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Big Thaw: Conference to address climate change issues in Arctic

Climate change in the Arctic and its effect on environments, cultures, societies and economies will be the topic of a UB conference, "The Big Thaw." Photo: NASA Goodard/Flickr


Published April 18, 2013

“Experts agree that the amplified response of the Arctic makes it a high-sensitivity indicator of climate change and a worthy focus for exploration of the future of climate change policy.”
Kim Connolly, Professor and Director
Environmental Law Program, UB Law School

The Arctic environment now faces unprecedented and rapid change from many stressors that often interact in unpredictable ways.  At a conference to be held at UB April 18 and 19, experts in science, law, sociology, anthropology and other fields will address the pressing issue of how climate change in the Arctic is effecting and will continue to effect environments, cultures, societies and economies throughout the world—an effort they say requires coordinated circumpolar scientific information.

The conference, presented as part of UB’s Earth Day observances, is “The Big Thaw: Policy, Governance and Climate Change in the Circumpolar North.” It is sponsored by the Baldy Center for Law & Social Policy in the UB Law School, the Department of Anthropology and the National Science Foundation (NSF) Office of Polar Programs’ Arctic Social Sciences Program. It will take place in 509 O’Brian Hall, North Campus. It will be free of charge and open to the public. However, registration is required

Participants from the U.S., Russia, England, Finland, Norway, the NSF, the Arctic Council (a high-level intergovernmental forum for Arctic governments and peoples), individual researchers and representatives of other institutions and agencies will deliberate on international, national and local perceptions of Arctic changes in the contexts of policy, legal, local and scientific models.

In addition, through its core focus on time, space, change and movement, and experts in this area from the US and abroad,  the conference also will consider common ways to measure the time scales of lived human experience in the Arctic and sub-Arctic region in a warming world.

It will open with a panel from 4-6 p.m. April 18 that will feature three domestic climate change experts:

  • Michael B. Gerrard, Andrew Sabin Professor of Professional Practice, Columbia University Law School, and director of Columbia’s Center for Climate Change Law. An eminent climate change expert, he is the former president of the American Bar Association’s Section on Energy, Environment and Resources. His talk is titled “Regulating in the face of a changing world: legal remedies for and legal issues faced by communities threatened by climate change.”
  • Cinnamon Carlarne, associate professor, Moritz College of Law, Ohio State University, and a leading expert in environmental law and climate change law and policy. Carlarne will address the audience on “Global Climate Change Negotiations Then and Now: Adaptation and Diversification in a Warming World.”
  • Mark Roberts, international policy adviser, Environmental Investigation Agency, a non-profit international organization that investigates and exposes environmental crime and campaigns against illegal wildlife trade and threats to the global environment. His talk will answer the question “Will Action on Short Lived Climate Forcers Give the Arctic Time to Adapt?”

The conference program and biographies of participants can be found on the conference website.

One of the conference conveners, Kim Connolly, professor and director of the Environmental Law Program in the UB Law School, says that in 2012, the peer-reviewed Arctic Report Card revealed that new records were set for sea ice extent, terrestrial snow extent and permafrost temperature. “Experts agree that the amplified response of the Arctic makes it a high-sensitivity indicator of climate change and a worthy focus for exploration of the future of climate change policy,” she says.

Errol Meidinger, UB professor of law, director of the Baldy Center and another convener of the conference, notes that the full conference schedule on Friday will bring together interdisciplinary experts in multiple fields from around the world “who will ask hard questions and seek to better understand better changing relations between human societies and the environment, and the policies that should accompany such change.”

Meidinger and Connolly point out that the circumpolar North is a critical observatory for changing relations between human societies and the environment, and the policies that should accompany such change. The Arctic and sub-Arctic already are at the center of global debates on post-Cold War partnerships and issues of post-colonial governance, strategy and regional sovereignty. For political and other reasons, the circumpolar North only recently has re-emerged as a “region,” revealing past connections and current common problems, and pointing to future challenges. Conference experts will gather and share thoughts on how we arrived at the current situation(s), where exactly things stand and where to go from here.

Among other UB participants are Ezra Zubrow, professor of anthropology, who has worked intensively with teams of U.S., Finnish, Canadian and Russian scientists in the Arctic regions of St. James Bay, Quebec, Yli-ii, Finland, and Kamchatka, Siberia, to understand how humans living 4,000 to 6,000 years ago reacted to climate changes; Sarah Elder, professor of media study, an award-winning documentary filmmaker whose work focuses on the lives of Arctic peoples and recently on how climate change is affecting their economies and cultures; Tina Thurston, associate professor of anthropology, an archaeologist who specializes in northern Europe—Sweden, Denmark and Northern Ireland—and whose research into the archaeological data has included work on climate change and innovation on human ecology and adaptation; and Ted Steegman, emeritus professor of anthropology, widely regarded as one of the world’s leading researchers on the biology of cold adaptation among both contemporary and prehistoric human populations. Steegman’s influential work over the past 40 years has transformed our understanding of how humans adapt to extreme environmental stressors, including cold, under-nutrition, hard physical work and toxic substances.