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The Good, the Bad and the Melting

Some good things happened this last week at the Arctic Council ministerial meeting in Nuuk, Greenland, but the sense of urgency to protect the world’s last great wilderness from the ravages of resource extraction – and to slow Arctic warming and melting – was lacking.

Among the good things that happened in Nuuk:

Not only Secretary of State Hillary Clinton but also Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar attended. This was the first time that the United States sent a cabinet-level representative to a meeting of the Arctic countries’ foreign ministers, let alone two. The clear implication is that the Obama Administration is paying much more attention to the Arctic than any previous administration and recognizes that what happens in the Arctic as a whole, and not just Alaska, could have important consequences for the United States.

The council’s eight members states agreed to set up and fund a permanent secretariat to support its work. The council has managed to accomplish quite a bit in terms of scientific studies of Arctic challenges and recommendations for action, but it had reached the limits of what it could effectively do to protect the Arctic through ad hoc staffing and funding arrangements. Permanent staff and more dependable funding arrangements should allow the council to play a more constructive and timely role in protecting the Arctic, where, due to climate change and loss of sea ice, time is truly “of the essence.”

The Arctic countries signed an international agreement on cooperation in search and rescue efforts in the Arctic to respond to future shipping or other accidents. While this does nothing for the much bigger problems of climate change, sea ice loss or ocean acidification, it represents a step forward in regional cooperation that could carry over and prove helpful in negotiating agreements addressing bigger and harder problems, such as:

Responding to oil spills and oil pollution in the Arctic. The ministers authorized a task force to look at possibilities for cooperation in oil spill preparedness and response – but, pointedly and misguidedly, not prevention. (Read on for more on the need for prevention…) -- with an eye toward an agreement and protocols that will allow resources from all Arctic countries to be brought to bear in response to a major oil spill resulting from a blowout, pipeline rupture, ship collision or grounding. Diplomatic dances will not have to be danced before international resources are brought to bear.

Last, and potentially most important, the ministers, and Secretary Clinton specifically, recognized the huge role black carbon, or soot, plays in the warming of the Arctic, the loss of sea ice, the melting of the Greenland ice cap and, ultimately, in climate change and sea level rise world-wide. Not much else was done, but at least the urgency and opportunity presented by black carbon is now recognized at the highest levels of government.

All of this, however, may be too little, too late

Neither the ministers nor anyone else were willing to talk about a task force or an international agreement to try to prevent oil spills, although Deepwater Horizon proved that cleaning up an oil spill once it’s happened isn’t a very realistic proposal under the best of circumstances, let alone under harsh, icy Arctic conditions. The U.S. commission that investigated the Deepwater Horizon spill concluded that there was a lot that could have been done to avoid the spill in the first place, including greater government oversight; are we simply going to trust the offshore oil industry once more to police itself?

Nor was anyone willing even to mouth the thought that Arctic countries might want to delay oil exploration and development for a few years while they did a little more scientific exploration and research to document just what might be at risk and figure out whether there are some areas that might best be avoided altogether. The Arctic countries talk a lot about “sustainability” in managing the Arctic, but when it comes to a finite resource like oil the approach is to use it up as quickly as possible. It doesn’t jibe.

And finally, although the ministers recognized that black carbon in the Arctic air and on snow and ice is a huge factor in Arctic warming and that curbing black carbon could have immediate and significant benefits in retarding Arctic warming – and Sec.Clinton is to be commended for speaking about it – there was no commitment to tackle the problem beyond continuing the work of the Arctic Council’s Task Force on the so-called “Short-Lived” global warming pollutants.

There’s nothing wrong with more analysis and scientific monitoring, of course. But we already know enough about black carbon and its sources and its detrimental impacts on human health as well as Arctic climate, to start taking action now even as further research is done. The Arctic is warming very, very fast, with potentially disastrous consequences not only for the Arctic but for the entire world. The council’s own Arctic Marine Assessment Program is now saying that accelerated melting of the Greenland Ice Sheet could raise sea level by five feet in the next 90 years.

The world cannot afford to let an imaginary “best” plan for addressing black carbon drive out the good that could be done now by instituting a crash Arctic-wide effort to reduce black carbon emissions and helping fund efforts in developing countries to do so as well.

And this brings us to what is perhaps the greatest failure of the Nuuk meeting: the continuing failure of the ministers and the council to act as though time were running out, though it clearly is. If the Arctic countries are to fulfill their stewardship responsibilities for the Arctic, as individual countries and through the Arctic Council, they are going to have to move into high gear. They cannot continue to let a schedule of bi-annual meetings of the foreign ministers, or their desire to develop the Arctic’s resources, dictate the pace of their response to the Arctic crises.

When it comes to climate change, it is in the Arctic that the world has the most at risk the soonest and also where there is the greatest opportunity to take action to slow warming and melting in the next few decades. We all need to push as hard as we can, and hope.

Earthjustice will be working hard with our allies to push the Arctic countries to build on the first steps taken by the council last week and to take stronger action on oil spill response and short-lived global warming pollutants like black carbon, in the coming years.

 

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