At a time of unprecedented uncertainty in a rapidly warming Arctic, one thing is clear: U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry does not plan to stand by idly and watch. At a reception last week to celebrate the U.S. Chairmanship of the Arctic Council, Kerry highlighted the urgent need to curb Arctic and global climate change. Kerry stressed the consequences of unchecked climate change for people in the Arctic and around the planet. In his address to Arctic nation ministers, members of Congress, and other policymakers, Kerry said that the Arctic “is not just a picturesque landscape. It’s a home. It’s a lifestyle. It has a history.”
Arctic communities, he said, are “4 million strong living there for centuries, and believe me, they are an essential part of everything that is critical to the region.” With the Arctic warming twice as fast as the rest of the planet, the Secretary’s concern is warranted. Higher temperatures in the Arctic have devastating consequences for people in the region and around the globe. As Arctic sea ice disintegrates, Native Alaska villages — already teetering on the eroding coastal edge — are sliding into rising seas. The Secretary also described rapid melting of the Greenland ice sheet and Arctic glaciers, which causes seas to rise and puts people and entire cities in coastal and low-lying areas in the United States and around the world at risk of flooding. In addition, rising Arctic temperatures trigger a vicious cycle of even more warming, both in the region and globally. For example, as permafrost thaws, it could release vast amounts of carbon and methane into the atmosphere and hamstring global efforts to cut carbon pollution. Kerry is not alone with his concerns. During his commencement speech at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy in New London, Connecticut this week, President Obama warned that “climate change constitutes a serious threat to global security, an immediate risk to our national security.” Kerry stepped into the Arctic Council Chairmanship just seven months before the December climate conference in Paris, where nations plan to solidify a new global climate agreement. There has been progress around the globe already to reduce carbon pollution — the primary driver of climate change — including new emissions reduction goals by the United States, China, the European Union, Norway, Mexico, among others.
Still, countries are not on track to deliver in Paris the collective emissions reductions we need to limit warming to 2°C — what scientists say is the threshold for preventing unmanageable climate changes. Success in Paris at this point will be locking in a rigorous and legally binding process for countries to strengthen the ambition of their targets going forward, and to be held accountable to deliver on those targets. As Arctic Council Chairman, Kerry has a rare opportunity to build momentum for a strong outcome in Paris. Kerry has already started to take advantage of this opportunity. For example, addressing climate change is a central focus of his Arctic Council chairmanship. He also plans to expand access to renewable energy technologies in the Arctic, and press for full implementation of the Framework for Enhanced Action to Reduce Black Carbon and Methane Emissions, adopted at the April Arctic Council Ministerial meeting in Inqaluit, Canada. Black carbon and methane are potent pollutants that threaten public health and accelerate warming in the Arctic and globally. Black carbon pollution comes from sources including diesel vehicles, oil and gas production and flaring, woodstoves for cooking and heating, wildfires, and agricultural burning. Sources of methane emissions include venting and flaring at oil and gas fields, natural gas leaks, coal mining, landfills, water and waste water treatment, and agricultural fires. There are a few immediate steps that Kerry, President Obama, and other Arctic nation leaders can take in order to curb Arctic warming, improve Arctic economic and living conditions, and help secure a strong climate agreement in Paris. First, they can announce new actions to reduce black carbon and methane pollution, and encourage Arctic Council observer nations — including China, India, Germany, the U.K. — to do the same. This would help accelerate momentum before and after the Paris climate conference to lock in more ambitious national efforts to curb climate change. For example, in the U.S., the Bureau of Oceans Energy Management has an opportunity through its ongoing rulemaking process to require oil and gas companies to limit black carbon pollution to protect public health and safeguard the climate. Second, they can invest in improving the energy efficiency of Arctic schools, buildings, and homes, as well as of hybrid energy systems that integrate a mix of renewable energy resources with existing diesel generators. This would lower household energy costs in Arctic communities — which in some cases exceed 50 percent of household income — and reduce carbon and black carbon pollution in the region. “Every nation that cares about the future of the Arctic has to be a leader in taking and urging others to move forward with bold initiatives and immediate, ambitious steps to curb the impact of greenhouse gases,” Kerry said at the Arctic reception.
Cathleen Kelly is a Senior Fellow at American Progress specializing in international and U.S. climate mitigation and resilience.