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Finland courts US rivals Russia and China in bid for key role in Arctic power game

China has its own Arctic research station on Svalbard. (Pic. I.Quaile)

Finland does not often make its way onto the international news agenda, but as the country prepares to take over the presidency of the Arctic council from the USA next month, it succeeded twice over the past week. Firstly, the country’s President offered to host a meeting between Russian President Putin and US President Trump. Then Chinese President Xi Jinping flew in on a state visit on his way to a meeting with Trump.

Tackling the summit

At a forum in the northern Russian city of Arkhangelsk last Thursday entitled “The Arctic: Territory of Dialogue”,  Finland said it was willing to host a high-level summit meeting during its two-year presidency and would be happy to receive the Russian and US Presidents in Finland.

In his statement, the Finnish leader stressed that “the geopolitical tensions in other parts of the world should not be allowed to spill over to the Arctic. Cool heads are needed to keep the Arctic an area of low tensions also in the future.”

Under the chairmanship slogan “Exploring Common Solutions”, he said “we want to highlight the need for constructive cooperation between all Arctic stakeholders. Also, we believe it is time to take the Arctic cooperation to a new level. Finland proposes the convening of an Arctic Summit to discuss a wide range of issues pertaining to the region and beyond. This would provide an opportunity to ensure that the Arctic indeed remains a territory of dialogue”.

Heather Exner-Pirot, Managing Editor of the Arctic Yearbook, was scathing about the Finnish move in a blog post for Eye on the Arctic. She says Finland has been floating the idea of such a summit at least since 2010.

“But after meeting with Barack Obama in May 2016, Niniistö seemed to abandon such plans, calling the timing “inappropriate” given the international political situation. That was short-lived. Niniistö once again revived the idea in his first telephone call with now President Trump, in December 2016.”

Go for the summit or work from base camp? (Greenland, Pic. I.Quaile)

Stick to base camp?

Exner-Pirot finds it “bewildering” that the current situation could be considered more appropriate than they were a year ago.

“Niniistö may not have noticed, but the Trump Presidency is in crisis, a political dumpster fire, not least because it is under investigation for inappropriate ties to Russia during its 2016 Presidential campaign.  Any meeting of Trump and Putin under the current political climate would be a circus.”

She says Finland has not put forward any convincing reasons to host such a Summit, and that the usual biannual Arctic Council Ministerial, which will take place next month, is an adequate regular platform to address high level Arctic issues amongst the Arctic states’ Foreign Ministers.

“The Trump Administration has proffered no position on Arctic affairs except, tangentially, to cast doubt on the anthropogenic contributions to climate change; it is hard to imagine more sophisticated or constructive discussions arising from an Arctic Summit.”

She argues for continuing “compartmentalization” as a guiding principle in regional Arctic politics, keeping environmental issues and development “insulated from the destabilising fluctuations that occur within the broader international system.”

Cooperation with Russia is “rational and necessary”, Exner-Pirot concludes, but “inviting Trump and Putin together for an Arctic Summit flagrantly violates this strategy. Instead, it invites drama and uncertainty into Arctic politics at a time when multilateral efforts are progressing quite smoothly; an all-risk-and-no-reward scenario.  This is not the Arctic way. Cooperation with Russia in the Arctic must continue. But the proposal for an Arctic Summit should be shelved.”

Easier access necessitates close cooperation to cope with more traffic in the High North (I.Quaile)

Nice try?

While there is much to be said for tackling issues at lower levels – can you blame Finland for making the most of its central role at the helm of the Arctic Council? It is surely natural for a country in this position to offer a stage for a high-profile meeting of these two world leaders – perhaps especially when it seems unlikely in the present circumstances.

At any rate, it will only happen if the two key players feel it could be to their advantage. The very prospect certainly ensured considerable news and public attention for the incomimg Arctic Council Presidency.

Finnish President Sauli Niinisto back-pedaled a little later, saying the nation was unlikely to hold an Arctic summit at short notice, cooling media excitement at the prospect of an early meeting between US President Trump and Putin.

For his part, President Putin said he was willing to meet Trump in Finland, but “he would wait longer if needed”, the news agency AP reported: “We are waiting for the situation to normalize and become more stable. And we aren’t interfering in any way.”

With a US congressional investigation of possible links between the Trump election campaign and Russia underway,  the jury, presumably, can said to be “still out” on that one.

Ultimately, insulating the Arctic from the tensions of international politics as Exner-Pirot suggests, seems like wishful thinking.

There is evidence enough that Russia has been moving to increase its military presence in the region. In a feature for Reuters published January 30th, Andrew Osborn wrote Russia was “again on the march in the Arctic and building new nuclear icebreakers.”

Osborn describes this as “part of a push to firm Moscow’s hand in the High North as it vies for dominance with traditional rivals Canada, the United States and Norway as well as newcomer China.”

