We Must Stop Fossil Fuel Emissions to Protect Permafrost Ecosystems
Climate change is an existential threat to the vast global permafrost domain. The diverse human cultures, ecological communities, and biogeochemical cycles of this tenth of the planet depend on the persistence of frozen conditions. The complexity, immensity, and remoteness of permafrost ecosystems make it difficult to grasp how quickly things are changing and what can be done about it. Here, we summarize terrestrial and marine changes in the permafrost domain with an eye toward global policy. While many questions remain, we know that continued fossil fuel burning is incompatible with the continued existence of the permafrost domain as we know it. If we fail to protect permafrost ecosystems, the consequences for human rights, biosphere integrity, and global climate will be severe. The policy implications are clear: the faster we reduce human emissions and draw down atmospheric CO2, the more of the permafrost domain we can save. Emissions reduction targets must be strengthened and accompanied by support for local peoples to protect intact ecological communities and natural carbon sinks within the permafrost domain. Some proposed geoengineering interventions such as solar shading, surface albedo modification, and vegetation manipulations are unproven and may exacerbate environmental injustice without providing lasting protection. Conversely, astounding advances in renewable energy have reopened viable pathways to halve human greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 and effectively stop them well before 2050. We call on leaders, corporations, researchers, and citizens everywhere to acknowledge the global importance of the permafrost domain and work towards climate restoration and empowerment of Indigenous and immigrant communities in these regions.
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Frontiers in Environmental Science