Environment and Politics: Alaskans Adapt to a Changing Climate

by Russell Salazar

While climate change mitigation must continue, societies are marching on into an inevitably warmer world. The ability for a community to adapt to a new environment will be a crucial characteristic in the coming century. Wilson (2013) presents a study of an Alaskan village to show how political and social changes are correlated with a community’s vulnerability to the impacts of climate change. The paper focuses on the subsistence livelihoods of the Koyukon Athabascan people, describing major changes since the 1950s that altered their climate adaptability. These included an increased emphasis on formal education, a greater exposure to market economies, as well as the legislation and bureaucracy introduced by the government, all of which had a profound impact on the Koyukon Athabascan way of life. Wilson concludes by encouraging more cautious and deeper ethical considerations with regard to placing political constraints on communities.

Before the 1950s, the people of Ruby Village would move up to four times a year to follow the peaks of fishing season, and hunting and trapping season. Through observation, they would respond freely to changes in the population and behavior of the hunted animals, taking only what was necessary to sustain the community.

However, increased pressures on formal education came in with the second half of the century. The mobile community ceased the practice of travelling north during the winters, becoming a community focused around a central village area. Additionally, exposure to the market economy introduced the use of snowmobiles and gasoline, which allowed the now-settled people of Ruby Village greater hunting range and mobility. These seem like appropriate adaptations that support a continuation of the Ruby Village lifestyle. However, other effects were observed.

As a consequence of integration with the market economy, the community’s dependency on gasoline increased, and hence a greater vulnerability to price changes. The greater problem arises when taking into account the effects of climate change: rising water levels and unfrozen patches made certain areas almost inaccessible. Greater gasoline consumption became inevitable, so that even minor changes in price could cause a devastating blow to the village’s well being. The people of Ruby thus faced worrying travel limitations.

These limitations were amplified through the regulation of subsistence and hunting by state and federal agencies. Hunters had to abide by guidelines for area, timing, and intensity when hunting for game. No longer were the hunters of Ruby Village able to respond freely to personal observations of the animal populations. Unfortunately, the change in average temperature is said to have caused a change in the deer rutting season, and while conscious Alaskans felt the need for an extension of the hunting season, a great deal of bureaucracy stood in the way.

Ultimately, these changes to the socioeconomic scene of the Koyukon Athabascan people increased Ruby’s vulnerability to climate change. Vulnerability to climate change is best kept at a low, and economics and politics must work toward that goal.

Wilson, N. J., 2013. The Politics of Adaptation: Subsistence Livelihoods and Vulnerability to Climate Change in the Koyukon Athabascan Village of Ruby, Alaska. Human Ecology 42(1), 87–101.



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