The Chinese lion is claiming its space in the Arctic. (Svalbard, Pic. I.Quaile)

Based on interviews with officials and military analysts and reviews of government documents, Osborn concludes that Russia’s build-up is the biggest since the fall of the Soviet Union and that it will “in some areas, give Moscow more military capabilities than the Soviet Union once had.”

He continues “under President Vladimir Putin, Moscow is rushing to re-open abandoned soviet military, air and radar bases on remote Arctic islands and to build new ones, as it pushes ahead with a claim to almost half a million square miles of the Arctic.”

The article was written after a tour of the Lenin, a Russian icebreaker now functioning as a museum in Murmansk. This week that name popped up again in a story in the Barents Observer by Thomas Nilsen entitled “FSB fears terror at nuclear installations in Murmansk region”.

The topic was on the agenda at a conference on board that same museum icebreaker in Murmansk the day after the metro attack in St. Petersburg.

The conference was entitled “Improving antiterrorist protection of civilian and military nuclear power facilities, preventing acts of nuclear terrorism”.

Nilsen points out that there are few places in the world with more operational nuclear reactors than the Murmansk region.

So is there a link between the Arctic and possible terrorist attacks by “Islamic State”, suspected by Moscow of being behind the St. Petersburg attacks?

Nilsen quotes Oleg Gerasin, head of the Russian intelligence bureau FSB in Murmansk region, explaining that ships from Russia’s Northern Fleet have been taking part in “antiterrorist operations in Syria.”

This demonstrates once more the inter-connectedness of the world today. With all due respect for essential multilateral cooperation on a wide range of issues at lower levels, across the board, ultimately the nature of politics in a globalized world can necessitate participation at the highest leadership level and lend symbolic significance to top-level summits. And that can apply especially if they can be brought about in times of strained relations and global risks.

The view from above can be useful (Greenland, Pic. I.Quaile)

Chinese ties

This week also saw Chinese leader Xi Jinping pay a visit to Helsinki, on the way to his tensely awaited meeting with US President Trump. This was only the second ever visit to Finland by a Chinese leader, although Xi himself visited in 2010 when he was vice-president. Niinistö made an official visit to China in 2013 .

Finland opened political ties with China in 1950 and Chinese state media were keen to stress that Finland was the first western country to sign a governmental bilateral trade agreement with Beijing.

Xi said in a statement there was “great potential” for future bilateral trade ties. He stressed that “over the past 67 years of diplomatic ties, the China-Finland relationship has enjoyed steady and sound growth despite the changing international landscape”. China is Finland’s fifth largest trading partner and Xi said he saw “great space and potential for further economic cooperation and trade”.

During the visit, Finland became the latest to benefit from what the news agency AFT describes as  “Beijings famed panda diplomacy”. A pair of giant pandas will be leased to Ahtari zoo in central Finland, where a new panda cage costing more than eight million euros is being constructed.

So while President Trump warned talks with Xi would be “very difficult” – the US deficit with China rose to 31.7 billion $US in February –  Finland was stepping up its game, cultivating non-Arctic nation China. China has observer status at the Arctic Council and a strong economic interest in making use of shorter sea routes from Asia to Europe and the USA through the Arctic, with climate change making access easier, although relatively high transit costs and unpredictable ice cover still limit its attractiveness. Beijing is keen to gain footholds in a region it sees as key for the future.

Yacht Peter I seeking a passage through the ice (2010)

The Russian Peter 1 was the first sailing boat to cross the North Pole unaided in 2010 http://www.rusarc.ru/

China is starting to build its own icebreakers.  New icebreakers could allow year-round navigation in the 2020s, Grigory Stratiy, deputy governor of Murmansk Region told Reuters.

China is leading a “Belt and Road Initiative” (BRI), a $5trillion plan to upgrade infrastructure between Asia and Europe. So far, Russia is the only one of the eight Arctic nation states to be a BRI partner.  China, which has partnered heavily with Iceland in recent years, is keen to get the Nordic nations on board.

In the statement issued after the visit, China and Finland stressed two key over-arching issues:

“Both sides are committed to working together to reduce or limit greenhouse gas emissions, promote sustainable development and strengthen climate change adaptation and mitigation efforts.”

The two partners “shared the view that economic activities in the Arctic area should take into full consideration the protection and sustainable use of its natural resources. The two countries will intensify economic and technological cooperation in the fields of arctic marine industry, arctic geology, marine and polar research (including polar weather and sea ice monitoring and forecast), environmental protection technology, shipping and maritime safety, including vessel monitoring and reporting, ICT and tourism.”

A wide-ranging and ambitious spectrum.

Get rid of those emissions (Arctic Tromsö, Pic. I.Quaile)

Meanwhile, on the global climate action stage, China seems set to benefit from the backward-looking policies of the Trump administration, positioning itself as a new world leader. At home pollution, drought and desertification are causing increasing problems for Beijing. To ensure peace and food security and avert unrest, a switch to renewable energies is essential. Beijing has also recognized their economic potential. At the same time the country can polish up its international image by taking on the role of climate leader while Donald Trump advances to environment and climate public enemy number one.

