Bringing the Arctic and the Rainforest to New York's Climate Week

Climate Week has begun, and I am already inspired by the sense of momentum. From the U.N. Secretary General's Summit on Climate Change on Tuesday to the G20 Summit in Pittsburg at the end of the week, world leaders are turning their attention to the crisis of global warming and positioning themselves for the international climate negotiations in Copenhagen this December.

My NRDC colleagues and I will be spending the week pushing the United States to take a leadership role in slashing carbon pollution, but we will also be advocating for the landscapes already ravaged by climate change.

On Tuesday, I have the honor of speaking at the United Nations with His Serene Highness Prince Albert II of Monaco. We will call on the international community to protect the canary in the coal mine of the climate crisis: the Arctic.

Long before newly emboldened droughts and wildfires brought climate change to our backyards, the distant North was taking the brunt of global warming, and its melting ice and imperiled wildlife have called the world's attention to the severity of this calamity.

But even as we finally listen to what the Arctic is telling us and strive to limit global warming pollution around the world, we must also act to protect the ecosystem itself.

A few years ago, I went to the Explorers Club in New York and saw the sledge that Admiral Peary used to reach the North Pole. If Perry used that sledge today, he would fall into the ocean--there simply isn't enough sea ice to make the journey on a dogsled. 

Just last week, the National Snow and Ice Data Center reported that summer sea ice declined by about 540,000 square miles below the 1979-2000 average. That is more than the size of Texas, California, Florida and Indiana. The retreating ice means disaster for animals like polar bears and walrus that need ice platforms from which to feed and rest.

But it also means that a region protected for millennia by ice will be suddenly available for oil drilling, fishing, shipping, and other industrial development. There is currently no system in place to effectively manage and police the impending gold rush.

If we introduce unchecked industrial development to an Arctic already made vulnerable by climate change, we may never be able to restore the ecosystem that holds back sea-level rise for the entire globe.

We don't have to let it get that far. We can sustain the Arctic's long-term health by acting today. I am a member of the Aspen Institute Commission on Arctic Climate Change--a partnership between the Aspen Institute and the Prince Albert II of Monaco Foundation--and we are drafting guidelines for managing new human activity in the Arctic in a way that does not push this already severely stressed region over the brink. I will share some of these ideas at the United Nations.

While HSH the Prince and I promote solutions for the Arctic, other advocates will spend Climate Week calling for stronger protections for the Earth's rainforests.

There are many reasons to preserve tropical rainforests, but climate change may have risen to the top of the list. These forests sequester about 20 percent of the world's greenhouse gas emissions, and yet they are being destroyed on such a grand scale that deforestation accounts for about 17 percent of all carbon emissions--more than the entire transportation sector. 

Halting deforestation is one of the most effective things the international community can do to stop global warming. And so rainforest advocates are using the spotlight on Climate Week to draw attention to the urgent need for forest protections in all climate treaties.

NRDC, for instance, partnered with the Prince's Rainforest Project, founded by Prince Charles.  The project has made brief film clips of famous people--Harrison Ford, the Dalai Lama, Daniel Craig--and not so famous--young children, students --introducing themselves as rainforest advocates. To add your name to this effort to protect the rainforests, go here and send an SOS to world leaders.  I did, and I even participated in a film clip, alongside a rather large frog.

The frog's presence--and even a cameo appearance by Kermit the Frog --adds welcome levity to a grave topic.

As we find ourselves in the midst of Climate Week, with just two months to go before the Copenhagen negotiations, and yet still no firm climate commitment from the United States in hand, a little laughter is a welcome thing indeed.