John P Holdren ‘Special Guest’ Presentation at the annual ‘Alaska Day’ event of Federation of Natives, Washington, DC, 1 May 2024

By John P. Holdren - June 13, 2024
John P. Holdren. (Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government)

First, I thank Julie Kitka* and the AFN for including me today

  • I want to expand on one aspect of my friend Mike Sfraga’s* presentation and focus more closely on the science and policy challenges posed by rapid environmental change in Alaska.
  • I’ll talk about what we know; what more we need to know; and the use, in policy, of what we’re learning and will learn.
  • Everybody who has lived in Alaska for long—or who visits regularly—knows that the environment is changing in the Great Land.    The largest part of that change, in Alaska and all across the circumpolar Arctic and sub-Arctic, is being driven by the human-caused disruption of climate globally.
  • On the fundamental metric of temperature, scientists know that warming across the far North is happening at 2 to as much as 4 times the average rate of warming globally.  The reasons the region is experiencing the fastest warming on Earth are quite well understood scientifically, and those reasons make clear that the region will continue to experience the world’s fastest warming going forward.
  • Just over the past 10 years or so, improved monitoring, increasing research on how warming affects northern environmental conditions and processes, and proliferating studies of the impacts on people and ecosystems–all of this work benefiting from increased efforts to incorporate Indigenous knowledge–have greatly expanded our understanding of the challenges facing the far North.
  • And the fact is that most of the new news from Arctic and sub-Arctic science over the past 10 years has been bad news.  Let me give you some examples.
  • Glaciers. Alaska’s storied glaciers have been losing 75 billion tons of ice per year, accelerating river-bank erosion, increasing river turbidity, reducing salinity in the Arctic Ocean, and contributing to global sea-level rise.  (What happens in the Far North doesn’t always stay in the Far North.)
  • Sea Ice.  Since adequate satellite measurements began in 1979, the late summer coverage of sea ice in the Arctic Ocean has declined by 50%, its volume by 75%, as Mike Sfraga already noted.
    • That has brought some economic opportunities—new northern navigation routes, increased access to seabed resources, possibly expanded commercial fishing.
    • But it’s also bringing enormous environmental challenges: more marine pollution, soot, and marine-mammal impacts from increased ship traffic; the devastating effect of sea-ice decline on seals, walruses, and polar bears that are central to the subsistence and cultures of Indigenous communities; and how the retreat of sea-ice from the shoreline is giving free rein to assault by storm waves, increasing coastal erosion and threatening the viability of coastal communities. 
  • Permafrost thaw is a current problem or potential problem over much of Alaska’s land area, as it is over vast tracts in Canada and Russia and smaller areas in Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Greenland.
    • We are already seeing how ground subsidence from permafrost thaw can tilt and rupture buildings, roads, and village walkways over tundra, as well as infrastructure for water, sanitation, and energy.
    • We’re seeing how permafrost thaw is altering surface and subsurface hydrology over whole ecosystems; how it’s accelerating erosion on riverbanks; and how it’s compounding the effects of sea-ice retreat on coastal erosion.
    • We’re learning that it’s also releasing mercury, toxic wastes previously safely stored in frozen ground, and long-dormant pathogens, all directly threatening human health in the region.
    • And we’re learning that the release of carbon dioxide and methane from thawing permafrost could become large enough in coming decades to use up a significant part of the “budget” for the worldwide human release of these gases before a global-average temperature increase of 2°C is exceeded.  This amounts to a threat to increase all of the adverse impacts of climate change worldwide. It’s another compelling example of how what’s happening in the Far North isn’t staying there.
  • Wildfires. We’ve come to better understand the climate-linked factors that have been increasing the area burned by wildfires across the far North, where even tundra is burning now.
    • In Alaska, the annual-average number of wildfires has doubled since the 1980s, and the annual-average area burned has quadrupled. It’s projected that the area burned could double again in the next 25 years.
    • Why worry? Because these wildfires destroy timber, wildlife habitat, and infrastructure; accelerate permafrost thaw; directly add large quantities of heat-trapping carbon dioxide to the atmosphere; and generate huge plumes of toxic smoke that can propagate hundreds, even thousands of miles, to afflict populations outside the region as well as in it.
  • Critical species. Whether on land, in the rivers, or in the ocean, the growing heat and all of its manifestations are influencing the distribution and abundance of species that matter to commerce or to subsistence or both.
    • In addition to impacts I’ve already mentioned, we’re seeing influences of a combination of climate-related and other factors on caribou populations in the Alaskan landscape, on fish and crustacean populations in the Bering Strait, and on the runs of king salmon in the Kenai, Kuskokwim, and Yukon river drainages—the near-total disappearance of kings from the Yukon and Kuskokwim, in particular, having had devastating impact on Indigenous communities along that river who depended so heavily on those fish.