While it leads the global move to halt climate change, China is positioning itself to exploit the impacts global warming has already had on the Arctic. Given the current state of the global climate and the slow progress towards keeping to the two-degree let alone 1.5 degree upper limit for global warming, the Arctic is unlikely to re-freeze in the near future. Full speed ahead for Arctic development?

The Arctic Council has to be the body that controls what is happening in the High North and coordinates protection of the fragile Arctic environment.

As President of the body for the next two years, Finland has the opportunity – and the responsibility – to make its influence felt.

As far as the first meeting between the Russian and US-American “big men” is concerned, Finland just might have to pass. Finnish leader Niinistö had to admit to a news conference:

“The G20 meeting in Germany will likely be the first meeting for presidents Trump and Putin”, (July 7 and 8.)

Watch this space.

 

Date

April 6, 2017 | 1:02 pm

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Arctic Council: business as usual with USA under Trump?

Dwindling sea ice (Pic: I.Quaile)

As the USA comes to the end of its two-year Chairmanship of the Arctic Council, the organization’s “Senior Arctic Officials” met in Juneau, Alaska, last week to prepare for a final ministerial meeting in Fairbanks in May 11th, before Finland takes over the chair. US Ambassador David Balton is currently Chair of the SAO. At a press briefing in Juneau on Friday, it comes as no surprise that one of the questions that interested journalists most was how US Arctic policy might change under the Trump administration and whether that was already happening.

Climate skeptics at the helm?

Given that the Arctic is one of the regions of the globe being affected most rapidly and dramatically by climate change, it does not seem unrealistic to imagine that the climate skeptical views of President Trump and some of his key advisors will have more than just a little impact on the high north.

President Trump’s environment chief Scott Pruitt recently hit the headlines when he again denied that global warming is caused by fossil fuel emissions. The incoming head of the key Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) told the American television channel CNBC he “would not agree” that carbon dioxide from human activity was the primary cause of global warming.

When Pruitt was attorney general in Oklahoma, he helped sue the EPA 14 times. He told CNBC that “tremendous disagreement” remained over human impact on the climate and said the Paris accord amounted to a “bad deal.”

When the foreign ministers of the eight Arctic Council states get together in May, it is US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, former CEO of the energy giant EXXON, who should be the man in the chair.  One of the three priorities of the US chairmanship has been climate change. An interesting combination. So will the ex fossil fuels chief be there?

“We have recommended to Secretary Tillerson that he attend the Arctic Council Ministerial. He is the Chair of the Council. We don’t have a decision yet, as Secretaries of State are busy people. But the last three times the Arctic Council met at the ministerial level, a US secretary of state attended. So it’s my hope that he will come. Certainly the government and people of Alaska would like him to be here.”

Polar exploration – close to the Arctic Council secretariat in Tromsö, Norway (Pic. I.Quaile)

Continuity or change of direction?

Drastic budget cuts affecting climate and environment and changes in personnel at the State Department and elsewhere in the administration were also on the agenda at the Juneau briefing (which was joined online by journalists around the world). So how is this affecting the work of the Arctic Council?

“So far I see no direct effect on participation in the Arctic Council either in the lead-up to our own ministerial or beyond, but the picture is not entirely clear yet,” said Balton.

“So far”, and “not yet” seem to be key words.

When it comes to whether and if so how US participation in the Arctic Council and US goals and priorities relating to the Council and to the Arctic have changed or may change under the Trump administration, Balton expressed optimism about continuity:

“I have been working on Arctic issues for the US government for the best part of 20 years. And what I can say is that US interests in the Arctic and our goals and objectives for the Arctic have not changed appreciably over time. There was a first statement of US Arctic policy issued during the Presidency of Bill Clinton. It laid out 6 basic goals of our nation in the Arctic. When George W. Bush became our President, they reiterated those very same goals, in the context of another Arctic policy statement that was put out. And when Barack Obama became President there was a question of whether the Bush administration policy would stand. And it did. It was reaffirmed during the Obama administration. And we built on top of the policy something known as the national strategy for the Arctic region. What all these documents have in common is more important than what separates them.”

Balton did accept that there had been changes of emphasis, but not in the fundamental view.

“The real interests of the United States in the Arctic have very much to do with the state of Alaska and its needs and interests, and keeping the Arctic a peaceful stable place is certainly a non-partisan issue in the United States.”

Frozen waves at Barrow, Alaska. (Pic: I.Quaile)

America first in the Arctic?

Presumably, as long as this fits with President Trump’s “America first” policy, all will be well. The question is how that plays out when other major Arctic players put the interests of their own countries first.

“One Arctic” was the overall theme of the US Chairmanship over the last two years. But when it comes to reconciling the geopolitical not to mention economic interests of Arctic states, cooperation might just become a little more tricky.

