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Melting of Greenland A Warning For The Planet

From the Kangerlussuaq airport, at 67 degrees North in Greenland...

It’s four hours to New York and five to Moscow, but only three to the North Pole. People are speaking Danish and the language of the Inuit people. I’m writing at the airport on my way home from the Arctic Council ministerial meeting, held in the capital, Nuuk, about 45 minutes south by plane. The Greenlandic landscape is stark and beautiful and resplendent in ice and snow over the rolling hills and craggy mountains.

Greenland is poised to soon become the newest nation on Earth – the first to achieve sovereignty because of climate change, melting ice allowing for increased access to oil and mineral resources that will generate revenues to run the country and finalize independence from Denmark.

It is part of the fragile Arctic ecosystem whose future not only will determine the survival of the extraordinary indigenous cultures and wildlife of the region, but will affect climate globally. As Patricia Cochran & Sheila Watt-Cloutier, both former chairs of the Inuit Circumpolar Council have written: “All the people of the globe rely on the Arctic’s cold.”

Arctic climate change affects the world.A report issued by the Arctic Council monitoring program for the ministerial meeting. shows that unexpectedly rapid melting of the Greenland Ice Sheet is a major contributor to a predicted 1 to 1.5 meter sea level rise this century– which would cause unimaginable damage and suffering, displacing millions of people in coastal and low-lying areas around the world.

But another report released for the ministerial by an Arctic Council Task Force on Short-lived Climate Forcers (along with one from the United Nations Environment Program) indicates that Arctic ice melt can be significantly slowed in the next few decades by curbing air pollution like soot.

Powerful but short-lived global warming pollutants like soot –known as black carbon – from trucks, ships and biomass burning, and methane from oil and gas drilling and landfills, last in the atmosphere for only a short time – days to a few years, compared to the 100 years or more for carbon dioxide. And they may account for up to 40 percent of Arctic melting.

This means that reducing emissions of these short-lived pollutants can provide urgently needed fast climate benefit for the Arctic in the near-term, as the world moves to cut carbon dioxide.
Unfortunately, neither report was officially on the agenda at the ministerial meeting. The Arctic Council countries were more concerned with smaller but still important issues, such as the strengthening of the council to evolve it into a true multilateral organization for the Arctic.

Recognition of the need to take action on black carbon from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and other foreign ministers is a key step in the right direction, but not enough given the overwhelming urgency to take action to reduce black carbon emissions and slow the warming and melting in the Arctic. To do nothing may spell extinction for the iconic species of the region like walrus and polar bear. The resulting sea level rise would be, in the words of Clinton, “potentially calamitous” for the rest of the world.

Clinton showed great leadership on black carbon at the ministerial meeting, noting in her remarks that the Task Force report proposed a range of responses to reduce emissions, including retrofitting old, polluting diesel engines, and stopping springtime agricultural burning. She stated that the legally binding agreement that the ministers would sign that day – on cooperation with search and rescue operations in the Arctic – was only the first agreement negotiated, and that there would be more. She hoped the Arctic countries would reach consensus to act on the Task Force’s recommendation.

Earthjustice will be working with our allies in the Arctic, indigenous organizations, environmental organizations and governments to help make Clinton’s vision a reality – before it’s too late for the Arctic, and for all of us who rely on the Arctic’s cold.