|May 06, 2019|
The pressing need to save the Arctic
|Scientifically, the life-threatening dangers of global warming in the Arctic are increasingly understood. But political understanding -- and action -- lag far behind. Attempts by Donald Trump to sabotage initiatives by Arctic Council countries, who meet in Finland this week, are a disgrace and must be vigorously resisted.|
The Arctic region is particularly sensitive to climate change and is warming roughly twice as fast as the rest of the planet. Observed effects include rapidly melting ice and permafrost, coastal erosion affecting indigenous communities, loss of habitat for polar bears and other animal and plant species and disrupted, extreme weather patterns.
These negative effects are cyclical and felt globally, most obviously in rising sea levels. New research suggests the release of methane and carbon dioxide from thawing Arctic permafrost, combined with loss of heat-deflecting white ice, will greatly accelerate warming, add up to $70tn to climate-related costs and disproportionately affect poorer countries.
United Nations experts predict that Arctic winter temperature rises of 3C to 5C above pre-industrial levels are now inevitable by mid-century, even with greenhouse gas emission cuts agreed in the 2016 Paris climate change accord. This has raised fears of a "tipping point" when warming becomes irreversible. "What happens in the Arctic does not stay in the Arctic," said Joyce Msuya of the UN environment programme.
Most members of the Arctic Council, a forum comprising Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden and representatives of indigenous peoples, seem to accept urgent action is needed. But one member, the US, disagrees. American obstructionism now threatens to prevent meaningful progress on joint ameliorative measures.
Trump officials have tried to block any mention of climate change in summit documents. The US also rejected any reference to the Paris agreement, which Trump, a notorious climate change denier, withdrew from in 2017. The American position reportedly softened after other countries strongly objected, but big questions remain over what the summit can actually achieve.
Attempts within the US to overcome Trump's pigheadedness have had mixed success. The latest National Climate Assessment, the work of 13 federal agencies and hundreds of scientists, warned "devastating" climate change could cost the economy $500bn a year by 2099. Last week, the House of Representatives voted to require the White House to adhere to the Paris accord. And an Alaska court has blocked Trump's efforts to allow Arctic offshore oil and gas drilling. But Trump is not budging. He said he "did not believe" his own government's climate assessment. The Democrats' House resolution has little chance of passing the Republican-controlled Senate. And the White House is pushing back, unveiling a new strategy to challenge the scientific consensus that fossil fuels are the leading cause of climate change and pose growing security, economic and health threats.
Yet even as he denies climate change, Trump wants US businesses to exploit Arctic resources, including vast oil and gas reserves, which is only possible due to thawing ice and increased accessibility. It's a prospective bonanza that Russia and China also eye greedily. There is even talk of a "polar Silk Road" as part of Beijing's Belt and Road trade initiative.
Mike Pompeo, the US secretary of state and climate change sceptic who will attend the Finland summit, has other priorities. Last week, his spokesman warned China, which has Arctic Council observer status, to keep out. What most worries Pompeo and the Pentagon is increasing Chinese (and Russian) investment -- and expanding military bases -- not a drowning, dying planet.
Intensifying great power competition in the Arctic is a foolish distraction from incomparably more urgent global climate concerns. Arctic Council members must stand up this week. They should tell the US to get real -- or get lost.