In September 2016, the  International Security Advisory Board (ISAB), a Federal Advisory Committee established to provide the Department of State with a “continuing source of independent insight, advice, and innovation on scientific, military, diplomatic, political, and public diplomacy aspects of arms control, disarmament, international security, and nonproliferation”  published a “Report on Arctic Policy” in response to a request to “undertake a study of Russia’s interests, intentions, and capabilities as it has been increasing its presence – both military and civilian – in the Arctic.”

Interesting times ahead.

The wind of change?

So far, the new administration has not turned its attention to the Arctic in particular, Balton told the journalists:

“There have been signals about climate change policy, but even those are not – at least not to me – clear yet. We do know that the Finns intend to highlight the Paris Agreement as part of their chairmanship program, but they have many other aspects they hope to highlight as well, including the sustainable development goals that the United Nations has announced.”

It remains to be seen whether the Trump administration will keep to the Paris Agreement or not. And when it comes to sustainable development in the Arctic, clearly changes in the climate will play a key role.

Between now and the end of the US Chairmanship of the Arctic Council in May, it looks as if Balton and his team will be able to carry on with “business as usual”.

“So the US Arctic Council Programme was developed in the last administration, and is just coming to fruition now. Of course we are in touch with the new administration, which I’m a member of, and for the most part now our guidance is to keep doing what we’re doing. That could change between now and May, but I don’t actually expect it will.”

The question will be what happens after that.

Methane bubbles escape from melting permafrost lake in Alaska (Pic. I.Quaile)

Long-term strategy

The Arctic Council has committed to developing a long-term strategic plan.  “One of the things I felt strongly about when the US took over was that we needed to get the Council as a whole to be thinking in  more than two-year increments”, Balton said. “Many of the issues concerning the Arctic are longer term. And the Council must find a way to think in longer-term. So that will happen. I expect two years from now we will be finalizing the long-term strategic plan for delivery to ministers in 2019, and probably look ahead at least ten years. “

So what effect will the change of US administration have on that? Some of the journalists listening to the briefing seemed skeptical about the idea that nothing appears to have changed, although the new new administration has hugely different  policies. Again, this could well be just a matter of time:

“I think it’s fair to say that there has been no fundamental change in the way that the US is participating in the AC yet. This administration like past administrations may wish to put its own stamp on US Arctic policy. That may occur at some point. But it has not happened yet.”

 Monitoring a rapidly changing Arctic

In response to a question about ocean acidification, the US ambassador described the increase in ocean acidification by 30% worldwide as “staggering” and said it was quite clearly caused by CO2 emissions.

There are not enough platforms in the Arctic to monitor this fully, he said, describing it as “one of our ambitions” to change that.

That brings us back to the crucial role played by US bodies, especially the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) in monitoring the planet.

Today, more than thirty leading Florida scientists published an open letter to President Trump, coming out strongly against White House’s proposed cuts to the earth sciences programs at NASA and NOAA. They call on the President to recognize climate change and resulting sea level rise, which is, of course, of existential importance to Florida in particular.

Concern is mounting in the scientific community that the new administration will try to silence efforts to educate the public on climate change.

Christina DeConcini, Director of Government Affairs at the World Resources Institute, whom I interviewed recently about the Trump administration’s climate and environment policies, said in a statement on today’s letter:

“The proposed budget cuts are an affront to the integrity of science and a large body of crucial work on the impacts of climate change that increasingly damage the United States. As the most vulnerable U.S. state to sea level rise, Floridians know this very well; it persistently threatens their infrastructure, communities and homes.

“Research from NOAA and NASA is foundational for assessing and effectively responding to disruptive flooding and costly extreme weather damages.”

Satellite data is revolutionizing our knowledge of ice. (Pic. I.Quaile, Tromso)

Science first

In the letter, the scientists write:

“American scientists have historically been at the forefront of scientific discoveries and innovation. America should invest heavily in our effort to understand our homeplanet and be aware of how physical changes will impact industry and society.”

They make a powerful plea for continuing support for  NOAA and NASA:

“NASA and NOAA Earth science programs monitor and understand changes in our water resources and our soil. They track the conditions that affect the food and medicines we get from the oceans. These conditions impact agriculture, our military, businesses, and major industries. It is imperative to support programs that explore our planet – at NOAA and NASA and across the government. The work of NOAA and NASA is vital to life on Earth and must be continued”, the scientists write.

“NASA and NOAA’s work capture the history and the present state of the oceans, land, fresh water bodies, and atmosphere. They make it possible for us to observe changes to the planet we live on, from the vantage point of space.

For example, NASA satellites are responsible for providing the first global measurements of aerosols in our atmosphere and for understanding ozone.  NASA satellites from the GRACE and ICES missions discovered unexpected rapid changes in Earth’s great ice sheets (…)”

So there we have it. Ultimately, the work of the Arctic Council cannot be separated from the issue of climate change and scientific monitoring.