  • Finally, impacts on weather worldwide. Recent science has made clearer how the rapid warming in the Arctic is changing atmospheric circulation and ocean currents over much of the world. This includes effects on the Atlantic Meridional Overturning ocean current, which drives the Gulf Stream, and it includes intensification of El Niños and weakening of the polar jet stream in ways that, in winter, bring more cold-weather extremes to the mid-latitudes and more warm-weather extremes to the far North.
  • Although I haven’t covered all the bad news from recent science about impacts of rapid climate change in the Far North and beyond, I want to turn now to what still needs to be done in research on climate-change impacts in Alaska and across the Far North, as well as what needs to be done to link the results of such research to policy.
  • First on the priorities for research going forward…
  • I start with Monitoring: We need to increase the comprehensiveness, geographic coverage, continuity, and engagement with Indigenous knowledge associated with monitoring all the manifestations of ongoing climate change in the Arctic: temperature of air, water, and soil; the state of permafrost and other soil conditions; sea ice; land ice and snow; biota; mobilization and emissions of GHG, black carbon, pathogens, toxic wastes.
  • With respect to Modeling and Analysis: We need to increase scientific understanding of the mechanisms and processes shaping climate change in the Arctic in all of its these manifestations, as needed to be able to make better projections of future changes.
  • With respect to Health Impacts, greatly increased investment is needed on the impacts of climate change on human health in the Arctic and how these can be ameliorated, to include problems with water quality and sanitation; refrigeration; release of pathogens and toxins; and wildfire smoke
  • An increased focus on the Arctic Ocean needs to include acidification & freshening, plastics, black carbon; sea-ice changes and impacts on biota, coastal communities, and atmospheric and ocean circulation affecting not only the region but the hemisphere; subsistence and commercial fisheries; and the challenges of oil & gas production and deep-sea mining in the Arctic.
  • We need to better understand the full range of national security implications of rapid climate change in Alaska and all around the Far North (a bow here to General Church Kee and the Ted Stevens Center).
  • And last but certainly not least, there needs to be much more attention to the Science and Technology of Adaptation including resilience, recovery, and relocation.
  • In doing all this and more in Arctic-related R&D, we need to pay attention …
  • To the need for increasingly interdisciplinary approaches to all of this work.
  • To the linked impacts of multiple stresses, climate-related and otherwise.
  • To the need for inter-sectoral collaboration–government, business, universities, NGOs—with Indigenous engagement at every level.
  • And to the need for increased attention to the essential role of international collaboration on the science of the Arctic and sub-Arctic, which of course is especially challenging now.
  • In closing: Let me say again, what is happening across Alaska and across the northern regions worldwide as a consequence of rapid warming in these regions is of great consequence to everyone living there—for their livelihoods, their health, their safety and security, their quality of life–but also, for reasons I’ve mentioned, for everybody else on the planet.
    • For Alaskans, the emphasis needs to be on what actions they can take to reduce the harms from climate change and other stresses interacting with it, to themselves, their communities, and the ecosystems on which they depend.  In this, they need the help of local and state officials, but also the help of national institutions and authorities.
    • Those representing the interests of Alaskans to the national authorities—as so many of you in this room are here to do–will be most successful if you can articulate not only the challenges that Alaskans are facing, but also the reasons that everybody needs to care, beyond empathy and altruism.
    • The reactions from our national leaders and their constituencies outside Alaska need to include a commitment to help provide the resources that Alaskans need to address their challenges.
    • But their reactions also need to include increased commitment and effort to reduce the national and global emissions that are the dominant drivers of global climate warming. That is the only real leverage we know about that can reduce the pace of climate change in the Arctic.
    • And leaders and the public nationally are more likely to embrace that responsibility fully if we help them understand that what’s happening in the Arctic is accentuating the impact of global climate change on them.


Dr. Holdren is Teresa and John Heinz Research Professor of Environmental Policy at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, Co-Founder and Faculty Co-Chair of the Arctic Initiative in the School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, and a member of the Polar Research Board of the US National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine.  From January 2009 until January 2017 he served as President Obama’s Science Advisor and, from its inception in January 2015, as Founding Chair of the interagency Arctic Executive Steering Committee.

*Julie Kitka, the longtime president of the Alaska Federation of Natives, has been named to the role of Federal Co-Chair of the Denali Commission in Alaska.
*Mike Sfraga is the Chairman of the US Arctic Research Commission.