What the Biden administration can do to help build a more just and resilient Arctic

The federal government must allow community voices to drive infrastructure investment  and conservation in the North.

By Joel Clement - January 13, 2021
Federal efforts to build resilience in Alaska’s Arctic could help climate-threatened villages such as Kivalina to survive — and even thrive. (Relocate Kivalina)

Editor’s note: This op-ed is part of a series offering Arctic policy recommendations to the incoming administration of President-elect Joe Biden. Follow our social media channels (Facebook, Twitter) or subscribe to our daily newsletter to be the first to read new installments.

The Arctic is a target-rich policy environment for an incoming presidential administration set on addressing climate change and equity issues. Not only is it by far the fastest-warming region on earth, exhibiting some of the most dramatic impacts, but it is also home to some of the most under-served and climate-vulnerable communities in America. On the international front the bar is low; a new administration that acknowledges the climate crisis will be seen as a serious and welcome partner by the other seven Arctic countries.

The Biden administration can jointly address climate change and equity by focusing on building the resilience of Arctic communities. “Resilience” is not just another buzzword, or a synonym for climate adaptation. Rather, it describes the enabling conditions and quality of relationships between interconnected social and ecological systems that allow them to best recover and thrive through crises or shocks. Indigenous knowledge and decades of research show that fostering these conditions makes for more resilient communities. For example, communities that are empowered to make decisions and that are supported with critical infrastructure and leadership are better able to withstand stress and uncertainty.

Unfortunately, the enabling conditions for resilience read like a laundry list of critical Arctic gaps: health and safety infrastructure, low-cost renewable energy systems, youth leadership training, fast broadband, food and water security, and innovative financing for public infrastructure. Addressing these gaps is essential — but that will only be sustainable if new policies also protect Arctic ecosystems and elevate the role of Indigenous knowledge holders in decisions that affect Arctic Indigenous communities.

The Biden administration can have a dramatic positive impact in fostering Arctic resilience by considering the following policy actions.

Community-led infrastructure investment

The COVID-19 pandemic has presented a stress test for resilience in the region, but also demonstrated the strength of community networks in remote areas. To address weaknesses in education and health care while taking advantage of community strengths, the administration should immediately commit to removing administrative obstacles and underwriting partnerships to help establish fast broadband connectivity in rural Alaska — particularly the Arctic region — with the goal of reaching full access by 2025. Success will be far from assured because telecommunications is a complicated sector, but the alternative is unacceptable and the federal government must do everything it can to help overcome this obstacle to resilience.

The administration should also set a goal of bringing the Arctic region up to the public infrastructure standards of the Lower 48, while accounting for the unique challenges of the Arctic, with a focus on water and sewer, health and safety, transportation, and housing.

Large infrastructure projects such as a deepwater port and icebreakers in the Arctic are well-established top-down priorities, but it’s important not to neglect bottom-up priorities for underserved communities. Listen to communities; they know what they need.

The administration and Congressional appropriators should fund the Denali Commission and cooperating agencies to collaborate with the state of Alaska and underwrite village-led planning groups across the North. This model, successfully demonstrated in 2015 by Interior Department grants to the state, will allow local voices to determine top infrastructure priorities so government agencies can craft detailed strategies to make meaningful progress in each budget cycle, ramping up federal investment as community strategies become available. By soliciting input and priorities across the entire Arctic region, the administration can identify projects that best serve multiple locations and multiple needs.

The administration should set up an Arctic investment office within the Commerce Department to A) guide investments toward indigenous institutions, B) foster public-private investments in the region that can help Alaska address the decline of its fossil-fuel economy, and C) establish resilience standards for investment in Arctic sectors such as mining, shipping, tourism, renewable energy, and telecom. In this way, the administration can foster resilience by including improvements in public infrastructure as a cost of doing business in the region.

Building back better in frontline communities

The Arctic is home to some of the most resilient but threatened frontline communities in the country. Coastal villages, no longer protected by a sea ice curtain in late fall and early winter, face thawing permafrost and vicious storms that are eroding meters of land at a time. Riverside villages face similar threats as permafrost thaws and rivers melt and flood unpredictably.