Perhaps it was fortunate that the US Presidency of the Arctic Council coincided with the Obama period in office, where some decisions were taken in the interests of the region.

It will be up to Finland to direct operations for the next two years, from May onwards. But, clearly, regardless of what happens in the Arctic Council, the overall policy of the new US administration will have a key impact on what happens in the Arctic.

The latest SWIPA, (Snow, Water, Ice and Permafrost in the Arctic) report on the cryosphere will be presented to the ministerial gathering in May. It is unlikely to make happy reading. Climate change will have to be a major factor. And given the Trump administration’s policies so far on that issue, the work of the Arctic Council will not be able to carry on regardless.

Date

March 14, 2017 | 10:44 am

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Can environmentalists trump Trump’s climate plans?

KSat ground station

Satellite technology is key in gathering climate data (I.Quaile, Tromso)

When it comes to the latest data on the state of the Arctic sea ice, the Greenland ice sheet or other key features of the cryosphere, the chances are NASA will have been involved in providing it. For those of us interested in protecting our icy regions against climate change, US President-elect Donald Trump’s plan to scrap NASA’s climate research and shift the funding to space exploration is alarming, to say the least.

Why the world needs NASA – not just for space

Two of my colleagues at DW talked to leading scientists about Why Trump scrapping NASA climate funding is bad news for our planet. Thomas Hollands from the German polar agency the Alfred Wegener Institute explains the essential role played by NASA’s network of satellites in providing data for climate researchers the world over.

“Scientists around the world depend on NASA for a variety of information – from measuring the state of the Earth’s atmosphere and the shape of its gravity field, to observations on glacier melting, sea ice formation, forest loss and urban growth”, the article says. It goes on to explain how important it is to have continuous measurements over time to be able to establish trends and changes.

Presumably, of course, if the Trump administration makes good on election promises to revive the US coal industry, there are those who would find it advantageous to get rid of any technology that can measure the extent of the impact of fossil fuel emissions on the world’s climate. A scenario to be avoided at all costs.

ice triangle

Higher emissions, melting ice, who keeps track? (I.Quaile, Greenland)

Fighting back

So I was interested to read a piece on the news agency AP this week headlined “Trump rollback of Obama climate agenda may prove challenging”.  I hope “challenging” will turn out to be an understatement.

The story, by Michael Biesecker, says a President Trump would be in a strong position to dismantle some of President Obama’s efforts to reduce carbon emissions:

“But experts say delivering on campaign pledges to abolish the Environmental Protection Agency and bring back tens of thousands of long-gone coal mining jobs will likely prove far more difficult for the new president”, Biesecker writes.

Environmental groups are gearing up to defend Obama’s environmental legacy in court. Sierra Club Executive Director Michal Brune is quoted as saying “we intend challenging every single attempt to roll back regulations on air, water and climate”, and that his group is already hiring additional lawyers. It does not surprise me that fundraising for environmental causes has also spiked since Donald Trump’s victory.

The question is just how much the President is able to do and what tools are available to opponents to stop him.

Greenpeace Arctic protest in Bonn

Busy times ahead for environment- and climate campaigners (I.Quaile, Germany)

The powers of the President

Many legal experts believe Mr. Trump would be able to cancel the Paris Climate Treaty, as he threatened to do when he was campaigning (although his stance has shifted slightly in the meantime). It is not a treaty and was not approved by the (Republican-controlled) Senate. The future president could also order the EPA – where the transition team is being led by a climate skeptic leading a think-tank funded by the fossil fuel industry – not to take the action required to meet the US commitment to cut emissions.

It seems, though, that it is not that easy to dismantle EPA regulations which have already been finalized and implemented. Jody Freeman, director of the environmental law program at Harvard Law School, is quoted as saying “the agency has already built up a very strong record to support those rules”. Ultimately, “it can be very hard to do an about-face.”

From the legal point of view, the President cannot get rid of the EPA without congressional approval – which could be prevented by filibustering. (He could, of course, slash its budget).

When it comes to abolishing NASA’S climate research programme, Mr Trump will also find himself facing some tricky hurdles.

“NASA’s study of earth science is currently mandated by federal law, which means voiding the program would require congressional action”, AP writes. That too means Democrats could block things using a filibuster.

What happened to common sense?

Ideally, common sense and concern for the wellbeing of people and the health of the planet we live on should ensure that Obama’s environmental and climate policies are not turned around. The advances in renewable energy also mean it makes economic sense to shift away from fossil fuels to wind and solar. In fact, it seems the courts will have to tackle the ins- and outs in lengthy and costly investigations.

