Call it a contradiction of glacial proportions—an Arctic paradox.
The world pushes for stronger protective measures to curb climate change scientists say is accelerating the destruction of the Arctic—melting ice sheets, thawing frozen soil and threatening the iconic polar bear. Call it plan A.
There is a contingency plan, however, that takes advantage of new Arctic opportunities—in shipping, mining, drilling and national security—if the big melt continues apace. Call it plan B.
The contrast between the two plans—aggressively restraining further climate change or exploiting advantages as they occur—was in sharp relief at two international conferences that took place last month: the 2015 Arctic Circle Assembly in Reykjavik, Iceland, and the intergovernmental Arctic Council in Anchorage, Alaska. Protecting Arctic waters, land and people has never been more urgent, particularly as a backdrop to the upcoming high-stakes United Nations climate negotiations in Paris this December.
As part of a Harvard Kennedy School delegation at the Arctic Circle Assembly, which drew 2,000 attendees from 50 countries, I was struck by the contrasts of science, commerce and public policy.
Think thawing permafrost. Environmental damage wrought by global warming is much worse in the Arctic than other parts of the world. While the public focuses on ice sheets and polar bears, a lesser-known but potentially enormous climate threat comes from the permanently frozen soil known as permafrost. It’s a repository for massive amounts of carbon from plants, animals and microbes accumulated over thousands of years. As Woods Hole Research Center scientists explained at an Arctic Circle panel, thawing of permafrost would release the heat-trapping greenhouse gases carbon dioxide and methane, triggering a feedback cycle accelerating even more warming. The big wild card is how soon and much. Unfortunately, most climate change models do not yet include the potential effects of permafrost thaw. Since permafrost comprises one-fourth of Northern Hemisphere land, it’s imperative for the federal government to support more scientific research about its large-scale impact. What we don’t know can hurt us.
Think shipping and precious minerals. A recent University of Colorado Boulder study projects far more open water in the Arctic in decades to come due to global warming. But melting ice has already prompted the pursuit of shipping through the Arctic Ocean. Last week, China’s biggest shipping company COSCO announced its intention to launch regular cargo service from Asia to Europe “in the future” using the shorter northern Arctic route that is opening up during summer months. However, no timetable was given. At the Arctic Circle meeting, presenters from China, Russia, Germany, Japan and Northern European countries repeatedly stressed the time and money benefits of a commercial Northern sea route. Talk of drilling for oil and gas is off the table for now, with prices low and Shell’s recent Alaska pullout. But mining for diamonds and other precious minerals is not. Stepping up commercial activities would require worker facilities and new shipping ports. The shipping dangers—from accidents and spills to well-nigh impossible search and rescue efforts, not to mention the obvious environmental concerns—should give pause to those pushing for more commerce in the harsh Arctic conditions.
Think sustainable development and stewardship. These buzzwords were so ubiquitous at the Assembly that they seemed to lose meaning, leading me to wonder whether the emphasis was on “sustainable” or “development.” One Chinese official called for a “balance between protection and utilization,” noting that the Arctic had “great potential as a shipping route,” but “at the same time the ecosystem is fragile.” “Stewardship” had a more statesman-like feel, particularly when uttered by Iceland President Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson, a tireless Arctic ambassador who established the Arctic Circle Assembly three years ago as an open forum for Arctic dialogue.
Think national security. With widely publicized photos of tankers and machines guns, it’s hardly a secret that Russia has been visibly reinforcing its Arctic military presence. Russian government officials at the Assembly insisted, however, that the Arctic was “no place for confrontation and tensions…. There is no problem that might require military action.” Nonetheless, security interests are evident among the eight member countries of the Arctic Council, as well as 12 observer nations. The U.S. just started a two-year stint chairing the Arctic Council.
Think ahead. Whether it is environmental science, commerce or policy, it’s clear that what happens in the Arctic does not stay in the Arctic. Far from it. Recent highly publicized visits by President Obama to Alaska and French President François Hollande to Iceland highlighted the Arctic’s unfortunate role as a harbinger of things to come unless nations of the world succeed in significantly slowing human-caused climate change.
Solving the Arctic Paradox should err heavily on the side of stewardship and sustainability and not development.