Greenland is on the front lines of climate change. This summer of fire and ice loss is indicative of the much larger shifts afoot. Yet while much has been made about the science of rising temperature, precious little research has been done on the impacts on the people who call the island home.
A new survey reveals that climate change is putting undue stress on Greenlanders’ lives, livelihoods, and emotions as it changes everything. Three-quarters of Greenlanders surveyed said they’ve felt the impacts of climate change personally, with many expressing concerns about everything from its impact on sled dogs to food security. The results are part of a growing body of research on the emotional toll climate change is taking on people around the world.
The survey, dubbed Greenlandic Perspectives on Climate Change, was conducted over a six-month period from July 2018 to January 2019. A total of 645 adults from the island’s scattered settlements were surveyed, or just about 1.5 percent of the total population of Greenland.
There are manifold ways the climate crisis is manifesting in Greenland. The island is shedding ice six times faster than it was in the 1980s. Unprecedented wildfires have ignited on the island in recent years. Sea ice is melting out.
All this takes a very direct toll on the people of Greenland, whose livelihoods are often intimately connected to the natural environment. The findings show that 76 percent of Greenlanders reported feeling the impacts of climate change directly. And that number makes sense at least in part because three-quarters of survey respondents also reported getting at least some of their food through hunting, fishing, or gathering. Many Greenlanders rely on sled dogs to travel, a process that requires firm snow or sea ice. The viral photo earlier this summer of sled dogs appearing to run across water (the water was meltwater on top of sea ice) underscores just how risky conditions have already become.
Nearly 80 percent of survey respondents reported sea ice conditions have become more dangerous in recent years. And two-thirds of respondents worry in particular about the impact climate change is having on sled dogs, which ranked as the highest concern even above future generations of humans. Which is of course not to say respondents weren’t worried about their kids or grandkids. The survey included a question asking about one way climate change might affect people and their families. The responses—while not all negative—reveal the fragility of people’s lives and livelihoods in the remote Arctic. A sampling:
“Just think about my children’s future? Maybe they won’t experience many of the things that we got to experience in our lives”
“It is uncomfortable that the snow now takes so long to arrive in the winter.”
“Greenland will get a more comfortable climate but there will be enormous social and economic problems all over the world which will affect us.”
“My father is a fisher and hunter, and it is hard for our family that he cannot hunt animals like when I was little, and I miss that. I miss dog sledding and fishing on the ice, and just like our culture, the animals that we hunt are disappearing slowly, and now I cannot teach my son like my father taught me.”
“There are more who become negatively affected by the weather and sad.”
“The weather has changed a lot. I am afraid that the the animals will disappear, such that the fishers and hunters wont be able to fish and hunt anymore.”
If Greenland is the canary in the coal mine when it comes to climate impacts, then the emotional responses of the people who live there are in some ways indicative of how the rest of the world could react as climate change hits harder and closer to home.