Gannets breeding on Helgoland

We need to protect the climate for the next generation! (I.Quaile, Germany)

This past week, in the USA, a group of American youths officially won the right to sue the government of the United States – the world’s second-largest greenhouse gas emitter after China – for failing to curb climate change. The Oregon district court upheld the main argument, that “the government has known for more than 50 years that the carbon dioxide produced by burning fossil fuels was destabilizing the climate system in a way that would significantly endanger plaintiffs, with the damage persisting for millennia.” Yet, the court argues, the government has failed to take action, making it responsible for some of the harm caused by climate change.

Here in Germany, there is also a court case in process, which could set a precedent. A farmer and mountain guide in the Peruvian Andes is suing the German energy giant RWE. Saúl Lliuya from Huaraz says his home is at risk of flooding, as it lies beneath a melting glacier in the Andes mountains. He argues that the company’s coal power emissions contribute to climate change, and so RWE should have to pay a share of measures to protect his home. But RWE says there is no direct link connecting CO2 emissions to the danger of flooding. Lliuya is being supported by the environmental organization Germanwatch. In my Living Planet radio show this week I broadcast an interview with the organisation’s policy director, Christoph Bals.

The plaintiff’s argumentation is that because RWE has produced 0.5 percent of all global emissions since the industrial revolution, the company should at least pay 0.5 percent of the measures to protect the farmer and his home town from flooding as the glacier above it continues to melt. Bals sees it as a major achievement that the case is being dealt with in the German court as one that could set a precedent. Even if the lawyers are not able to prove a direct link and win the case, he says getting to this stage is a demonstration that it is possible to go to court against companies like RWE on climate grounds.

“From now on this is one of the options on the table. I am sure that as soon as we see in the world that we will not stay below two degrees or 1.5 as said in the Paris Agreement, those cases will be much more likely – and it will be much more likely also that the individual court will decide you are right. So for the future this would be one major option if we don’t get a political solution”.

There has to be some food for thought in there for Mr. Trump and his advisors. Interesting times, indeed. And environment and climate advocates have their own trump cards in their hands.

 

 

Date

December 2, 2016 | 2:44 pm

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Greenland ice holds Cold War peril

Greenland's ice holds many secrets (Pic. I.Quaile)

Greenland’s ice holds many secrets (Pic. I.Quaile)

It sounds like something from a science-fiction novel or a disaster movie. A hidden city under ice, housing 200 people, complete with hospital, cinema, church and research labs – and powered by a mini nuclear reactor. In fact it is reality and lies below the ice of north-west Greenland. The building of Camp Century was started in 1959, by US army engineers.

The camp was abandoned when the glacier above turned out to be shifting much faster than expected in 1967, threatening to crush the tunneled base below. Pollutants including PCBs, tanks of raw sewage and low-level radioactive coolant from the nuclear reactor were left behind.

“When the waste was deposited there, nobody thought it would get out again”, William Colgan, an assistant professor in the Lassonde School of Engineering at York University in Canada, told AFP. Colgan is co-author of a study published in August: Melting Ice could release frozen Cold War-era waste.

Unfortunately, recent research results have told us that the ice island of Greenland is melting even faster than previously thought. A new study published this week in the journal Science Advances using GPS to help estimate how much Greenland ice is melting, comes to the conclusion it is losing around 40 trillion pounds more ice a year than scientists previously thought. That is around 7.6 percent of a difference.

Greenland: of ice and rock... (I.Quaile)

Greenland: of ice and rock… (I.Quaile)

GPS maps past and future ice loss

Most measurements of ice sheet loss use a satellite that measures changes in gravity, and uses computer simulations to calculate the weight loss of ice. But co-author Michael Bevis of Ohio State University told the news agency AP that a portion of the mass calculated by the satellite as ice mass, is actually made up of rocks, which rise up to replace the ice when it goes. This distorts the picture, giving the impression there is more ice than there actually is.

The new study also reconstructs ice loss from Greenland over millennia and comes to the conclusion that it is the same parts of Greenland – the north-west and the south-east – which are losing most ice today as in the distant past. The authors say this means the rapid ice lost we have seen over the last 20 years is part of a long-term trend, being exacerbated by climate change. Damian Carrington in the Guardian, quotes Christopher Harig from the University of Arizona as an independent scientist not involved in the study:

“The new research happening now really speaks to the question: ‘How fast or how much ice can or will melt by the end of the century?’ As we understand more the complexity of the ice sheets, these estimates have tended to go up. In my mind, the time for urgency about climate change really arrived years ago, and it’s past time our policy reflected that urgency.”

Satellite data is revolutionizing our knowledge of ice. (Pic. I.Quaile, Tromso)

Satellite data is revolutionizing our knowledge of ice. (Pic. I.Quaile, Tromso)

Frozen hazards await release

Coming back to Camp Century – here, and elsewhere in the “frozen North”, a lot of the perils once locked safely inside an icy safe are now lurking ready to emerge when the time comes. Colgan led a study published in August in the journal Geophysical Research Letters, which found that higher temperatures could eventually result in toxic waste from the base being released into the environment. By 2090 the amount of ice melting may no longer be offset by snowfall, meaning the toxic chemicals could start leaking into the environment, the study found. Even before that, fissures in the snow could lead to melt water seeping into the crushed tunnels, currently located just 35 metres below the surface.

