White House: U.S. Has ‘Moral Obligation’ To Help Communities In Warming Arctic

CREDIT: AP Photo/Greenpeace International, Christian Aslund

In this photo made available by Greenpeace International, President Anote Tong of the Pacific Island nation Kiribati stands during a retreat to the high Arctic glacier Nordenskioldbreen, on Svalbard, in Norway. Fearing that his Pacific island nation could be swallowed by a rising ocean, the president of Kiribati says a visit to the melting Arctic has helped him appreciate the scale of the threat.

In just a few months, America will have the unique position of leading the Arctic Council, an international panel tasked with addressing the most important issues facing the Arctic region. On Tuesday, the Obama administration released some preparation material for that position: a blog post discussing the moral imperative to help citizens living within the Arctic Circle, especially those who are being forced to relocate due to rapidly warming temperatures and sea level rise.

The blog post, written by U.S. special representative for the Arctic Admiral Robert Papp, Jr., sought to remind people of the myriad challenges facing Alaska and other Arctic nations because of climate change. The effects of climate change are more severe in the Arctic environment than they are in the rest of the world — the atmosphere is warming twice as fast; the ocean is rising quickly and coastlines are eroding; essential features of the ecosystem like glaciers, sea ice, and tundra are rapidly disappearing.

These things don’t just impact the Arctic environment, Papp wrote, they impact the quality of Americans’ lives. Native Americans in northern Alaska are rapidly losing land to sea-level rise, leaving them with high relocation costs and a long-term worry that their sovereign land will disappear altogether. And because of black carbon pollution, a main component of soot and short-term driver of climate change, some Arctic communities have high rates of respiratory and other health problems.

“As an Arctic nation, we have a moral obligation to use our human, financial, and scientific resources to help those in the region find ways to adapt to these changes, and to significantly reduce the pollutants driving global climate change,” he wrote.

Papp’s statements generally call Americans to action on Arctic warming issues. But they also signify the direction the U.S. plans to take during its two-year leadership of the intergovernmental Arctic Council, during which America will set the agenda. The position, which starts in April 2015 and ends in 2017, is passed off every two years by one of the eight Arctic countries that make up the council: Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Canada, Norway, Russia, Sweden, and the United States.

The leadership role is a unique position for the U.S., one that only comes around every 16 years. Right now, the council is led by Canada, which has taken a decidedly pro-industry and pro-development stance in its approach to improving life in the Arctic. The country’s theme, titled “Development for the People of the North,” focuses on developing oil resources, increasing shipping, and encouraging tourism. The strategy actually takes advantage of the changing climate — more shipping lanes are opened up by melting ice, and oil is more easily developed. All of Canada’s goals for the Arctic include environmental caveats they say will help protect the environment while encouraging development.

Under the American-led council, it seems things will be a bit different. Economic development will still play a large role, but so will climate change mitigation and adaptation, something that is barely mentioned in the Canadian platform. Though it’s still under discussion, the U.S. is toying with the theme “One Arctic, With Shared Opportunities, Challenges, Responsibilities.”

Cathleen Kelly, a senior fellow who works on Arctic policy at the Center for American Progress, says the United States’ upcoming leadership on the council could be a historic opportunity to expand renewable energy use, strengthen adaptability and resilience, and significantly reduce emissions of methane and black carbon in the Arctic. She noted that the eight Arctic Council member nations and the twelve non-participating “observer” nations (which are not included in negotiations but can participate in agreements if they want) are responsible for at least 60 percent of global black carbon emissions and more than 40 percent of global human-caused methane emissions worldwide. Both are powerful drivers of climate change.

“It’s a historic moment,” Kelly said, noting the council would be led by Secretary of State John Kerry, who has historically been bullish on climate issues. “It’s a great moment not only to raise awareness of Arctic issues, but also an opportunity for the U.S. to drive ambitious action to reduce methane and black carbon.”

Kelly said reductions in methane would have to come from both inside and outside the Arctic. They could be achieved by increasing monitoring of oil and gas operations for methane leaks, implementing systems for capturing methane emissions from oil and gas operations, and most importantly, securing methane reduction commitments from Arctic Council nations and observer nations. Kelly also said it was unlikely that the council under the United States would push for an end to Arctic oil drilling. The question instead would be how to develop in the safest way possible.

“There’s no real talk of a moratorium [on Arctic drilling],” she said. “The cat’s already out of the bag.”

There is, however, a catch to the Obama administration’s plan to mitigate climate change in the Arctic. And that’s the fact that Kerry won’t be at the helm of the Arctic Council for the entire time it’s in America’s hands. The leadership position extends until April 2017, meaning the next President — whoever he or she may be — will choose who represents the United States at the Arctic Council and what its priorities will be. Depending on who is elected, those priorities could be vastly different than Kerry’s.

That doesn’t mean Kerry can’t get anything done, though.

“The Obama administration is going to have to front-load the agenda, and host a big meeting in 2016 before the next administration takes office,” Kelly said. “There can be some things that actually get done.”