The Arctic – it’s a place few of us will ever visit and most of us know very little about. So why should we care what goes on so many latitudes above our heads? As it turns out, there are a lot of reasons to be concerned about this portion of our planet. Melting ice is causing the ocean to expand and sea levels to rise around the globe. As new fishing and transportation opportunities open up, ice-bound wildlife is losing its foothold and its habitat. And the promise of abundant new sources of oil has some countries seeing dollar signs deep beneath the Arctic Ocean, while environmental groups clamor to end our dependence on fossil fuels.
These and other topics drew a concerned crowd to the Commonwealth Club for a recent panel on all things Arctic. Among the speakers were representatives from Russia and Norway, two of the eight member states that make up the Arctic Council.
William Collins, a director of climate science with Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, began by outlining some of the pressing environmental issues, such as the state of the Greenland Ice Sheet. According to satellite data, he explained, “we can actually measure the gravitational pull of the Greenland Ice Sheet from space. And what we’ve been able to tell is that Greenland is losing 200 cubic kilometers of ice every year.” This, Collins added, could potentially translate into 21 feet of sea level rise throughout the globe.
Another major concern is the ten million square kilometers of permafrost in the Arctic. Permafrost contains a mix of ice and soil, says Collins, “and when that soil thaws, it releases carbon and methane into the earth’s atmosphere, and that acts to accelerate global warming.”
Drilling in the Arctic is a topic fraught with controversy. Russia and Norway are two countries that have long been reaping the benefits of the region’s abundant stores of fossil fuel.
Hilda Skorpen is Consul General for Norway in San Francisco. She was quick to point out that, although Norway has been drilling in the Arctic for fifty years, “we have implemented the strictest environmental standards on our petroleum activity of any country in the world.” The country adopted carbon taxing as early as 1991, she reported, adding that “we are the only country in Europe I know that is engaged in carbon capture and storage. And on three fields, we are depositing carbon in underground storage depots.”
Both countries, while acknowledging the dangers of continuing to rely on fossil fuels, are reluctant to end their drilling practices in the Arctic.
“The unfortunate thing,” Skorpen said, “is that we are living in an energy starved world. And we know that the fossil fuel is going to be a substantial part of the energy mix for years to come.”
“I think we as a civilization do not have a choice right now just to stop drilling,” asserted Sergey Petrov, the Consulate General for Russia. “We would be short of energy. And so we should do it with extra caution.” To that end, Petrov pointed out, an agreement has been reached among the Arctic Council countries to prevent oil spills. “We don’t have this kind of agreement for the rest of the world, but we do have it for the Arctic.”
Alex Levinson, executive director of Pacific Environment and an Alaskan resident, calls this kind of thinking “the curse of oil” “The curse of oil always traps us in this kind of strange dysfunctional decision making,” he says, adding that “the Arctic, a place that largely is undeveloped, is the worst place to start drilling for new oil now or getting new coal.”
But the Arctic is not just a frozen, desolate wasteland, Skorpen reminded the audience. “We have a tendency to forget that people are living there,” she said. “There are four million people living north of the Arctic Circle. For Norway, 10% of our population is north of the Arctic Circle…it isn’t an exotic place; it is a place where people live.”
And where important work is being done in the area of climate study, she added, citing scientific research centers in Tromso and Svalbard.
If there’s one important takeaway from this discussion, it’s that the Arctic is one part of the world that has engendered a spirt of international cooperation, with environmental concerns at the top of everyone’s list.
Levinson cited the Polar Code, a multi-national set of regulations designed to protect marine species and indigenous communities from increased shipping traffic. “Have they gone far enough? Not at all,” he said, “because they still allow oil ships to carry and use heavy fuel oil which is really damaging. But it’s a very important first step.”
“I’ve participated in discussions and meetings led by the Arctic Council,” Collins reported, “designed to figure out how to reduce the impact of fossil fuel consumption on the Arctic, understand the impacts, understand measures that could be taken to slow the rate of change.”
“So there is an international spirit of cooperation around preserving this really critical part of the planet,” he concluded. “And I think that is a bright spot.”