Alaska is a different sort of state. It is isolated from the Lower 48, but as home to some of the most crucial ecosystems of our planet, Alaska has a deep-seated connection with nature that makes us unique. It is because of Alaska that the United States is considered an Arctic Nation, so indeed; the Arctic connects us all.
Which is why President Obama’s visit here is such a big deal. Not only because we’re often overlooked by politicians who focus on the Lower 48, but also because we’re on the front lines of climate change. Unsurprisingly, as an Arctic state, warming is hitting us hard. Whether it’s the deficit of water in the summer as less snow falls over winter, resulting in record-breaking wildfires, or the shifting of the very ground below our feet as permafrost melts, Alaska is a state with perhaps the most to lose from rising temperatures.
The changes are happening at an alarming rate, but even beyond the practical concerns of infrastructure at risk from the melt or water worries, Alaska’s climate carries real meaning for its people. As Gwich’in Athabascan women and mothers we carry with us the responsibility to maintain our vibrant culture for our children and our children’s children. In order for this to happen we need healthy lands, waters, and intact ecosystems to be protected. For those of us living a subsistence lifestyle, the protection of Alaskan lands and waters is also a human-rights issue.
The Obama administration’s official recommendation of a Wilderness designation for the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge was a huge step in the right direction—the sort of strong action that we need to see more of from leaders across the globe. Alas, it is only a “recommendation” and stronger protections are needed immediately to counter the rush for resources that is taking place all over the Arctic.
While fossil-fuel corporations look at the wilderness of Alaska’s land and water and see a profit to be made, we see a people to protect. We depend on the bounty of what lives here to stay alive, be it the porcupine caribou herds migrating across the plains or the schools of fish in the oceans. And sadly, warming threatens these species, which have, for hundreds of thousands of years, adapted to the (now-thawing) frigid Arctic temperatures. Like the animals that sustain us, the Alaskan people and our culture are built for an Arctic climate. That’s what makes the climate fight so important to us.
So it’s thrilling to know that more indigenous peoples are joining the climate cause. Last year, for example, frontline native communities featured prominently in the People’s Climate March, the biggest climate protest to date. Building on that success is the People’s Climate Movement, which is doubling down on its efforts to make it clear that climate change is far more than just an environmental issue; it’s also a social-justice issue, as low-income communities bear a disproportionate burden of climate effects.
That’s what makes the movement unique. It’s not focused on a single group, but on bringing together the many diverse voices, so we can stand together for a common cause. After all, though there are many peoples on this planet, there’s just one atmosphere. And unfortunately, it needs all our help. Because though we sometimes feel isolated, Alaskans alone can’t stop climate change.
We hope that Obama hears firsthand from our Alaska Native communities the impacts we are facing due to climate change and that he takes this visit as an opportunity to take further actions. The hardships experienced in Alaska, with unprecedented heat and wildfires, have already begun to echo across America. Our Ancestors knew that in order to survive we had to work together. A culture of caring for one another and deep ecology is necessary if we are truly going to tackle climate change. Now is the time to rise.