play a NatCap-developed Arctic Choices Game. The game puts people in groups and, armed with maps and basic ecological and economic data, they simulate future impacts of decisions. The game allows people to imagine how regulations, and the location of developments such as ports and mines can affect people who live in the Arctic, through impacts on the potential for tourism, or hunting and fishing.  

“It was an exciting dynamic session” Roberts said, “that brought to light the power of this tool.”

“When we look at the Arctic, from a historical point of view, a lot of the biggest decisions have been driven by singular concerns,” Roberts said, “but we know you can’t just approach those issues without taking into account the voices of the people who live there. And we know, if we’re going to think about the lives and the cultures of the people who live there, you cannot think about that without understanding the ecosystems upon which their cultures and livelihoods depend,” he said. “These [considerations] require all of us to think as a whole, to think in a holistic fashion and to be smart about the choices that we make.”


For more information, to contribute data, or explore collaboration, contact:

Emily McKenzie (WWF US and UK, and Anne Mette Erlandsson Christiansen (WWF Arctic Programme,

Stacey Solie is an independent writer, editor and strategic storytelling expert based in the San Francisco Bay Area.

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