Just prior to this year’s Arctic Circle Assembly – a gathering of leaders and experts held in Reykjavik – the UN, as if on cue, published daunting new estimates of the future impact of climate change on the Arctic.

According to the report by the International Panel on Climate Change, a failure to limit global warming to less than 2°C (an increasingly reasonable expectation) makes summers without any Arctic sea ice at least 10 times more likely. That, in turn, would trigger increased flooding and drought throughout the rest of the world.

Monthly September ice extent for 1979 to 2018 shows a decline of 12.8 percent per decade.
Image: National Snow and Ice Data Center

“Climate is changing in the Arctic two to three to four times faster than it is changing on the global average,” said John Holdren, President Barack Obama’s Science Advisor, during an Arctic Circle Assembly session structured around the World Economic Forum’s Arctic Transformation Map.

“We don’t know how to put an accurate value on future damages from climate change, but we do have a very good argument that those damages will be very much larger than the cost of avoiding them.”

Who lives in the Arctic?

The answer is more people than you might think. The Arctic’s population of roughly 4 million is spread across seven countries, with Russia accounting for about half. As much as 15% of the population is indigenous.

“Indigenous thinking can be a solution for the challenges that humanity faces with regard to climate change,” said Silje Karine Muotka, a member of the Sami Parliament in Norway.

“We have an urgent need to redefine how we understand growth. We have a situation where mining and those types of projects are a direct threat to our way of life.”

Why is the region now a lot more interesting for the outside world?

Commercial projects including new mining efforts will expand in the Arctic as ice recedes. Last year, China linked its massive Belt and Road Initiative, designed to spend more than $1 trillion on infrastructure around the world, to the Arctic. Earlier this year, Maersk was able to send its first container ship through an Arctic route (the oldest layers of ice have receded from covering nearly 1.5 million k㎡ of the region to just 94,000 k㎡ as of last month).

Environmental degradation caused by increased activity would, however, come in addition to the local, climate-related changes already underway. Melting permafrost (frozen soil), for example, is forcing people across the Arctic to abandon homes and move. This triggers climate “feedback” – carbon dioxide is released by melting permafrost, so the more permafrost that subsequently melts contributes to a vicious cycle and boosts the region’s contribution to global warming.

“What happens in the Arctic doesn’t stay in the Arctic,” says Tero Vauraste, Chair of the Arctic Economic Council.

Are there potential benefits to climate change in the Arctic?

Economic benefits, certainly. Scott Minerd, global chief investment officer at Guggenheim Partners, has said he thinks the Arctic will need about $1 trillion in infrastructure investment in the next 15 years.

Such investment could spur development and create new jobs. Yet, Minerd has noted that the financing currently available for infrastructure falls short of what’s needed and there are concerns about whether the benefits of future development will be fairly distributed.

In addition, it will require significant up-front investment to reap any serious commercial reward. A report published by the US State Department in 2016 notes that while the country would financially benefit from an Arctic trade route through the Northwest Passage, for example, it lacked the necessary infrastructure and only possessed two functional icebreakers.

What can be done to help make the Arctic more sustainable?

The stakes are high – and not just for people in the Arctic.

“If only about a quarter of the Greenland ice sheet melts, it will lead to about two metres rise in sea level everywhere in the world,” says Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson, former President of Iceland and current chairman of the Arctic Circle, adding that “most of the big cities in the world are coastal cities.”

Building infrastructure that bolsters the region’s resilience without aggravating climate change would help, as would economic development that genuinely benefits everyone, including indigenous populations.

Maybe, most importantly, efforts can be made to raise global awareness about this part of the world, which covers an area about half the size of Africa.

“In Western politics, in Western economics, the Arctic has been a no-go area, it has almost not been on their map,” says Grimsson said. That, he notes, is now starting to change.