Last week, I attended a Washington event on Arctic energy; I was hoping for some insights on the challenges ahead, namely greenhouse gas emissions, diplomatic tensions, and indigenous rights. Since Arctic exploitation hasn’t yet enjoyed a “Keystone XL” level of public attention, it seemed healthy to get some first-hand information from Arctic experts, as major oil players like Shell are getting closer to full-scale commercial exploitation. After all, a generation’s treasure chest often turns out to be another generation’s ticking bomb.

Instead, I ended up listening to lengthy presentations by analysts, consultants, fellows and executives talking about climate change “removing constraints”, “effective diplomatic work” being made, and “supply chain complexity” hampering the process, for a solid two hours. There’s a saying in the marketing industry that ‘eco-friendly’ should be the third button to push when advertising a product, after, say, affordability or quality. In this discussion, ‘eco-friendly’ was clearly the fourth or fifth button, if it was mentioned at all. One should have expected this, however, as the event invitation used no apparent irony when announcing in the same sentence that Arctic experts would examine “what nations can do to protect the environment andincrease production” (my emphasis).

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arctic, Climate Change, coal, developing countries, emissions reductions, energy security, low-carbon, peak oil, renewable energy, Unconventional oil, United States
Photo courtesy USFWS

Photo courtesy USFWS

The Canadian government didn’t win many fans at December’s Copenhagen climate summit. Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s administration staunchly opposed further emissions restrictions on his country, despite Canada’s failure to meet its Kyoto Protocol commitment of cutting fossil fuel emissions 5.2 percent below 1990 levels by 2008–12. Instead, domestic emissions escalated further.

Canada’s new target of reducing emissions 3 percent below 1990 levels by 2020 and 51–63 percent by 2050 is insufficient to prevent climate change from permanently altering the country’s northern backyard. Last week, the Arctic Council announced in its Arctic Species Trend Index, which the Canadian government funded, that High Arctic vertebrate species declined 26 percent between 1970 and 2004. Populations in more southern and marine Arctic ecosystems have experienced less dramatic changes, but climate change is clearly threatening the survival of polar wildlife, including in Canada. Arctic species are expected to be displaced as more southerly species encroach into warmer northern habitats, and polar ice melt threatens to further shrink Arctic habitats.

Harper’s administration seems increasingly uncommitted to supporting climate science. Its 2010 budget withholds funds to the Canadian Foundation for Climate and Atmospheric Sciences, a move that may reduce university-based climate science research by half, according to Climate Action Network (CAN) Canada. Government climate experts have been discouraged from speaking directly with the news media. And perhaps most disturbing, Harper has appointed three climate change skeptics to the boards of two key granting agencies for university-based research: the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council and the Canada Foundation for Innovation.

In a new CAN-Canada report that summarizes the Harper government’s approach to climate science, the authors write: “Overall, it is difficult not to arrive at the conclusion that the government of Prime Minister Stephen Harper sees climate change only as a political problem, not a real-world threat. And in order to reduce its political problem, the government seems quite willing to undermine scientific research and those who undertake it, in federal departments and Canadian universities.”

Later this month, the U.S.-based National Snow and Ice Data Center will announce its annual study of polar sea-ice extent, which will likely provide more troubling news about climate change’s effect on the Arctic. Let’s hope Mr. Harper takes notice. His government cannot neglect its responsibility to raise awareness about climate-related changes under way in the Arctic, and it must take action to lower emissions.

Ben Block is a staff journalist at the Worldwatch Institute in Washington, DC. Click here to read “Wildlife Declines Observed Across Arctic Region” in Worldwatch’s Eye on Earth news service.

arctic, Canada, Climate Change, Stephen Harper, wildlife
September 2007 photo of summer ice breaking up in the Northwest Passage. Courtesy New York Times

September 2007 photo of summer ice breaking up in the Northwest Passage. Courtesy New York Times

The security concerns around the Arctic are quickly becoming hot topics in Washington but it was still a little jarring to hear Dr. Robert Huebert, a professor at the University of Calgary in Canada, speak so bluntly about the military implications of melting ice in one of the few truly placid regions remaining on the planet.

“We are already in an Arctic arms race,” said Huebert, during a panel discussion at the Center for National Policy on February 2. “We’re just not aware of it.”

Even more ominously, Huebert compared the current situation in the Arctic to Europe in 1935, implying that it is a powder keg ready to explode with dire implications for the entire world.  “Everybody is preparing for the worst-case scenario,” Huebert says.

