While the entire world must work toward limiting warming by reducing emissions and transitioning to renewables, people in Alaska are looking for leaders to simply listen and then make decisions with their stories—and climate change—top of mind.
“Most of our government is sitting in cities and they have no idea what it's like to be out here in the remoteness of here. I don't even know if they wanna even know. And so they don't know and they make decisions on my behalf,” concedes Port Heiden Village Amdinsitrator Gerda Kosbruk.
“If I could have tea with Trump, I would tell him my story and invite him to see my community and tell him that it is real,” Kosbruk adds. “We live it. This is where we used to be, this is where we are now and this is where we wanna go in the future.”
Smart government decision-making and access to information can open a more accessible pathway toward building community-wide resilience. In places like Bristol Bay, that means declining to move forward with new development that threatens natural resources in favor of sustainable development plans that allow people and nature to survive.
The salmon industry is the lifeblood of Port Heiden and countless other communities. Proposed mining in the headwaters of Bristol Bay would increase the stress on salmon populations, which impacts brown bears and other species throughout the watershed. A recent study found that the tourists who visit and go on guided tours to spot bears in Southcentral Alaska generated $34.5 million dollars in 2017.
If Port Heiden is able to grow its farming and build a safe harbor, it could achieve another goal of growing its economy through tourism. It’s perfectly placed to become a stop for tourists hiking Aniakchak National Monument.
“We’ve been resilient to change,” contends North Slope Borough Mayor Harry K. Brower, Jr.
But when government rule-making doesn’t keep up with the change his community is experiencing, it's hard to build resilience.
“The resource availability and access to the resources, that’s becoming more difficult because of the climate that we’re dealing with,” he adds.
As the people of Utqiaġvik and neighboring communities adapt to historic heat, wildlife is adapting too. Sea ice declines bring more bears to rest along Arctic coastlines, endangering people and polar bears. Reducing human-wildlife conflict is an important way to protect the community as well as polar bear populations.
Commercial development and investment in the Arctic is also increasing, and there are steps that governments and business can take to ensure exploitation doesn’t come at the expense of people and nature. The report Getting it right in a new ocean offers guidance on how sustainability can be achieved at this pivotal moment for the Arctic.
Resilient communities in Alaska are communities that can continue to take care of nature on land and at sea. Throughout the region, as difficult as things may get, many community leaders express confidence that their people will pull through.
Gerda Kosbruk is also bullish on bringing along those who remain unconvinced by the science of climate change.
“You have to hope,” she says. “It's kind of like having somebody who has a bad habit in your life and you look at 'em and you think it's hopeless, but I've seen people change. I hope every day that they change and I—you know, we—what do we do? We do our best to help them.”