Sec. Clinton goes to the Arctic: Must lead international community in protecting melting frontier

Last week Science reported that the observed effects of climate change in the Arctic are much more extensive and rapid than scientists predicted, adding a heightened urgency to a major meeting of Arctic Foreign Ministers, including Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, that will take place later this week in Nuuk, Greenland. 

As the Arctic as we know it continues on its accelerating trajectory to oblivion, we’re looking for the group to agree to take action to protect the unique and vulnerable environment, wildlife and peoples of this fragile region.

Right now it doesn’t look promising.  Much of the debate in the runup to the Nuuk meeting has centered on things like who gets to observe the meetings of the Arctic Council (an international body consisting of the 8 Arctic nations and Indigenous peoples) and which country will host the Council’s permanent offices. While important, decisions on these issues seem a bit like rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic -- they don’t begin to address the huge problems facing the Arctic at the scale required.

The Arctic is warming twice as fast as the rest of the planet.  As the ocean heats up, the Arctic ice cap is melting, imperiling ocean wildlife – much of it endangered – that lives there, such as walrus, narwhal, polar bears, ice seals, arctic birds, polar cod and other creatures that depend on sea ice for feeding, breeding, raising their young and other life functions.  This threatens not only marine wildlife and ocean ecosystems, but the nutritional and cultural sustenance of Arctic Indigenous peoples’ communities that rim the Arctic Ocean.

Melting ice also means that new offshore oil development, tanker traffic, fishing and shipping is rapidly becoming possible in parts of this extraordinarily fragile environment that were previously frozen and impassable.  Almost a fifth of the world’s remaining undiscovered oil and gas is thought to lie north of the Arctic Circle, much of it offshore.  Some of the world’s richest fisheries occur in the subarctic, and as the fish move northward in response to ocean warming, fishermen will inevitably follow. And there is increasing interest from the shipping industry in routes through the Arctic from Asia to Europe for oil, natural gas and commercial goods.

But this region is completely unprepared for the coming industrial onslaught; if industry is allowed to rush ahead without thoughtful planning, there will be no turning back.

There are no mandatory international standards for oil and gas development, no international mechanism to set quotas or otherwise manage fishing in most of the Arctic, and no Arctic-specific shipping requirements, although negotiations to establish a polar shipping code are underway. Vast stretches of the Arctic coastline lack basic infrastructure like roads, ports or airports, let alone spill response facilities. Raging storms, heaving sea ice, sub-zero temperatures, months of darkness, and weather that can ground aircraft for days or weeks, all make effective spill containment and cleanup difficult if not impossible.  A disaster like the BP blowout in the Gulf of Mexico last year would be catastrophic here. Prevention is our only hope, yet it is not even an area of focus for the Nuuk meeting.

The most important thing we can do for the Arctic is aggressively curb CO2 emissions. But even if we reduced CO2 emissions tomorrow, warming already in the system will continue to melt the ice, threatening ice-adapted animals and facilitating massive new industrial development.   We have a short window of opportunity to get out in front of this development to protect important and vulnerable ecosystems before industries become entrenched.  

Because industrial activities in one country’s waters can easily affect others’, action is essential at the international level. A blowout or tanker disaster off Russia, for example, could easily affect Arctic Alaska, and overfishing in international waters of the Arctic Ocean could damage fish stocks in the waters of the five surrounding Arctic nations.

NRDC and the International Union for the Conservation of Nature recently released the first-ever Arctic-wide identification of areas that are concurrently critical to preserving the health of Arctic marine life and increasingly vulnerable to stresses including global warming, loss of sea ice, industrialization, and ocean acidification. This report identified most vulnerable areas in the Arctic that should be considered for protection as ice melts and industry movies in, based on the analysis of more than 30 leading international scientists from around the Arctic and leaders of indigenous Arctic communities. These places provide a starting point for conservation planning. 

The Arctic is the last ocean frontier on our planet. We have the opportunity to get it right here. But we need a plan. And we need it fast. 

The Nuuk meeting of the Arctic Foreign Ministers presents an opportunity to seize the moment to protect the exquisitely fragile Arctic marine environment and  the people that depend on it. This is not the time for low level, leisurely discussions. We hope Secretary Clinton will lead the way to establish a robust, high level and rapid process to conserve and manage the arctic marine environment as it faces the profound challenges ahead.