By “everybody,” Huebert is mainly referring to the nations ringing the Arctic—the United States, Canada, Russia, Norway, and Denmark. Norway and Denmark have focused their security efforts on the Arctic, Russia famously planted a flag on the North Pole seabed in 2007 and has been more assertive in its Arctic policy, the United States is increasing its presence in Alaska, and Canada, Huebert said, is “talking a lot, but not doing anything.”

China, Japan, and South Korea also have interests in the Arctic, though these nations do not border the region. China and Japan have their eyes on the Arctic’s resources while South Korea has recently emerged as the world’s leading developer of Arctic commercial vessels.

The Council on Foreign Relations’ Dr. Scott Borgerson, who moderated the panel, said the Arctic has been losing 1,000 kilometers in ice volume each year since 1995. The ocean could be ice free during the summer months at some point between 2016 and 2030 and this would open up many new shipping routes and increase the military significance of the region.

Gary Hart, the former Democratic senator from Colorado, echoed Huebert’s concern about security concerns in the Arctic. Hart compared the Northwest Passage, which could become a major shipping passage in the next decade or so, to some of the most militarized areas of the last 60 years. He likened the Passage to the Fulda Gap, which, during the Cold War, was a strategic corridor separating East and West Germany, and the Strait of Hormuz, a waterway between Iran and Oman, which today is a major choke point for the oil trade and a focus for the world’s military planners.

“Quite often geography symbolizes how we see our security,” said Hart.

One of the main issues surrounding the Northwest Passage and a strong point of contention between Canada and the U.S. is under whose jurisdiction does the waterway fall. Canada says it is their water, while the U.S. maintains that it is an international passage.

Still, United States Coast Guard Rear Admiral Gene Brooks, who has served in Alaska, said the Canadian and American militaries share intelligence in the Arctic and the forces have worked together seamlessly. The larger problem is simply getting the average American to realize that the U.S. is, indeed, an Arctic nation. This goes beyond military security, he said, and extends to issues of culture and economics.

“We need a national debate on what to do as an Arctic nation,” said Brooks.

arctic, Canada, Climate Change, climate effects, denmark, japan, norway, Russia, security, south korea
Vladimir Chouprov, from Greenpeace Russia, describes the challenges of forest fires in the Arctic nations

Vladimir Chouprov, from Greenpeace Russia, describes the challenges of forest fires in the Arctic nations

“Carbon Dioxide” is definitely the phrase of the day when it comes to climate change talks. This greenhouse gas has become synonymous with the challenge of rising global temperatures, and indeed, it is estimated to be responsible for nearly 40 percent of climate change. However, there are other greenhouse gases that have, until now, received less attention. These gases, such as hydroflourocarbons (HFCs), chloroflourocarbons (CFCs), nitrous oxides and other pollutants are crucial for quickly reducing climate change.

Black carbon is a form of particulate air pollution, released through the incomplete burning of biomass, biofuels and fossil fuels, such as coal and diesel. According to Professor V. Ramanathan, of the Scripps Institute of Oceanography, it is estimated to have as much as 60 percent of the global warming effect of carbon dioxide. Yet until recently it was not recognised as a warming agent at all. Although of significance across the globe, black carbon has a particularly concerning effect on tundra regions, which include the North and South poles, as well as mountainous areas.

“Over 90 percent of the black carbon emitted by nations in the Arctic-region (which lie above 40 degrees latitude), comes from agricultural, forest or peat fires”, said Elena Koblets, Director for Development at  Russia-based Bellona Foundation, an international environmental NGO based in Norway, at a UN climate summit side event this week. In the southern hemisphere, Koblets said, the main source is different. Far more comes from the burning of diesel for transport and power, as well as from biomass burning for heat and cooking.

When sunlight reaches suspended black carbon particles in the air, it is absorbed as heat, warming the air directly around it. Furthermore, when this sooty residue deposits on snow and ice, it darkens the surface causing the ground to absorb more light as heat and melt at a faster rate than it would otherwise. On a large scale, melt may accelerate the loss of stable water resources in the form of glaciers and snow. It can also cause changes in local ecosystem dynamics with each species responding differently to the changes in snow and ice availability.

Despite its significance, black carbon is barely on the agenda in Copenhagen. It receives a brief mention in one of the negotiating texts (the “LCA text”) and they are hoping to get it into one other (the “vision text”). At this late stage of the negotiations, observers said it seems too difficult to introduce new greenhouse gases but that strong voluntary actions and domestic policy change to address black carbon emissions is essential.

“Black carbon projects are not eligible for clean development mechanism funding at this time, but that’s the kind of step that the UN could take,” said Pam Pearson, of the International Cryosphere Climate Initiative.

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arctic, black carbon, Climate Change, ice, short term forcers, snow