Greenland is white and blue, when melt ponds form (I.Quaile)

Greenland is white and blue, when melt ponds form (I.Quaile)

This is just one spectacular example of a problem that is widespread across the Arctic. Anthrax spores, nuclear waste from subs and reactors … and these are only the human-made dangers. The permafrost is sometimes described as a “time bomb”, with masses of methane and carbon stored as part of natural processes coming to the surface as the world warms.

The news story on AFP centres on who is responsible for cleaning up the pollution from the under-ice camp. The USA and Denmark signed a treaty to permit the construction of Camp Century, code-named “Project iceworm”. Officially, it was to provide a laboratory for Arctic research projects. AFP says it was also home to a “secret US effort to deploy nuclear missiles”. Maybe it was lucky the project had to be abandoned in 1967. But the legacy remains in the form of the nuclear waste left buried under the snow when the reactor was removed.

We have the technology, but…

Study author William Colgan believes the physical logistics of decontaminating the site may not be the biggest challenge involved in all of this. “The environmental hazard is relatively small and far away and there are only a few native towns close by”, AFP quotes.

I was shocked by this statement, which seems to imply that we don’t need to worry about “a few native towns”. I hope I have misunderstood him here. Surely the lives of these small communities should have top priority?

But I can follow his reasoning that establishing which country is responsible for making good the damage is harder than the actual physical clean-up. (He also mentions that the USA and Denmark have experience in similar clean-up operations around the Thule air base, which is around 240 toxic messes or worrying that all our technology cannot prevent destruction of the fragile Arctic environment if we carry out risky operations?)

Iceblogger tests the thickness of Greenland’s ice. (Pic: I.Quaile)

A worrying precedent

Colgan says the dispute over responsibility “could help set a precedent for other conflicts arising from climate change”. Now that is a very worrying prospect. Unfortunately, it is also a highly realistic one.

When it comes to accepting responsibility for the climate change which is speeding up the melting of Greenland’s huge ice-sheet – and taking action to halt it by abandoning fossil fuels – conflicts are virtually pre-programmed.

When it comes to the costs of dealing with the migration of people forced out of their homes by sea-level rise, flooding, drought, and of ensuring progress for developing countries without climate-harming fossil fuels, states are unlikely to be queuing up to foot the bill.

Date

September 26, 2016 | 12:47 pm

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Arctic Council – 20 years in a warming world

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When Norwegian polar explorer Helmer Hanssen travelled in the early 20th century, the Arctic was a very different place. Statue in Tromso, close by Arctic Council headquarters. (I.Quaile)

20 years does not really seem like a long time. But when it comes to climate change in the Arctic, the last 20 years have brought more change than centuries gone by.

After the warmest winter in the Arctic since records began, the sea ice has declined to its second-lowest level ever. And the “second-lowest” tends to divert attention from the fact that the sea ice cover has dwindled to nearly 2.56m sq km less than the 1979 to 2000 average. That’s the size of Alaska and Texas combined.

Julia Gourley, US Senior Arctic Official, has a background in environment policy. (Courtesy Arctic Council)

Julia Gourley, US Senior Arctic Official, has a background in environment policy. (Courtesy Arctic Council)

So the Arctic Council is celebrating its twentieth birthday at a time when concern over the impacts of planetary warming on the high north could hardly be greater.

I had the chance to interview Julia Gourley, the US Senior Arctic Official on the telephone ahead of the birthday. The US, of course, currently holds the two-year chairmanship of the body. I asked her how the Council had changed over the past 20 years.

“In the early days the Arctic state focused almost exclusively on environmental protection and science issues. But over the 20 years the countries have shifted the focus a bit. Certainly we still spend a lot of time trying to understand the environmental change that’s been going on. We spend much more time now on sustainable development issues, which in the Council generally refer to issues that affect the people of the Arctic, in particular the indigenous people. We’ve learned a lot in 20 years about the people who live there and the challenges they face.”

And those challenges are increasing all the time, especially because of the rapid pace of climate change.

Melting ice, easier access

The increase in human activity, as remote Arctic regions become more easily accessible has turned protecting the region into a whole new ball game. Gourley cites cruise ships, offshore oil and gas development , fishing and shipping as issues which have moved up the agenda.

Clearly, this means more work for the Arctic Council – and has also brought a lot more global interest in the region:

“We have 32 observer entities now, 12 of whom are countries. There are many more in the queue that are seeking observer status. What happens in the Arctic affects the entire planet, so countries all over the world are becoming interested in the region”.

