Global sustainability goals cannot realistically be achieved without strategies that build on multiscale definitions of risks to wellbeing. Particularly in geographic contexts experiencing rapid and complex social and environmental changes, there is a growing need to empower communities to realize self-identified adaptation goals that address self-identified risks. Meeting this demand requires tools that can help assess shared understandings about the needs for, and barriers to, positive change. This study explores consensus about risks and uncertainties in adjacent boroughs grappling with rapid social–ecological transformations in northern Alaska. The Northwest Arctic and North Slope boroughs, like the rest of the Arctic, are coping with a climate that is warming twice as fast as in other regions. The boroughs are predominantly inhabited by Iñupiat people, for whom the region is ancestral grounds, whose livelihoods are still supported by subsistence activities, and whose traditional tribal governance has been weakened through multiple levels of governing bodies and institutions. Drawing on extensive workshop discussions and survey experiments conducted with residents of the two boroughs, we developed a model of the northern Alaska region’s social–ecological system and its drivers of change. Using cultural consensus analysis, we gauged the extent of consensus across the boroughs about what key risks threaten the sustainability of their communities. Though both boroughs occupy vast swaths of land, each with their own resource, leadership, and management challenges, we found strong consensus around how risks that impact the sustainability of communities are evaluated and prioritized. Our results further confirmed that rapid and complex changes are creating high levels of uncertainties for community planners in both boroughs. We discuss the mobilizing potential of risk consensus toward collective adaptation action in the civic process of policy making. We note the contribution of cultural consensus analysis as a tool for cross-scale learning in areas coping with rapid environmental changes and complex social challenges.
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