Glacial Change: Will The Arctic Council Meeting Be Just Another Missed Opportunity for Climate Action?

Climate change is slamming the Arctic more severely than any other place on Earth. Yet tomorrow’s Arctic Council ministerial meeting in Kiruna, Sweden is not expected to produce substantial action to address it.

In short, glaciers are moving faster than efforts to slow them. Representatives from the eight Arctic nations, including US Secretary of State John Kerry, will gather to sign an oil spill preparedness and response agreement and vote on permanent observer status for other major nations with Arctic interests, including China and the EU. While the agenda includes presentations on ocean acidification and resilience, meaningful commitments to slow the devastating effects of climate change are unlikely.

Acknowledging the fact that climate change is occurring in the Arctic at double the rate of the rest of the planet, Gustaf Lind, Sweden’s top Arctic official, stated in a pre-meeting press conference that discussions regarding reductions in the CO2 emissions that fuel global warming should be reserved for the United Nations process.

However, CO2 reductions are not the only means of curbing climate change, and smaller forums like the Arctic Council offer a rare opportunity to reach agreements without needing 190 countries on board. The last ministerial meeting in 2011 highlighted the role of black carbon in climate change. Black carbon — essentially soot from inefficient combustion, such as natural gas flaring, wood stoves and the controlled burning of agricultural waste — is particularly dangerous in the Arctic, where it darkens ice surfaces and accelerates melting.

Black carbon and other short-lived climate pollutants (SLCPs) are potent greenhouse gases that play a major role in driving global warming. However, new research from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography found that reducing SCLPs in conjunction with curbing carbon pollution could have a very powerful effect on mitigating climate change. Though the Council’s Task Force on SLCPs has produced a significant body of research and recommendations, no commitments from Arctic Council members to curb their emissions were made in 2011 and two years later, SLCPs are on the agenda once again but without a plan to reduce their destructive presence.

Unfortunately, time is not on the Council’s side. Last year was a very grim one for the Arctic, as record-low sea ice extent, record ice sheet surface melting in Greenland, record-high permafrost temperature, and record-low snow extent were all recorded.

Secretary Kerry has underscored the urgency of climate change in recent months, today offering “regret” that the US hasn’t done more to address the problem. A new Arctic management plan released by the White House on Friday, however, was little more than a restatement of the vague goals for the region drafted at the end of the Bush presidency. In addition to advocating responsible stewardship of the Arctic ecosystem, the plan called for development of offshore oil and gas resources as part of the administration’s “all of the above” strategy.

Offshore drilling in the Arctic comes with an enormous risk and cost due to the lack of infrastructure, oil spill response technology, baseline scientific knowledge, and preparedness to operate in the harsh and unpredictable conditions. Ironically, the dramatic changes experienced throughout the Arctic — many of which are the result of man-made climate change — are unlocking massive fossil-fuel reserves which, when burned, would only accelerate the destructive cycle of unchecked emissions and warming. Slowing the devastating steamroll of climate change requires slashing the amount of greenhouse gases released into the atmosphere, not opening up vast new sources of carbon.

At a time when climate change should receive top billing at the Arctic Council ministerial, allowing another meeting to pass without a concerted effort to deal directly with the pollutants that are driving the dramatic changes in the Arctic is a serious missed opportunity.