Easier access, more traffic in the high north (I.Quaile)

Easier access, more traffic in the high north (I.Quaile)

With a big player like China taking a huge interest in the Arctic and looking to establish ports and secure its own access to the region, and political tensions between some of the Council members, such as Russia and the EU or the USA itself, the shadow of conflict always seem to be lurking in the background. Gourley is keen to play this aspect down. She stresses the key role of the Council in keeping the Arctic peaceful and encouraging cooperation. The USA, she says, welcomes the increasing interest by non-Arctic states – although, she adds, each of the Arctic states has their own views on that.

“We feel like we have a lot to learn as a group of Arctic states still about how the Arctic affects the rest of the world, and the more countries that are in the room listening to the discussion and learning from it and can contribute to it, the better. So we encourage non-Arctic countries that have particular expertise, to contribute to the work of the council – the scientific work, the technical work, economic work.”

Norwegian naval patrol boats in Tromso harbour (I. Quaile)

Norwegian naval patrol boats in Tromso harbour (I. Quaile)

Shared responsibilities

When it comes to regulating activities in the Arctic, the Council itself is not a regulatory body, but it contributes expertise to others.

“When it comes to shipping, the International Maritime Organisation is the regulatory authority all over the planet. But the Council has a strong interest in shipping in the Arctic, and so the Council has done some seminal work on the Arctic shipping situation, including a very important piece of work in 2009 called the Arctic Marine Shipping Assessment. That was the first time anyone in the world had looked deeply into the state of shipping in the Arctic in the face of climate change and reducing sea ice. That study is still cited today”.

When it comes to regulating offshore activities like mining and fishing, the Arctic states also have their own regulatory regimes, “ so it’s sort of a mix of regulatory activity by lots of different entities”, Gourley explains.

Arctic shipping needs regulation (I.Quaile)

Arctic shipping needs regulation locally and globally (I.Quaile)

The US Arctic representative is bound, of course, to take up a diplomatic stance. But while she stresses the Council’s efforts to keep tensions low and foster cooperation rather than conflict, she does make one qualification:

“The tensions in other parts of the world haven’t affected the work of the Council. That said, of course we all have our own national views about a lot of the issues that face the Arctic. But as to working together as a group of eight countries, together with the observer states and NGOs, it really has worked quite well. We’ve managed to carve out a space that we can work in collaboratively. Now, that doesn’t mean that will always be the case. As things change in certain parts of the world it’s not easy to predict what could happen in the Arctic. But at least up to this point, we’ve been able to work together quite well.”

Balancing act

Presumably, with climate change having such a strong and rapid impact on the Arctic, there are bound to be increasing differences of opinion when it comes to striking a balance between preserving the Arctic as it is on the one hand, and on the other developing commercial and industrial activities. The US representative was quite realistic on this one:

“Yes, that’s a real tension. I think that chapter of the Arctic story is still being written. Each Arctic state comes at those questions in their own waters and their own exclusive economic zones differently, and each country’s regime is slightly different. So it’s hard to say there’s a single answer to how we resolve those questions. But it is something that is very real. It’s of concern in particular to a lot of Arctic indignous people, who want to live traditionally but also realize that modernity is moving into their world and in some cases economic development is very necessary to create good jobs and include living conditions. So it is a very real, very alive debate.”

Indeed. The Arctic conundrum in a nutshell.

Arctiv development means jobs for the next generation. But can the fragile environment cope? (I.Quaile)

Arctiv development means jobs for the next generation. But can the fragile environment cope? (I.Quaile)

Tackling black carbon

What happens in the Arctic doesn’t stay in the Arctic – and pollution produced in the rest of the world doesn’t stay out of the Arctic.

While the UN has its own body tasked with combating climate change, there are other climate-forcing agents which affect the Arctic particularly strongly, such as black carbon or soot. The Arctic Council sees this as an area where it has a key role to play:

“Black carbon itself is not part of the UNFCCC, so it’s not part of any global regulatory regime. So we are working in the Council on ways to reduce black carbon emissions voluntarily. So I think that’s going to have some very positive results.”

At the end of our talk, I wanted to know whether optimism outweighed concern or vice versa when it comes to the future of the Arctic in our warming world. The answer didn’t surprise me. But the underlying sentiment that in spite of all the tension in the world and the feeling that climate change is gathering momentum and happening ever faster, we all have to pull together, is a message I can subscribe to:

“I think I feel optimistic in a way. Certainly, the melting that’s happening in the Arctic is potentially hugely problematic for the world. I think the science is pretty clear on that front. And it’s not going to change overnight. Even if the Paris Agreement is fully implemented right away, it’s a long time before the Arctic environment can stabilize. But when we have countries working together, if we can keep the conversation going, and we can encourage all of us in the Arctic and Arctic observer states, to work together to keep the conversation going, even if it’s slow, and to keep communication lines working, I think we do have room to be optimistic about that area of the world.”

The next 20 years are not likely to be less challenging than the last for the Arctic Council. On the contrary. You have your work cut out for you. Good luck – and happy birthday.

 

 

 

 

Date

September 19, 2016 | 1:37 pm

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