Indigenous residents from some of the smallest communities and most remote parts of Alaska had a message for international leaders who convened in Anchorage for a high-profile State Department-hosted Arctic conference: Climate change is an existential threat.
"Today Alaska's Native peoples seek security, food security, economic security, cultural security, energy security. A changing world and climate impacts all of these," Reggie Joule, mayor of the Northwest Arctic Borough and an Inupiaq from Kotzebue, said in opening remarks at the conference known as GLACIER.
"We have much to lose -- the very essence of who we are as a people."
And, in a change from what many Alaska Natives contend has been the pattern of the past, the international leaders were listening -- including President Obama, who delivered closing remarks at the conference.
"The Arctic is the leading edge of climate change, the leading indicator of what the entire planet faces," the president said in his address. He ticked off documented effects in the state, like rapidly rising temperatures, thawing permafrost, vanishing sea ice, accelerated coastline erosion, expanding wildfires and changing wildlife patterns. "The impacts here are very real," he said.
Even before the conference started, Obama and Interior Secretary Sally Jewell took a step acknowledging Native culture. They took administrative action to officially bestow the Athabascan name Denali to North America's tallest peak -- a step that synchronized the federal government's official geographic labels with the state government's labels and that drew enthusiastic applause every time it was mentioned at the conference.
"I think we can say that Denali never looked better than it does today," Secretary of State John Kerry, the conference's official host, said in wrap-up comments at the event's close.
Heed local knowledge, Alaskans say
Success in coping with the changing world depends on the knowledge of the people who know the North best, said Alaskans who made presentations at conference breakout sessions.
Some of the first signs of change are being reported by residents of remote areas, said Mike Brubaker, director of the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium's Center for Climate and Health and creator of an observer network encouraging public participation.
In August 2014, for example, people near Ambler, a tiny village in northwest Alaska, reported that thousands of chum salmon, coated with some sort of brown slime, were dying in the Kobuk River before they had the opportunity to spawn, he said. The report triggered an investigation by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, which found that the slime was a collection of oxygen-depleting algal blooms proliferating in heated-up river water, he said.
Even in Alaska's largest city, signs of climate change are obvious, Anchorage Mayor Ethan Berkowitz told the conference audience.
Last January, temperatures in Anchorage were higher than those in New York City, he said. Alaska's biggest city is coping with freeze-thaw cycles in warmer winters and more invasive plants and nuisance species, he said. Last July, not January, turned out to be the big energy-use month for city residents, he said.
"What was once a punch line to a bad joke about selling air conditioners to Alaskans is now a reality," Berkowitz said.
Development acceptable, with caveats
Not all aspects of climate change are bad, Alaska speakers said. As sea ice retreats, more of the Arctic Ocean is opening to ship traffic and, potentially, oil drilling such as that being conducted by Royal Dutch Shell in the Chukchi Sea off Northwest Alaska.
That means economic opportunities for Alaska's indigenous people, but only if certain conditions are met, they said.
"Our message is quite simple. Development of our resources must include food, culture, energy and economic security for Alaska's first peoples," Joule said in his speech. "Any development of oil in the outer continental shelf must include revenue sharing for our impacted communities."
The same goes for northward expansion of commercial fisheries, said Jim Stotts, an Inupiaq from Barrow and Alaska president of the Inuit Circumpolar Conference. Indigenous communities must be involved in the management and benefits if any commercial fishing spreads into Arctic waters, he said. "That's a bit of a change from the way the fisheries were developed previously in a large part of the world," he said.
Outside the convention center, there were signs that Native people welcome resource extraction in the North.
Hung on the side of the NANA Development Corp. headquarters a few blocks away from the convention center was a sign that proclaimed: "Responsible Resource Development: Alaska does it BEST!!" The Inupiat-owned regional corporation does significant oil-field business.
The Barrow-based, Inupiat-owned Arctic Slope Regional Corp., also heavily involved in the oil business, sent an open letter to Obama urging him to support North Slope development that provides "jobs, security and opportunity."
But there was also pushback, specifically against the offshore Arctic drilling that Shell is conducting and that has been sanctioned by the Obama administration.
A festive protest rally on the Delaney Park Strip just north of the convention center featured music, a costumed polar bear character named "Frostpaw" and a structure called the "Polar Profiteer" meant to mock the Shell-contracted drill rig, the Polar Pioneer, that is currently drilling in the Chukchi Sea.
Black carbon a hot topic
While conference-session participants largely steered clear of the question of whether Arctic drilling is good or bad, they did devote much of their attention to a fossil-fuel pollutant that experts say can be curtailed to give rapid relief to the Arctic: black carbon, also known as soot.
The particulate matter left over from inefficient combustion of fossil fuels, black carbon causes special problems in the Arctic because it darkens ice and snow, speeding the melt that feeds into the warming cycle.
Curbing black carbon should be a big goal of Arctic nations as well as non-Arctic nations with interests in the far north, said a policy statement issued by the delegates.
Soot from all over the world -- emitted by sources as diverse as wood-based cooking stoves in Arctic homes and commercial ships thousands of miles away -- migrates to the North Pole on atmospheric currents, said Jane Nishida, acting administrator for international and tribal affairs at the Environmental Protection Agency. Because it darkens the ice surface, causing it to absorb solar heat, black carbon is the third-largest warming agent globally, Nishida said.
It also affects the health of people living across hundreds of remote villages, said the Aleut International Association's Jim Gamble.
An answer to both problems lies in the development of efficiency standards and new technologies, said Chris Rose, executive director of the Renewable Energy Alaska Project.