Seven things to know about Monday’s Arctic climate summit

US president Barack Obama is heading to the Glacier meet in Alaska on Monday, but what is it and why does it matter?

Icebergs in eastern Greenland (Flickr/ Mariusz Kluzniak)

Icebergs in eastern Greenland (Flickr/ Mariusz Kluzniak)

By Leehi Yona

Barack Obama is heading to Anchorage, Alaska to talk climate change with other Arctic powers on Monday.

For the US president, the tortuously-named Global Leadership in the Arctic: Cooperation, Innovation, Engagement, and Resilience (Glacier) summit is part of a major diplomacy drive on global warming.

But why the Arctic? What’s the summit supposed to achieve? Why should you care? Here’s what you need to know.


1. President Obama won’t be the only leader there

US secretary of state John Kerry will be there as well, plus foreign ministers from nineteen other countries. While the President’s Arctic visit is receiving most of the media spotlight, the conference itself will bring together many foreign dignitaries, including Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak and French ambassador Michel Rocard.

2. The twenty governments present are big emitters

Canada, China, India, Japan, Russia, the United States, and many European nations will be present at the conference. Combined, this smaller group of countries comprises the overwhelming majority of global greenhouse gas emitters.

As they are also vested in Arctic issues, Glacier provides an even more compelling reason for ambitious climate mitigation.

3. Glacier could be a “stepping stone” in the lead-up to Paris

It seems as though the United Nations climate conference taking place in Paris later this year is at the forefront of every climate conversation these days, and Glacier is no different. It is, in part, hoping to bring these countries together to cooperate on climate action in some way.

We don’t yet know what the outcomes of the conference may be, but since it is taking place during the first day of a round of interim negotiations in Bonn, we might expect some mention of the UN climate process.

4. US is using its Arctic Council leadership

While Glacier isn’t an official Arctic Council event, it is the highest-profile event being organized by the United States during its chairmanship of the forum. The chairmanship, which the US assumed in April, will last until 2017. Typically, the Arctic Council chair country possesses a certain level of agenda-setting power, so this responsibility matters.

Activists paddle up to Shell's Polar Pioneer rig in Seattle, to protest Arctic drilling (Flickr/sHell No! Action Council/Charles Conatzer)

Activists paddle up to Shell’s Polar Pioneer rig in Seattle, to protest Arctic drilling (Flickr/sHell No! Action Council/Charles Conatzer)

5. The giant rig in the room: Shell and its Arctic drilling plans

It is well-known by this point that many environmental and indigenous groups oppose offshore Arctic drilling. While not the only climate-related issue in the Arctic, it is one that runs in opposition to President Obama’s reputation as a leader on climate change. It isn’t in the program, but expect it to come up at least once (or eight times).

Keep in mind, though, that there are other issues to tackle: adaptation to climate change impacts, marine protection, black carbon and renewable energy, among others.

6. It’s a surprising forum for US-Russia collaboration

Many assume that there is a constant negative tension between the two countries, but the reality is that the Arctic – in particular Arctic science – has been an opportunity for collaboration.

Ross Virginia, director of the Institute of Arctic Studies at Dartmouth College and co-lead scholar of the Fulbright Arctic Initiative, emphasised: “Science diplomacy and cooperation between the US and Russia on polar science research has been a hallmark of the relationship for decades.

“There are good reasons for cooperation on Arctic issues to continue. Both nations have compelling shared interests in the health of the Arctic Ocean ecosystem and for positive growth in the economic development and trade between Arctic nations.

“Meetings like Glacier can help ensure that Arctic issues can be addressed on their own merits and needs without undue interference from large geopolitical debates.”

7. This year, climate change is hitting home in Alaska

Forest fires decimated the state and left plumes of smoke so strong they travelled as far south as Louisiana, causing particulate air pollution levels that were worse in some American cities than in Beijing, China.

Just this week, thousands of walruses hauled out to Alaska shores as a result of ice habitat loss. The effects of climate change are being felt profoundly in the region – and we can only hope that the government representatives at GLACIER heed their calls.

Leehi Yona is an Arctic scientist, intern at the Union of Concerned Scientists and community organiser. For live updates from Glacier, follow her on twitter: @LeehiYona

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