IPCC Fourth Assessment Report: Climate Change 2007
Climate Change 2007: Working Group II: Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability

15.5 Adaptation: practices, options and constraints

Circum-Arctic nations are responsible for a significant fraction of global CO2 emissions and the Arctic is an important source of fossil fuels. Although some residents and less developed regions may contribute only a very small proportion of these nations’ emissions, there is a need to consider both mitigation and adaptation in polar regions in the light of trends in resource development and modernisation taking place in these areas. The burden faced by Arctic residents is magnified by the observed and projected amplification of climate change in the Arctic and the potential for dramatic environmental impacts. As with other vulnerable regions of the world, human adaptation is critical, particularly for those living in closest relationship with the local environment.

Historically, cultural adaptations and the ability of Arctic indigenous peoples to utilise their local resources have been associated with, or affected by, seasonal variation and changing ecological conditions. One of the hallmarks of successful adaptation has been flexibility in technology and social organisation, and the knowledge and ability to cope with climate change and circumvent some of its negative impacts. Indigenous groups have developed resilience through sharing resources in kinship networks that link hunters with office workers, and even in the cash sector of the economy. Many people work flexibly, changing jobs frequently and having several part-time jobs (Chapin et al., 2006). Historically, responses to major climatic and environmental changes included an altering of group size or moving to appropriate new locations, flexibility with regard to seasonal cycles and harvesting, and the establishment of sharing mechanisms and networks for support (Krupnik, 1993; Freeman, 1996). Many of these strategies, with the exception of group mobility, are still employed in various forms today (e.g., Berkes and Jolly, 2001; Nickels et al., 2002; McCarthy et al., 2005) yet, in the future, such responses may be constrained by social, cultural, economic and political forces acting on communities externally and from within.

Detailed local knowledge and the social institutions in which it exists are critical foundations of understanding interactions between people and their environment and therefore vital to community adaptability (see Section 15.6.1). Yet the generation of this knowledge requires active engagement with the environment and, as the nature of this interaction changes (e.g., amount and frequency of time spent on land or engaged in subsistence activities), so does the information it provides. Changes in local environments further challenge this knowledge and can increase human vulnerability to climatic and social change.

Greater uncertainty and threats to food security stress the need for resilient and flexible resource procurement systems. Resilience and adaptability depend on ecosystem diversity as well as the institutional rules that govern social and economic systems (Adger, 2000). Innovative co-management of both renewable and non-renewable resources could support adaptive abilities via flexible management regimes while providing opportunities to enhance local economic benefits and ecological and societal resilience (Chapin et al., 2004).

Opportunities for adaptation exist within some changes already taking place. The arrival of new species (e.g., Babaluk et al., 2000; Huntington et al., 2005) and an increase in growing seasons and opportunities for high-latitude agriculture provide opportunities to enhance resilience in local food systems. Increased eco-tourism may increase incentives for protection of environmental areas. Taking advantage of these potentially positive impacts will, however, require institutional flexibility and forms of economic support.

Given the interconnected nature of Arctic ecosystems and human populations, strategies are required that take a broad approach to support adaptation among a range of sectors. For example, policies that allow local people to practice subsistence activities within protected areas contribute to both biodiversity and cultural integrity (Chapin et al., 2005a). The creation and protection of critical areas such as parks, with flexible boundaries to compensate for changing climatic conditions, enhances conservation of wildlife and services provided by this land for human use (e.g., tourism and recreation) (Chapin et al., 2005a).

Although Arctic communities in many regions show great resilience and ability to adapt, some responses have been compromised by socio-political change. The political, cultural and economic diversity that exists among Arctic regions today impacts how communities are affected by, and respond to, environmental change. Such diversity also means that particular experiences of climate variability, impacts and responses may not be universal. Currently, little is known about how communities and individuals, indigenous or non-indigenous, differ in the way risks are perceived, or how they might adapt aspects of their lives (e.g., harvesting strategies) in response to negative change. The effectiveness of local adaptive strategies is uneven across the Arctic and there are large gaps in knowledge about why some communities do well, while others are more vulnerable to drivers of change, even when they share similar resources and ecological settings. Ultimately, an understanding of adaptation can only derive from a better understanding of social and economic vulnerability among all Arctic residents (Handmer et al., 1999).