Rapid Changes in the Arctic: This Story is Not Just about Polar Bears

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By Peter Schlosser, Stephanie Pfirman, Clea Edwards, Nina Berman, Steven Beschloss, Rolf Halden and Manfred Laubichler

Life systems on Earth are complex and interconnected in sometimes surprising ways. While most of us may never visit the Arctic or personally know the people or cultures that reside there, we all will experience the impacts of the Arctic’s dramatic and accelerating changes.

The signs of change are unavoidable. Just recently, Venice experienced historic flooding. People in the eastern U.S. dug their way out of an early snowfall with unprecedented cold weather. Wildfires are raging across Australia and have persisted in Alaska. More acres have burned in California this year than any previous documented year. Europe experienced record high temperatures this summer. Yet, while these events testify to our climate crisis, no place is experiencing more significant change than the Arctic.

Acknowledged early on by researchers as a major focal point for studying signs of global change, the Arctic has already reached the upper limits of the targets agreed upon in the Paris Accord. Currently, the trends and local warming are 2.5 times the global average, and the Arctic’s average temperature increase has hit about 2°C.

In less than two decades, the Arctic Ocean is expected to be nearly ice-free in the late summer. That loss has great consequences. Arctic ice acts as a global refrigerator, reflecting back radiation from the sun. Moreover, water from the melting of ice stored on land in Greenland and other Arctic glaciers runs into the ocean, raising the average global sea level and causing coastal flooding. The Arctic Report Card 2019, produced Dec. 10 by the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, indicates that the pace of ice melt actually already matches the worst-case scenario from the recent IPCC report released just months ago.

Arctic change has a global footprint

Arctic warming and ice loss are just two of many indicators of interconnected changes reverberating through global earth systems. Given the reality of climate change in habitable environments around the world today, the question is whether and when climate change leads to irreparable and irreversible consequences. Events within the Arctic that triggered impacts at hemispheric scales in 2019 are consistent with a trajectory towards a new, warmer and less livable planet.

Economic impacts of Arctic change are already evident in the global fishing and tourism industries, as well as in the agriculture and insurance sectors. By the middle of the century, for example, agricultural yields in the US are projected to revert to the levels of four decades ago; by 2100, U.S. GDP may well shrink by ten percent. In addition, extreme weather events are most likely to harm those at the margins, that is, people who are already struggling to cope and adapt. Insurance protection from these events — and for these vulnerable populations, in particular — also becomes less plausible. This disproportionate impact on the poor risks magnifying existing inequities and promises to further destabilize societal and economic systems by disruptions of local food systems, uprisings and mass migration.

Militarization of the Arctic is another consequence of the changing landscape. In the context of geopolitics, an ice-free Arctic has strategic importance for all major military powers. The U.S., a member of the Arctic Council, has been actively monitoring the development of bases and the buildup of armed forces in the region, namely by Russia. The potential for open waters has provoked security concerns among countries that previously felt protected by the thick, ridged sea ice that made the Arctic difficult to access.

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We have known what needs to be done

Action called for long ago now is overdue. Almost half a century ago, in 1972, the “Limits to Growth” report by the Club of Rome spelled out the impacts of human activities, the melting of ice, the rise in sea levels, mass casualties from heat waves and famine from failing crops. And, towards the beginning of this century, scientists suggested that the Arctic will move into a new, warmer state, crossing several tipping points along the way. Now, we are faced with a race against time to manage critical habitats, including those of humans.

Science has informed change before

In some important instances, the science community succeeded in triggering action by informing decision-makers of the dire consequences of inaction. In August of 2019, for example, the Canadian government and Qikiqtani Inuit Association jointly set aside a region of the Arctic — Tuvaijuittuq — “the place where the ice never melts,” to protect the Arctic’s Last Ice Area.

What else can history teach us? Finalized over three decades ago, the Montreal Protocol continues to stand as perhaps the most successful international cooperation guided by science. The global public and lawmakers were galvanized by the understanding of the personal and economic implications of ozone depletion, even though it was first seen far away at the South Pole. The public and decision-makers could see and were persuaded by not only the risks of inaction, but also a way forward that would not endanger lives by removing CFCs and other ozone-depleting substances. This implementation of the “precautionary principle” — a policy mechanism that enables action without collective acknowledgement of or agreement on the facts — has been viewed as a key factor in the effectiveness of the Montreal Protocol. Working with industry, the world was able to change course within a relatively short timetable.

Transformation is possible

Today, at the other end of the earth, similar colorful satellite images show dramatic changes in the Arctic. Instead of the rapid pace of a growing ozone hole, these images depict shrinking ice, accompanied by clear and robust projections of how these changes will affect individuals and the future of the global economy. As with ozone, the translation work from scientific insight to fundamental change, depends on framing the pathways of transformation and enabling the public to grasp the potential risks of doing nothing.

To be clear, this is not all doom and gloom. There is a path forward. Despite scientific certainty and, in turn, political resistance to change, action can be taken without decision-makers agreeing on all the facts (as suggested by the precautionary principle). But, to actually reduce warming and other dangerous global impacts, transformation of the energy system and related greenhouse gas emissions is an urgent requirement. The New York Times’ December 7 Editorial featured a series of compelling reasons that high-level action may be on the horizon, including “the dramatic drop in the cost of producing carbon-free energy like wind and solar power,” making change more palatable among various skeptics. And, on December 11, the European Commission announced its plan for a Green New Deal, aiming to make Europe carbon neutral by 2050. It has been labeled as Europe’s “moonshot,” an apt comparison for both its ambitions and potential transformative impact.

Yes, fossil fuels are fundamentally intertwined with our extractive economy as well as our conceptions of ourselves and how we move through and live in the world. Yet, around the world, mayors of major cities and multinational corporations are committing to substantive changes to align with higher environmental and social standards. And, the recent wave of climate activism such as Fridays for Future and Extinction Rebellion also may portend a shift in societal desire to address and affect these critical issues.

It’s about the choices we make

Ultimately, it is the combination of our values, moral frameworks, intellectual understandings, and emotional responses that will compel us to make course corrections, individually and as a society. Both our generation and previous ones have made choices that put our planet in danger. The Arctic keeps sending warning signals, and events unfolding rapidly across the globe suggest we could lose our chance to avoid irreparable impacts of global change. As urgent and trying as this challenge is, we can still make choices that will grant us and coming generations a livable future. But it requires us to collectively recognize the risks ahead and act without delay.

This essay was written by the following faculty of the Global Futures Laboratory at Arizona State University:
Peter Schlosser, Stephanie Pfirman, Clea Edwards, Nina Berman, Steven Beschloss, Rolf Halden and Manfred Laubichler.

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