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All Hands on Deck

By Erica Dingman

“Climate change is a key pillar of the United States chairmanship program just as it is, in fact, a key part of the United States foreign policy writ large today.”

—John Kerry, U.S. Secretary of State, April 24, 2015

Tackling the causes of climate change leading to the unprecedented melting of the Arctic ice cap will require multi-level strategies, developed and importantly implemented by both public and private enterprise. It will require policy, regulation, negotiation, a passion for experimentation, creative thinking, and most of all cooperation—a journey, so to speak, that unleashes new opportunities and closes a few doors along the way. 

Amidst this global concern, the U.S. assumed the chairmanship of the Arctic Council on April 24, 2015 toting a hefty agenda in hand that prioritizes, among other issues, the local and global impacts of Arctic climate change. Concurrently and not without significance, the U.S. is also emphasizing the Arctic as a region of stability, peace, and international cooperation despite interstate tensions occurring as a result of conflict along the Russia-Ukraine border.

However, the Arctic Council is uniquely positioned to work across borders on issues that are now of global concern. Established in 1996, the Council is an intergovernmental forum created to promote cooperation, coordination, and interaction among Arctic states, with the explicit involvement of the Arctic indigenous peoples. In light of current tensions, the Council’s overarching emphasis on sustainable development and environmental protection allows for pan-Arctic dialogue where intergovernmental tensions have otherwise hindered relations with Russia. As a consensus-based forum, the Council doors must remain open to all member states to facilitate approval of Council activities.

So the U.S. will likely diplomatically engage the other seven Arctic states during its two-year rotational leadership of the Council. From a purely international relations perspective, it will be fascinating to watch how this all unfolds. Yet as chair of the Council, the U.S. needs to remain inclusive to advance its Arctic priorities. Of those priorities, the decision to promote the reduction of Short-Lived Climate Pollutants (SLCPs) has far reaching implications for the Arctic and global systems, one of the most worrying of which is black carbon, commonly known as “soot.”

Black carbon, along with a full menu of other pollutants, is responsible for climactic and environmental changes in the Arctic, which in turn are contributing to global climate change. Indeed, a user-friendly report recently released by the National Research Council stated, “The Arctic’s melting land ice and glaciers contribute to the sea-level rise happening around the world.” Moreover, expanded evidence is drawing a clearer scientific correlation between Arctic changes and unpredictable weather patterns thousands of miles away.

How we got here and continue along this path of environmental degradation can be firmly placed at the heels of the industrial revolution. With a growing population and increasing reliance on technology for everyday tasks, we now require more energy than ever, with 87 percent of that produced mostly from coal, oil and gas, a major producer of black carbon. According to the International Energy Agency the global demand for energy has more than doubled since 1971.

This is no small matter. Since 1980 alone, global carbon emissions have risen a whopping 25 percent, now measuring 400 parts per million (ppm), far surpassing the pre-industrial level of 275 ppm. “CO2 concentrations haven't been this high in millions of years. Even more alarming is the rate of increase in the last five decades and the fact that CO2 stays in the atmosphere for hundreds or thousands of years,” says Erika Podest, a carbon and water cycle research scientist with NASA. And nowhere else on earth are man-made pollutants having such a visible impact than in the Arctic. 

Together with CO2 emissions, SLCPs such as black carbon contributes to melting Arctic ice. Whereas CO2 warms the ice surface, black carbon deposits melt the ice from underneath. Known as the albedo effect, these deposits on the ice surface cause the ice to melt, the earth gets hotter, more Arctic sea ice melts and the water absorbs more light, which cycles back to make the earth even hotter. In other words, our thirst for energy fed by our fossil fuel dependency is perpetuating further melting of the Arctic ice cap. But the good news is that black carbon reductions are an effective measure in lessening near-term warming, while ridding the atmosphere of harmful CO2 emissions is much more complex, in part because they remain longer in the atmosphere.

Through the Council, the U.S. will promote full implementation in all Arctic states of the recommendations made by The Task Force for Action on Black Carbon and Methane, and will encourage non-Arctic states to do likewise. This is based in no small part on scientific research conducted by Council working groups. Subsequent to the highly acclaimed 2004 Arctic Climate Impact Assessment, the Council working group Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Programme implemented numerous studies on the effects of black carbon identifying it as a key contributor to global warming, the effects of which stands second only to CO2 in the amount of heat it traps in the atmosphere.

However, numerous indicators suggest that the industry is beginning to take part in reducing the cycle of fossil fuel dependency. According to analysts with Bloomberg New Energy Finance, energy generation capacity is trending in favor of renewable energies in contrast to fossil fuel capacity, which is trending downward. “The question is no longer if the world will transition to cleaner energy, but how long it will take,” notes the article. Where cheap oil is thought to be a threat to renewable energies Citibank says, “Fundamental factors—increasing economic competitiveness, energy security, and environmental goals—all remain potent forces driving ever more rapid adoption of renewable energy globally.”

So the payoff won’t be a grand slam (besides, our fossil fueled economy would collapse under the weight of abrupt change), but the rise of renewables backed by heavy hitters in the investment community suggests that a general trend toward climate-friendly investment is on the horizon.

The hope is that others will follow—a reduction in pollutants that have harmed the Arctic environment will require a herculean effort by governments, industry, and the public to shift our economic and social practices toward an environmentally friendly future. Shipping, oil and gas concerns, tourism, and the inevitability of fuel spills will all present a serious challenge to the Arctic environment.

For its part, the U.S. Arctic Council chairmanship is committed to promoting development of renewable energy technology in the U.S. Arctic facilitated in part through public-private partnerships and led by the Department of Energy with support from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, the Departments of Interior and State, and the Office of Ocean and Polar Affairs.  The chairmanship also presents an opportunity to align the growing desire to help the global economy ‘go green’ with the interests of business in an effort to transition away from Industrial Era thinking.

Simply, there is no one-size-fits-all solution to answer the needs of diverse players while also considering the ramifications of climate change. For the U.S alone, it’s a balancing act that calls upon a whole-of-government approach taking 27 government agencies to meet the challenges set forth by the U.S Arctic Council chairmanship.

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Erica Dingman is a senior fellow at the World Policy Institute and Director of Arctic in Context

[Photo courtesy of the U.S Coast Guard and Wikimedia Commons ]

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