Notes from the North: Climate Change Is Accelerating

A year ago, I traveled by ship through the Arctic Ocean, seeing the effects of global warming first hand. Now I have come to Winnipeg for a meeting of the Aspen Commission on Arctic Climate Change.

As I listen to scientists discuss their findings, I am astonished at how rapidly the Earth's climate is being altered--faster even then researchers thought 12 months ago. And I am struck once again by how urgent it is that America commit to curbing global warming.

The Arctic is melting at this moment, while our nation debates and delays. And while it may seem that the top of the globe is far from us, the monumental and potentially catastrophic changes happening there will make themselves known in communities up and down our coasts unless we embrace clean energy solutions right now.

A small but vocal group of naysayers has been encouraging Americans to ignore the opportunities embedded in clean energy and instead look backwards to the 19th century method of burning rocks for energy. We don't need to innovate, they say; we can take care of global warming by doing more of the same.

They ignore the grave consequences of that path at our peril.

Here are just a few of the recent scientific findings of what is happening to the Earth. These impacts will only increase if we go backward, not forward into the future.

  • A June report released by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and other federal agencies found that climate change is interfering with America's water supply and agriculture right now.
  • A recent report released by researchers at MIT, concluded that earlier estimates of temperature increases were too conservative. Previously, scientists forecasted a 4 degree rise by the end of the century; now it looks more like 9 degrees--a rise sufficient enough to cause major disruptions in the way we live.
  • A study by the U.S. Climate Change Science Program found that global warming pollution will likely cause the United States and Canada to rare extreme events--intense downpours, higher storm surges, and excessive heat--will become commonplace.

How can we prevent more drastic impacts from pounding America?

We can start by passing the American Clean Energy and Security Act, a bill before the Senate that will get America moving down a path to climate solutions, technological innovation, and economic growth.

We can also put systems in place to protect the Arctic--the ground zero of global warming. The changes happening in the Arctic don't just threaten the environment; they also hurt the 1 million people who live above the Arctic Circle--people whom Alaska Governor Sarah Palin seems to discount when she ignores the consequences of sticking with our energy status quo.

Here at the Commission on Arctic Climate Change, we are trying to create a conservation and governance structure for the North. As a result of global warming, some 28,000 square miles of summer sea ice vanishes in the Arctic each year, taking with it the principle physical barrier to intensive industrial development that protected this remote region for thousands of years.

The rest of the world's oceans are in a state of collapse. We have a chance in the Arctic to preserve the last undeveloped ocean in the world, and to figure out the best way to manage its natural resources over the long term. 

While the American Clean Energy and Security Act won't address the Arctic specifically, its efforts to curb global warming will slow the degradation of this remarkable ecosystem.

And as our lawmakers debate the various elements of the bill, I hope they will be mindful of one thing: the changes to our climate are accelerating, not slowing. If we don't act soon, we will incur terrible costs.