Research News

In the Arctic, climate change and hopeful signs

From left, Kim Diana Connolly, Errol Meidinger and Ezra B.W. Zubrow, editors of "The Big Thaw" pictured together holding the book. .

Book editors (from left) Kim Diana Connolly, Errol Meidinger and Ezra B.W. Zubrow with a copy of The Big Thaw.

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Published December 6, 2019

“Global issues and local issues are completely intertwined — everything that’s done globally has huge impacts in the Arctic.”
Errol Meidinger, SUNY Distinguished Professor
School of Law

Global climate change is transforming the world’s ecosystems, and nowhere is that more apparent than in the Arctic region, say three UB faculty members, editors of a wide-ranging new book on the subject.

Cover art of the book, "The Big Thaw.".

“Some have come to view the Arctic as the earth’s ‘environmental canary,’” write the editors of “The Big Thaw: Policy, Governance, and Climate Change in the Circumpolar North” (SUNY Press). “In days gone by, when a caged canary taken into mines stopped singing, coal miners knew that the carbon monoxide gas level was so high that they had to escape the chamber. The thawing Arctic may be the earth’s early warning system.”

The book — edited by Kim Diana Connolly, professor and vice dean for advocacy and experiential education in the School of Law; Errol Meidinger, SUNY Distinguished Professor and Margaret W. Wong Professor in the law school; and Ezra B.W. Zubrow, SUNY Distinguished Service Professor in the Department of Anthropology — comes out of a major conference at the law school’s Baldy Center for Law & Social Policy.

Its 22 chapters include contributions by legal scholars, biologists, anthropologists and other social scientists with expertise in the Arctic, which scientists find is warming at almost twice the rate of areas elsewhere on the globe. The book is organized around three main themes covering the physical changes being seen in the Arctic, policy and governance issues, and the impact of climate change on the cultures and communities of the region.

The scientific and political landscape around this issue, of course, is changing rapidly, and the book reflects significant changes that have occurred since the 2013 Baldy Center conference, including the United States’ withdrawal from the United Nations’ Paris Agreement to limit carbon emissions.

“We organized a conference among expert scholars in multiple fields because the Arctic is at the front end of climate change on many levels,” says Connolly, who also serves as director of clinical legal education in the law school. “It’s a very fragile ecosystem that supports interesting cultures and ecosystems that had depended on the way the Arctic had been for generations.

“The ecosystem is being irreparably changed and impacting various peoples who are in more fragile states than many others,” she says. “For example, some of these cultures depend on traditions based on the land, including the migration of caribou and harvesting of sea mammals. Alaska Natives and their world are really being impacted in a way we can’t fully understand.”

In addition to her other contributions, Connolly — an expert in wetlands law — wrote a chapter on Arctic wetlands, asking whether the long-standing Ramsar Convention could be used effectively to protect these areas.

Meidinger, who was director of the Baldy Center at the time of the conference, says the book’s interdisciplinary approach sheds new light on a much-discussed topic. “Not only did we talk about what’s going on in the United States in the usual policy sphere,” he says, “but we also tried to place it in terms of how it looks from different perspectives, such as those of indigenous people, the global power struggle among nation-states, and the relationship between climate governance and arctic governance. Global issues and local issues are completely intertwined — everything that’s done globally has huge impacts in the Arctic.”

Anyone who writes and thinks about climate change has to confront the sense of hopelessness that many feel, but Meidinger says the peoples of the Arctic — where 4 million people live — embody a resilience that the rest of the world would do well to emulate. “There have been different shifts in the climate historically,” he says, “and anthropologists and archaeologists talk about adjustments that cultures had to make long ago. Not only are those local cultures being affected, but they have experience in adjusting to climate change, and they have lessons to teach. How might we reorganize ourselves in response to these challenges?”

The U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s most recent report card on the Arctic showed that in 2018 that region experienced its second-warmest air temperatures ever recorded, its second-lowest overall sea-ice coverage, and the lowest recorded winter ice in the Bering Sea.

“The Big Thaw” editors and chapter authors will continue their explorations of climate change in the Arctic, including launching a new blog to encourage innovative study and inspire creative thinking on this critical topic.