The president of the United States is the star speaker on Monday at a conference in Anchorage on Arctic issues, ensuring the eyes of the world will be on Alaska and the rapid changes happening in the far North.
President Obama will give the closing address at the Conference on Global Leadership in the Arctic: Cooperation, Innovation, Engagement and Resilience, otherwise known as GLACIER. Other high-level speakers at the event, to be held in the Dena'ina Center, include Secretary of State John Kerry, Interior Secretary Sally Jewell and Norwegian Foreign Minister Borge Brende.
Sharing the podium with such luminaries will be Evon Peter, vice chancellor for rural community and Native education at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.
Peter – a former tribal chief from the Gwich'in village of Arctic Village and board member of several Native organizations – is scheduled to deliver the lunchtime keynote address to the foreign ministers attending the conference, a high-level group that will be meeting behind closed doors during the conference.
"I'll be explaining the role of indigenous people in the circumpolar North," he said.
As Peter describes it, that role is in flux.
He is part of a generation of young Alaska Natives who grew up in a world with a rapidly changing climate and rapidly advancing technology, with ties to traditional culture and educated at modern universities.The younger generation of leaders "has experienced the world differently than the generation before us," he said.
Peter said he plans to talk about the changes in the landscape and their impacts on people. Earlier melts, for example, are triggering ice jams and flooding in places like the villages along the Yukon River, he said, and thawing permafrost is undermining villages and people's homes, he said.
"The health of our natural world is also reflected in us as a people because we're part of that natural world," he said.
He has a list of recommendations for concrete action, including investment in more technology across the North, more access to education for young people, more investment in local health and safety protections and more integration of traditional knowledge into science-determined policy decisions. Crucial to bringing about positive results from any of those actions, he said, is ensuring that indigenous peoples across the North have greater control of their lives through self-determination, he said.
Indigenous peoples can, meanwhile, help the rest of the world cope with challenges that cross national and political borders, Peter said. "Alaska Native people are some of the most forgiving people in the world because we know we're going to be in close proximity to each other for our entire lives," he said.
Between the long list of speakers and the longer list of attendees, about 400 people are expected at the GLACIER conference, according to the State Department, which is hosting the event. Of that 400, at least a third are expected to be Alaskans, according to State Department estimates. Much of the material will be presented in concurrent sessions, with the foreign ministers meeting separately from other groups, according to the conference agenda.
Though it has been touted as a climate-change-focused event, the GLACIER conference is set up to cover a broader range of topics than that. The agenda includes discussions of emergency response, fisheries, public health, housing and renewable energy.
Appropriately, the Alaska speakers are drawn from a variety of disciplines and organizations.
Rear Adm. Dan Abel, commander of the U.S. Coast Guard's Alaska district, and April Brower, director of the North Slope Borough's search and rescue department, will speak about emergency preparedness and response. Stephanie Madsen, the Juneau-based executive director of the At-sea Processors Association, will be part of the discussion of fisheries issues. Chris Rose, founder and executive director of the Renewable Energy Alaska Project, will speak about housing and sustainable communities. There are Alaska speakers from state and local government agencies, such as the Department of Environmental Conservation, and from Native organizations. And the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium and the Centers for Disease Control will be well-represented at the conference.
Mike Brubaker is one of those ANTHC representatives. Brubaker is director of ANTHC's Center for Climate Safety and Health and its community environment and safety program.
He will be presenting information on the Local Observer Network program he manages for ANTHC, a program that enables members of the public to record and quickly convey information about the natural world through a user-friendly online system.
Alaskans are on the front lines of witnessing and understating climate change "in a very intimate way," Brubaker said. "People are seeing their world change, their understanding change and they want to do something about it," he said.
One thing they can do, even if they are not experts, is to act as local observers and provide ground-level information to scientists and policymakers, he said. The Local Observer Network is an avenue for such observations, and it could be a model for other circumpolar nations, he said.
In all, Peter said, there are so many Alaska speakers scheduled at the GLACIER conference that some have been in communication with each other "so that we cover all the ground."
But not all Arctic-issues ground can be covered in the single-day event.
Not on the GLACIER agenda is any specific discussion devoted to the serious social ills plaguing rural Alaska and much of the circumpolar North – epidemics of suicide, domestic violence and sexual assault, substance abuse and mental illness, all considered to be intertwined.
Those are topics important to the priorities the United States government is promoting in the two-year U.S. chairmanship of the eight-nation Arctic Council, State Department officials said. Those topics will be explored in future events separate from GLACIER, officials said.
One of the U.S. initiatives, specifically focused on suicide prevention, will get detailed examination later this month in Anchorage. An initiative called RISING-SUN – the acronym for "Reducing the Incidence of Suicide in Indigenous Groups – Strengths United through Networks" – will hold its first workshop on Sept. 19 and 20.
Alaska Dispatch Publishing