My Turn: Obama-Trudeau summit demonstrates a joint focus on the arctic

  • Thursday, March 24, 2016 1:00am
  • Opinion

Earlier this month, President Barack Obama and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau held their first summit meeting, and resolved that the United States and Canada must and will play a leadership role internationally in the low carbon global economy over the coming decades. At the very top of their agenda was a global crisis — the unraveling of the Arctic due to climate change. This focus on climate change and science-based steps to protect the Arctic and its peoples demonstrates an improved commitment to the Arctic.

For millennia, the Arctic has been a stabilizing component of Earth’s climate system. Thanks to the work of the scientific community, led by U.S., Canadian and other international Arctic scientists over the past several decades, we now understand that the Arctic is changing rapidly, and with it, its impacts on weather patterns across the Northern Hemisphere.

The Obama-Trudeau Summit presented an opportunity to move from observations to actions. The questions for the leaders of the United States and Canada have become: How can we slow, and stabilize the warming of the Arctic, while also considering the need to adapt to the new Arctic?

The Arctic stores ice — massive amounts of it. By the end of this century, it is estimated that glacial and ice sheet melting will contribute to at least three feet of sea level rise, ultimately inundating cities and coastal regions throughout the world, including parts of North America. In short, the fate of Greenland’s ice sheet is the fate of Miami.

The Arctic also stores carbon. Locked away for millennia as frozen plant and organic matter constituting layers of permafrost, these carbon stores are estimated to contain more than twice the amount of carbon now present in the atmosphere. Runaway permafrost thaw could make stabilizing concentrations of atmospheric carbon dioxide much more difficult.

A warmer Arctic is hastening the loss of spring snow cover and sea ice, turning surfaces that reflect sunlight into sunlight absorbers, rendering the Arctic and the planet increasingly warmer. In fact, just as President Obama and Prime Minister Trudeau met, Arctic sea ice reached its annual maximum. This year’s maximum is likely to be one of the lowest on record.

In addition, due to a warmer, drier climate, the tundra and northern boreal forest are experiencing unprecedented fire seasons. Simultaneously, the southern boreal forest is on the verge of a massive bark beetle invasion that could ravage the dominant evergreen tree ecosystem, which extends across large parts of both countries.

A warmer Arctic is also causing major disruptions to the traditional ways of life of the Arctic’s indigenous peoples. Arctic communities must adapt to increased coastal erosion, flooding and frequency and severity of forest fires. Furthermore, changing animal migrations (e.g. caribou) and hazardous sea ice conditions en route to traditional hunting grounds have further jeopardized access to essential food supplies. Some communities in North America are being forced to relocate to less hazardous areas.

President Obama publicly recognized the dramatic state of the Arctic when he visited the Arctic last summer. In his speech to an international conference, the president pointedly noted the timing of the threat by observing: “There is such a thing as being too late,” and he brought these words with him to the summit meetings. Fortunately, Prime Minister Trudeau’s key priorities include climate change and other issues critical to the future of the Arctic, such as infrastructure investment and rebuilding trusting relations with First Nations, Metis and Inuit.

These leaders must thoroughly consider several essential questions as they work together: What is the Arctic we have to have? What can we not afford to lose? Can we allow accelerating permafrost degradation? How can we minimize the region’s contribution to sea level rise? Can sea ice and snow cover be restored? What can be done now to reduce the disruption to the traditional ways of life? And what are the unilateral, bilateral and multilateral actions required to start this journey?

Timing is critical. We have entered a period where we must act together with sufficient speed and scale to avoid catastrophic outcomes. The Arctic experience today is a signal of what is to come. We must recognize that some responses will require not only action within our lifetimes, but also action by future generations. Response is necessary at every level within governments, the private sector, NGOs, the academic community, and, perhaps most importantly, the people and communities of the Arctic.

The Obama-Trudeau summit has helped the continuing transformation of the climate change dialogue by focusing on climate change and clean energy, and making the Arctic central to these discussions.

• Rafe Pomerance is Chair of Arctic 21, a network of NGO scientists and advocates on Arctic climate issues, and is also a member of the Polar Research Board of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences. Russel Shearer is a member of the Board of Directors of the Canadian Climate Forum, and former Chair of the Arctic Council’s Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Programme (AMAP).

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