John Kerry urges climate focus, bids to avert Arctic melt

Climate change to take centre stage as US assumes leadership of Arctic region’s governing body

Greenland's draining ice sheet (Flickr/ NASA Earth Observatory)

Greenland’s draining ice sheet (Flickr/ NASA Earth Observatory)

By Alex Pashley

The United States will propel climate change to the top of the Arctic Council’s agenda when it takes the helm of the eight-nation forum tomorrow.

Secretary of state John Kerry is to assume the two-year chairmanship in the Baffin Island town of Iqaluit from Canada’s environment minister Leona Aglukkaq.

He’ll look to broker curbs on black carbon pollution, a chief driver of the region’s melting ice sheets and thawing permafrost as it heats up twice as fast as the global average.

“The threat of climate change is as ominous as ever, its effects are as tangible as ever,” Kerry said at an Arctic Council meeting in Sweden two years earlier.

Formed in 1996 to track changing climatic conditions, the body comprises Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden and the US – along with indigenous groups and observer states like China.

“This is the first time a chair will really put climate change at the core in a way that goes beyond other chairmanships,” Sebastien Duyck, a researcher at the University of Lapland’s Arctic Center in Finland told RTCC.

“Even climate-friendly Scandinavians countries didn’t make it a central theme,” Duyck said, adding outgoing chair Canada pursued goals of economic expansion.

Bully pulpit

Kerry’s Arctic envoy, Admiral Robert Papp, has said the US would use the “bully pulpit of the Arctic Council” to secure better Arctic science on short-lived pollutants like methane, and black carbon, which may be behind 30% of the region’s warming.

“We know what happens in the Arctic doesn’t just stay in the Arctic,” Papp said.

Kerry’s mandate for action as he drives one of the Obama administration’s signature policy endeavours couldn’t come soon enough.

Reflectivity of the Greenland ice sheet, known as the albedo effect, reached a new low in August. Snow cover extent in Eurasia was the lowest since 1967. Permafrost, an important carbon sink, is set to thaw as global warming climbs.

Polar bear populations to reindeer herds are falling as the Arctic warms (Flickr/ Susan van Gelder)

Polar bear populations to reindeer herds are falling as the Arctic warms (Flickr/ Susan van Gelder)

Those alone could blow the so-called carbon budget, the remaining allowance the atmosphere can hold while preventing dangerous climate change. The UN goal is to limit temperature rise to 2C from pre-industrial levels by the end of the century.

The northern permafrost holds more than 1,000 billion metric tonnes of organic carbon in the top three metres, at the latest estimate.

Closer eye

“The Arctic was seen from outside the region a distant, inhospitable place on the planet only a few years ago,” said Marcus Carson at the Stockholm Environment Institute, who led a major report on the Arctic’s resilience in 2013.

“Globalisation, increased commercial opportunities and risk from potential feedback loops that could magnify changes in oceans and loss of sea ice, mean a closer eye is now being kept on what’s happening up there.”

Lowering black carbon (soot) pollution belched from smokestacks and diesel exhausts is crucial.

Arctic nations are responsible for 60% of global soot emissions, with the US accounting for 61% of that figure.

Cathleen Kelly, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress think tank, highlighted US diesel regulations had eased emissions. But rising prospecting for hydrocarbons, as well as shipping as receding sea ice opened up new passages, could erase those gains.

US impacts 

Meanwhile, climate impacts in America’s backyard are prompting its use of the Arctic Council to rein in global warming.

Storm surges in Alaska have roiled coastal communities and forced people to move, said Erica Dingman director of the Arctic in context programme at the World Policy Institute in New York.

“[The US is] taking this opportunity to put the Arctic in the public’s imagination, and by extension drawing attention to the vast amount of damage climate change is doing,” Dingman added.

Geopolitical tensions between the US and Russia wouldn’t affect the talks’ progress, Dingman added.

“Because it’s a consensus-based forum it’s imperative everyone remains at the table to get the work through. That’s desired by the US chairmanship.”

The Arctic Council meets April 24-25th, with the US chair until 2017.

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