In President Obama’s opening remarks to the UN Climate Summit this week, he spoke of his firsthand experience with climate change impacts in Alaska, “where the sea is already swallowing villages and eroding shorelines; where permafrost thaws and the tundra burns; where glaciers are melting at a pace unprecedented in modern times.” Since August, Obama has told domestic and international audiences about his circumpolar expedition, offering tangible motivation to act on climate change. Through his rhetoric and visuals, the president has — like many before him — used the Arctic as the world’s canary in the coalmine of global warming. From images of polar bears to melting ice, the top of the world has been profoundly inscribed into the symbolic story of climate change. 

And for sound scientific reasoning. From its inception, the IPCC has continuously noted that climate changes occur faster and with more severity in the Arctic, resulting in some of the most extreme impacts on the planet. Such drastic ecological shifts are causing wildfires, landslides, and costal erosion that pose serious challenges to personal safety and community wellbeing in the Arctic today.


And yet, as week one of COP21 draws to a close, the world leaders that often use Arctic symbolism in their speeches have stopped short of pledging any help to the region. 

This gap between rhetoric and commitment highlights the blunt and difficult reality of Arctic climate victims – they all live in developed nations. The Inupiaq of Shishmaref, Alaska, the Saami of Keväjärvi, Finland, and the Inuit of Clyde River, Canada are all citizens of some of the wealthiest countries in the world. And though these countries can boast of strong national economies, polar amplification, resource development practices that fail to bring wealth back to the region, and political policies that marginalize Native inhabitants have left Arctic communities unable to overcome today’s rapid environmental changes.

Many communities in the Arctic find it difficult to afford commercial insurance or build climate resilient infrastructure, and are often ineligible for national assistance for slow onset disasters like shoreline erosion or thawing permafrost. While a number of Arctic countries have announced specific domestic programs of support to help their northernmost citizens, these measures are not enough to realistically meet the costs of polar climate change. For instance, Obama’s recent commitment of $2 million to support voluntary climate-induced relocation efforts in Alaska covers less than two percent of one town’s relocation. Relocating a single community costs $100 to $200 million, and out of 213 Alaska Native villages, 186 are affected by extreme flooding and shoreline erosion.

In contrast, through COP commitments this week the United States will contribute $51.2 million to the Least Developed Countries Fund to help communities in developing countries adapt to the unavoidable impacts of climate change. And for those impacts that go beyond adaptation efforts, the U.S. will contribute $30 million to climate risk insurance schemes in the Pacific, Central America, and Africa to help vulnerable people play for damages and loss. 

Global funds and supportive insurance schemes for developing countries at COP are vital mechanisms to respond to urgent adaptation needs and to recognize the shared responsibility of climate change – but they leave some of the most vulnerable climate victims out in the cold.  

While a revision of these initiatives to include circumpolar communities would help those at risk, it is impracticable. Such funds have been established through intense negotiation between developed and developing countries in previous summits, and come with deep underpinnings of historic responsibility. 

Rather than changing established funds, Arctic states can use their remaining time in Paris to make a statement affirming the need for adaptation assistance in the Arctic through an Arctic regional adaptation fund. A regional adaptation fund, much like those for the Pacific Island States and Least Developed Countries, could provide much-needed help for those most at risk. And facilitated by Obama under the purview of the current U.S. Arctic Council Chairmanship, an adaptation fund would build off his commitments made to Alaskans earlier this year and help seal his legacy of climate action in the final months of his tenure. 

But providing funds to help Arctic communities prepare for the climate impacts they cannot avoid goes beyond Obama’s long-term legacy. For vulnerable communities, slow onset disasters and a more volatile climate are already dangerous realities. Before leaving Paris, Obama closed with a call to action for negotiators to secure a universal, biding agreement on climate change. As Arctic country delegates advocate, compromise, and ultimately approve a global accord over the next week, let them not forget what activists in polar bear costume, shrinking sea ice maps, and jarring videography of collapsing ice sheets mean for people who call the region home.

Herrmann is the U.S. director of The Arctic Institute Center for Circumpolar Security Studies in Washington, DC.