Life on the "Front Lines of Climate Change" in the U.S. Arctic

On August 31, President Barack Obama will become the first U.S. president to visit the Arctic north of the Arctic Circle. This historic visit coincides both with the start of the two-year U.S. chairmanship of the Arctic Council—an intergovernmental forum of Arctic states, indigenous representatives, and non-Arctic observer states—and a State Department–hosted conference to highlight the urgency of climate action four months before the December Paris Climate Change Summit (COP 21).

The Arctic is increasingly on the minds of senior U.S. officials as of late: President Obama has declared the Arctic region to be “on the front lines of climate change”; and presidential candidate Hillary Clinton calls the Arctic “a unique treasure” that is “not worth the risk of drilling.” But Alaskan officials, such as State Senators Lesil McGuire and Bob Herron, have a different view: “Efforts by the [U.S.] Executive Branch to lock up our land, to stifle our ability to economically develop and adapt to new climate situations is not just a disservice to Alaskans, it is a disservice to the country. Alaskans do not live in a snow globe; we live in the United States.”

Clearly, the transformative change of the northernmost environment is what draws President Obama to Alaska, as well as greater international awareness that the Arctic region is warming at a rate two to three times faster than any other location on the planet. And while climate change is a significant part of an unfolding Arctic story, it is not the only one. There is an important and often forgotten human dimension. The Arctic region is home to roughly 4 million people, including 40 different indigenous groups. And it is their story that may be overlooked during the upcoming presidential visit.

With almost one-third of the state above the Arctic Circle, Alaska is home to over 736,000 Americans. Nearly 20 percent of Alaskans reside in rural Alaska, and nearly 4 percent live in Alaska’s Arctic region. They endure harsh climatic conditions; suffer from some of the highest national suicide and alcoholism rates; enjoy limited economic opportunities; and lack basic water and sanitation infrastructure, including indoor water and plumbing, on a daily basis. For those who live on the “front lines of climate change” in Alaska, using a “honey bucket” or trekking through snow and below-freezing temperatures to collect water from a community well are standard practice. These living conditions are generally associated with underdeveloped countries, not the United States. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), in 2010, the percentage of homes in rural Alaska with complete plumbing was equivalent to the percentage of U.S. homes with complete plumbing in the 1950s. The CDC’s Healthy Alaskans 2020 project has set the goal of increasing the percentage of rural communities with water and sewer services in individual homes to 87 percent by 2020. However, the Healthy Alaskans 2020 Scorecard indicates that the project is not on track to meet this goal.

The average person in the United States uses 156 gallons of water a day, whereas the average person in rural Alaska only uses 3 gallons of water a day. Priority is given to drinking and cooking, and the lower prioritization of personal hygiene means there is a heightened risk of water-related infections in rural Alaska. The CDC has found that there have been 85 percent more pneumonia-related hospitalizations among infants without in-home water service, and serious bacterial infections were twice as high.

The lack of indoor plumbing is not the only challenge that residents in the U.S. Arctic confront on a daily basis. The cost of living is much higher, particularly energy, due to many of the communities’ remote locations. Nearly 80 percent of Alaska’s rural communities are dependent on diesel fuel, and one in five rural households spends nearly 50 percent of its income on energy, more than five times in urban Alaska. At the beginning of 2015, gas prices in Barrow were $7 a gallon, compared to the average price of $2.30 a gallon in the lower 48 states. It is no wonder then that Alaskans are eager to explore and develop their state’s resources and improve their standard of living.

While global attention has focused on the impact of low energy prices in energy-producing countries, such as Russia and Venezuela, it is having a dramatic impact on the Alaskan state budget, with the deficit reaching roughly $3.5 billion in 2015. Unemployment is 6.7 percent in Alaska; unemployment among Native Alaskans is much higher at roughly 11 percent. Making the Arctic exempt from sustainable economic development will not solve all of the challenges of climate change; it will, however, seriously affect the livelihoods of over half a million people who call the U.S. Arctic their home.

Perhaps there should be greater focus by Washington policymakers on investing in—rather than studying—projects and partnering with the private sector to reduce unemployment, provide clean and affordable energy, as well as running water to Alaskan communities. The Obama administration has taken important steps to improve renewable energy opportunities in rural Alaska and to reduce the use of costly and polluting diesel fuels. Alaskan communities are also leading the development of renewable and innovative energy technologies, including the installation of a “smart grid” in Kwigillingok to help its 317 residents save money on electricity. Mitigating the effects of climate change should go hand-in-hand with developing economic opportunities for U.S. Arctic residents, not come at the expense of those who depend on and call the Arctic their home.

During his upcoming trip to Alaska, President Obama will have an up-close and personal view of the impact of climate change in the U.S. Arctic. He will also have the opportunity to visit with Alaskan communities in Dillingham and Kotzebue to see firsthand the living conditions (such as “honey buckets” and community water wells) that thousands of Alaskans deal with on a daily basis. Hopefully, their story will be heard as loudly and clearly as the need to address the impact of ocean acidification, coastal erosion, and permafrost thaw as U.S. policymakers take the necessary steps to not only protect the Arctic environment, but also to ensure the protection of the needs of all Americans in the 49th state.

Heather A. Conley is senior vice president for Europe, Eurasia, and the Arctic at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C., and Caroline Rohloff is a research associate in the CSIS Europe Program. They are coauthors of Recommendations for the U.S. Arctic Council Chairmanship: Enhancing Policy Focus on Arctic Health and Well-Being (CSIS, April 2015).

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

© 2015 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.

Heather A. Conley

Caroline Rohloff