The Arctic is changing rapidly. Rising temperatures are heating the region twice as fast as the rest of the planet, and scientists predict the Arctic will be ice-free in our lifetime.
Many Alaska residents are scrambling to adjust. Native Alaskan villages have had to relocate because of rising seas. Fishermen who work the Alaskan coast—the source of 50 percent of all fish caught in the United States—watch species migrating north as water temperatures warm.
Elsewhere in the United States, meanwhile, oil and gas development continues apace and our burning of these fossil fuels pumps more global warming pollution into the atmosphere. We are seeing the effects of Arctic warming down south as well: Scientists have now linked loss of Arctic sea ice to superstorm events like Sandy last year.
The Arctic may be a rugged place, but it is also fragile. If we don’t protect it well, we will lose its wild character forever while further destabilizing our climate.
We need a highly effective action plan and we need to implement it fast if we want to safeguard and sustain the region.
A new report from the Obama Administration sets the stage for moving in the right direction, but now the government must take concrete steps to make sure its Arctic vision becomes a reality. We have the government’s call to action; now we need its to-do list with deadlines.
The report, called Managing for the Future in a Rapidly Changing Arctic, was prepared by the Alaska Interagency Working Group. Interior Deputy Secretary David Hayes and others did an excellent job of gathering input from 20 agencies, the state of Alaska, and a wide variety of stakeholders and distilling it into a strong call for greater stewardship.
The report sets out sound aspirational principles for how the Arctic should be managed. Most significantly, it calls for a precautionary approach to the region that assures development is safe and takes a long-term view of Arctic vitality. It points to the approach already being applied to U.S. Arctic fisheries—currently subject to an open-ended moratorium—as a possible model for other sectors.
It also recommends making management decisions not only based in science, transparency, and inclusiveness, but also guided by the ecological foundations of Native Alaskan cultures. “Those who live in the Arctic depend upon the services provided the region’s ecosystems,” the report says. “Alaska natives, in particular, face uncertainty not only in terms of food and water security but also in maintaining thousands of years of cultural traditions.” Management decisions must not add to that uncertainty, but instead help ensure long-term cultural and ecological survival.
The report completely omits, however, any suggestion that offshore drilling has been problematic, let alone that the oil industry and financial sectors are increasingly skeptical about the viability of future drilling. We need look no further than the recent decisions of Total to abandon all oil and gas drilling plans and for Statoil, Shell and now Conoco Phillips to suspend their plans to drill in America’s Arctic Ocean. Shell’s string of failures over the past year illuminated clearly that the industry does not have anything like operational certainty in this unforgiving environment.
It’s time for the Obama Administration to put this risky and dangerous drilling on hold immediately. It should establish a moratorium on drilling in US Arctic waters for the foreseeable future.
Drilling isn’t the only threat to Arctic waters. They are also exposed to other industrial development made possible by melting ice and to rising acid levels due to carbon pollution. The Arctic contains America’s last wild ocean, and we must preserve its marine riches. The report calls for building strong partnerships and improving science in order to better conserve the ocean. But it stops short of recommending specific steps that would actually protect key U.S. marine areas, implement ecosystem-based management, or achieve the report’s other top goals.
Articulating a vision for Arctic stewardship is an excellent start, and we applaud David Hayes for spearheading this effort.
But now the Obama Administration must demonstrate decisive leadership. It must temper its drive for energy development with bold plans to protect and preserve Arctic ecosystems. It must ensure that relevant agencies quickly enact a bold and comprehensive approach for Arctic stewardship. It must create a moratorium on offshore drilling in US Arctic water. And it must continue to push for strong and effective action to control climate change.
Photo credit: Steve Hillebrand / USFWS