Social-Ecological Sustainability in Alaska and Global Change
Global climate change has a significant impact on the ecology of our planet and human society. This issue has prompted Dr. Chapin to ask whether it is possible to sustain the benefits of social-ecological systems such as economic growth from resource extraction, and traditional identities and cultures in a world where such drastic and large-scale changes are occurring. He concludes that this is possible by implementing policy strategies that are aimed at reducing the harm from global change and maximizing the potential benefits.
In Alaska, global climate change has contributed to drastic ecological and social change. Warming temperatures have caused bark beetle outbreaks, permafrost thaw, reduced the safety of over-ice travel, among other effects. Chapin has identified four policy strategies to reduce the harmful effects of global change while taking advantage of the potential benefits: reducing vulnerability; enhancing adaptive capacity; enhancing resilience, and enhancing transformability.
Reducing vulnerability refers to reducing the degree to which a system is damaged “due to exposure to a specific hazard or stress.” This is done by reducing exposure to the hazard or by reducing how sensitive the social or ecological system is to the hazard. In Alaska, sensitivity to climate warming can be reduced with passive heat pumps that protect buildings from structural damage associated with warming permafrost. In a more social context, services to help those affected by food shortages or natural disasters can reduce the sensitivity of a society to hazards. However, options for reducing sensitivity to climate change in Alaska remain limited.
Adaptive capacity is how much individuals and groups within the system can adapt and respond to changes within an ecological or a social system. Enhancing adaptive capacity has more potential for increasing sustainability in Alaska compared the reducing vulnerability. The relatively well-developed cyberinfrastructure allows for greater sharing of knowledge between scientists and holders of traditional knowledge. This will allow for a more comprehensive understanding of the ecological and social effects of climate change. Furthermore, this “integration of science and technology with local understanding” could provide ways to maximize the benefits associated with climate change such as introducing “community gardens to regions that were previously too cold for gardening.” Adapting management policies to global climate change could “provide opportunities for social learning to foster adjustments to change…” For example, as the Arctic Ocean becomes warmer and more ice-free, fish populations are steadily increasing. Managing the steadily changing Arctic fishery will be critical to the future prosperity of Alaska.
Enhancing the resilience of a social-ecological system means enhancing its’ ability to retain its’ basic identity, function and structure “through either recovery or reorganization in a new context” despite gradual or sudden changes. In rural Alaska, “subsistence hunting and fishing are major components of the economy and local diet.” Proper management of these resources is critical to preserving the economy and identity of these communities and must involve local users to maintain their livelihoods and traditions. Furthermore, the Alaskan economy is currently dependent on oil extraction and “diversification of the economy could enhance Alaska’s resilience to economic surprises such as pipeline corrosion that shuts down oilfields.”
In contrast to resilience, transformability is the ability to create a fundamentally new system in response to change. The need for transformability is often in response to a crisis. For example, a global increase in oil prices would threaten many rural Alaskan communities who “depend on diesel fuel for power and heat.” Transformability would make it more economically viable to switch to biomass fuels which could “provide wage income within the community and reduce warming-induced wildfire risk to communities.”
Implementing these four strategic policies would be most effective in reducing the harmful effects and exploiting any potential benefits of global climate change in Alaska. While there are unique challenges and opportunities that apply locally, these policies can also be applied on a global scale.
This is a summary article written by Pierre Lin. For more information, please access the full document:
Chapin, F.S III 2007. Social-Ecological Sustainability in Alaskan Boreal Forests: The Challenges of Global Change. Natural Resources and Environmental Studies Institute Occasional Paper No. 1, University of Northern British Columbia,Prince George, B.C., Canada.