The Biden administration should work with Congressional appropriators to get these Americans out of harm’s way. This will require three immediate steps.

First, FEMA should produce an accurate accounting of costs for relocation of the most acutely threatened villages that are willing to move. Second, an interagency team should work with tribal advisory groups to establish a governance blueprint for relocating villages. Third, with these documents in hand, the White House should work with Congressional appropriators and tribal leaders to devise a funding strategy that will ensure a safe transition to new, safer village locations that are built to thrive in a warmer, wetter Arctic.

In the event that Congressional appropriators are unhelpful — despite what should be a bipartisan issue with clear implications for all of America’s coastal regions — the executive branch can continue to support community priorities by delivering the first two documents described above and investing in Indigenous institutions that support youth leadership, Indigenous knowledge holders, and public infrastructure in these frontline communities.

Indigenous-led conservation

The administration should set an immediate goal of permanent protection and Indigenous co-management of crucial ecosystems in the Arctic. The region is now warming several times faster than the rest of the planet, and the rate of warming is accelerating rapidly. Uncertainty is accelerating apace. Science shows us that non-fragmented natural systems persist through shocks more effectively than fragmented areas, so in a region where communities depend so heavily upon ecosystems for food and water security, ensuring the health of these intact ecosystems should take top priority.

Success does not mean locking up these lands, however. Arctic Indigenous people have been thriving on these lands since time immemorial, and their subsistence way of life depends upon them. These subsistence and cultural activities should continue, and the role of Indigenous residents should be honored and elevated in a novel co-management structure. Admittedly it is not easy to get this balance right in a modern world, but research has consistently shown that conservation areas that are managed or co-managed by Indigenous peoples do not decline as fast as areas without a prominent Indigenous role.

Success will require protecting the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge from — of all things during a climate crisis — oil and gas extraction. President-elect Biden should immediately cancel rushed lease sales and call on Congress to establish the region as a designated wilderness area. He should establish an Indigenous advisory board to guide the development of a management plan that a) meets the criteria for wilderness designation and b) also allows for subsistence use, cultural use, and Indigenous co-management. If wilderness designations in the Lower 48 can allow ranchers to graze cattle, there is no reason an Arctic wilderness cannot allow subsistence and cultural uses that are far less damaging.

The Biden administration should also invalidate the Trump administration’s non-scientific revision of the Integrated Activity Plan for the National Petroleum Reserve – Alaska. This has been a transparent effort to gut habitat protections for migratory birds, caribou, and endangered species in some of the world’s most exceptional wildlife habitat.

The new administration should begin revising the previous plan to expand habitat, special area protections, and cultural use areas based on traditional knowledge and the most recent data on habitat requirements in the face of a transforming Arctic. If presented with a legislative opportunity, administration staff should begin work with Congress to re-designate the undeveloped portion of this federal land as an Arctic Resilience Area co-managed by federal agencies and the tribes who have used these lands for millennia.

The uncertainties of the Arctic transformation do not respect national boundaries, of course, so any long-term strategy to build resilience in the U.S. Arctic will require the U.S. to once again play a constructive role in the Arctic Council and other international forums by strongly supporting a pan-Arctic climate strategy and by advancing the Council’s Arctic Resilience Action Framework — the world’s first regional resilience strategy.

Preparing the Arctic to withstand — and even thrive in — the uncertainty of a warming world will require more than just repairing the damage from four years of neglect. The Biden administration should seek to establish a vision of an American Arctic that can withstand rapid change, can learn from it, and can “build back better” with an eye to equity and human rights. It won’t be easy, but the status quo will be more costly still, both in terms of economics but also suffering. The work to turn America’s Arctic into a world class success story must begin on January 20, 2021.

Joel Clement, a former Arctic and climate policy expert at the Department of the Interior, is a senior fellow with the Arctic Initiative at Harvard University’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs.

The views expressed here are the writer’s and are not necessarily endorsed by ArcticToday, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary (at) arctictoday.com.