Tales from the Arctic and Obama’s Polar Bear Decision

Last Friday, two intrepid explorers finished their trek across some of Greenland's most remote territory. The travelers, Larry Lunt, a member of NRDC's Global Leadership Council, and Alain Hubert, the founder of the International Polar Foundation, set out on this expedition not only for the time-honored reasons of adventure and challenge, but also to draw attention to how much the Arctic is already transformed by global warming.

Read their dispatches and trace their journey at OnEarth Magazine's site.

I deeply admire Larry and Alain's fortitude. Like the vast majority of the world's population, I have never been to Greenland myself. But I've come close. Last summer, as a member of the Aspen Institute's Commission on Arctic Climate Change I got to travel by boat through the Arctic Ocean east of Greenland.

I was struck by what a profoundly harsh environment it is. It is a world of white, steel gray and blue, with very little of the familiar green plant life that orients us humans. Yet the Svalbard archipelago I circled has long been a jumping off point for polar exploration. We met a man who was trying to kayak to the North Pole, and I had newfound admiration for the conditions these explorers endure.

That is what Larry and Alain faced in order to tell the story of Arctic melt, and I am deeply grateful. Yet as they join the ranks of illustrious polar explorers, they are facing a dramatically new terrain.

A few years ago, I spoke at the Explorers' Club in New York City, and I saw the dog sledge that Admiral Peary used to cross the frozen ice on his way to the North Pole 100 years ago. Today, thanks to global warming, he would need a boat to get there.

Why We Need Arctic Dispatches

A monumental and potentially catastrophic change is happening in the North, and yet most of us have no idea what it looks like or what it means for our lives down here. Larry and Alain are helping bring that back home to us.

We need to hear what they have to say now more than ever. Decisions are being made today that simultaneously set the course for the Arctic's future yet ignore the reality of the Arctic present.

Just look at the Obama administration's decision last week to retain a controversial Bush-era ruling related to protecting polar bears under the Endangered Species Act. The ruling means that federal agencies must exclude the effects of global warming pollution on polar bears when there are drafting their protection plans. Yet government scientists agree that global warming is a primary threat to these bears!

Working to Prevent an Arctic Gold Rush

It is because of this kind of dissonance in decision making that the Aspen Institute convened the Commission on Arctic Climate Change. The commission is trying to create a conservation and governance structure for the region as a whole.

We need a comprehensive approach, especially since eight different nations have Arctic territory, and each one of them is eager to lay claim to the oil, gas, fish, and shipping routes that have been uncovered by global warming's melting ice.

To protect the increasingly fragile Arctic environment, the Aspen Commission is looking at three issues:

  1. Protecting the living resources, including the fish and wildlife
  2. Establishing criteria for industrial activity
  3. Identifying what kind of governance regime will work best

This past spring, Dr. Gro Harlem Bruntland joined the commission. I met Bruntland at the international climate negotiations in Bali last year, and I have great respect for her. She was the Special Envoy on Climate Change to the United Nations Secretary General and the former Norwegian Prime Minister. I am confident she can help integrate the latest climate science with real-world governance.

I just hope we put these better management plans in place as soon as possible. If we don't, the explorers who follow in Larry and Alain path will confront a terribly altered Arctic environment.