On Cities and Arctic Milestones

Laurel Whitney, reporting for DeSmogBlog, points to three important announcements about climate change milestones.

  1. The International Energy Agency (IEA) estimates that global CO2 emissions increased by a gigatonne last year, to 31.6 Gt, a record high.
  2. The UN’s Christina Figueres warned that “the door to avoiding a maximum 2 degrees Celsius global temperature rise is about to close.” Related to the first point, the IEA also warned that fossil emissions should peak at 32.6 Gt by 2017 if we want even a 50% change of limiting average warming to 2 degrees celsius.
  3. The US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) recorded CO2 concentrations above 400 ppm at several Arctic sites this spring. Average global levels were 390.4 ppm in 2011, and will likely pass 400 ppm around 2016. (In the 1880s, the global average was about 280 ppm).

All of this is worrying data and underscores both the urgency of the climate crisis and the recklessness of global political and economic officials on this critical risk. The third point is especially significant, (though admittedly a mostly psychological milestone), because the Arctic tells us what is coming for the rest of the planet.

As I recently wrote, milestones matter. This is especially so in the Arctic, where only about 4 million people live and global political and economic actors are turning their attention. Milestones can help draw attention to otherwise difficult to comprehend and communicate developments.

The recent visit to the Arctic by Hillary Clinton, the US Secretary of State, is another such milestone. Her trip shows the emerging outlines of a probable Arctic future and — like the 400 ppm measurements — points to trends in the Arctic that have implications for the entire planet.

Reporting for Reuters, Arshad Mohammed writes (June 2, 2012):

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton boards a research ship on Saturday to tour the Arctic, where big powers are vying for vast deposits of oil, gas and minerals that are becoming available as the polar ice recedes.
The top U.S. diplomat took the unusual step of visiting Tromso, a Norwegian town in the Arctic Circle, to dramatize U.S. interests in a once inaccessible region whose resources are up for grabs as the sea ice melts with climate change.
”From a strategic standpoint, the Arctic has an increasing geopolitical importance as countries vie to protect their rights and extend their influence," Clinton told reporters in Oslo before making the nearly two-hour flight north to Tromso.

To accelerate resource extraction in the Arctic, Clinton and the Obama administration are pushing the US Senate to ratify a 1982 Law of the Sea treaty. Yet, despite rhetoric about cooperation, political representatives and resource companies are preparing for intense competition in a transforming Arctic.

Toward an Arctic resource boom

Several significant developments related to the Arctic and Canada have also taken place in the last few weeks.

Canada will be taking over as Chair of the Arctic Council (Globe and Mail, May 17):

Canada takes over the chairmanship of the Arctic Council next year at a critical time of international interest in the Arctic’s future, but the Harper government has yet to signal whether it really wants strong international environmental standards in the Arctic. The auction of new blocks of Arctic offshore rights coincides with Ottawa’s move to speed up environmental reviews of major resource projects to promote development.

Ottawa announces plans to auction off massive Arctic offshore area (Globe and Mail, May 16):

Ottawa has placed 905,000 hectares of the northern offshore up for bids, clearing the way for energy companies to snap up exploration rights for an area half the size of Lake Ontario. The scale of the offer indicates eagerness in the oil patch to drill for new finds in Canada’s northern waters less than two years after such plans were put on hold following the BP spill in the Gulf of Mexico and a major Arctic drilling safety review.
The Arctic exploration auction resumes as the Harper government is promoting greater development of the country’s resources. It has taken steps to speed regulatory approvals for major energy projects such as the proposed Northern Gateway pipeline, promising to limit the ability of environmental groups and other opponents to block or delay new developments.

Canada Research Chair Michael Byers warns of “near inevitability” of Exxon Valdez-scale oil spill in Arctic waters (Postmedia, May 18):

Michael Byers, a UBC professor and Canada Research Chair in Global Politics and International Law, argues that Canada’s “disregard for the environmental impacts of developing and selling its oil sands to China” could eventually expose the narrow, already-congested Unimak Pass in the Aleutian Islands — a key maritime gateway between Asia and North America — to an ecological disaster.
Byers’ warning — published Friday in the Seattle Times under the headline “Canada’s oil-sands bonanza could mean disaster for Alaska’s coastline” — follows comments at a Congressional hearing last week by the commandant of the U.S. Coast Guard, Adm. Robert Papp, that the strategic importance of the Unimak Pass and nearby Bering Strait have long been overlooked by the U.S. government, and that protection of the two passageways has become an urgent priority for his agency.

A new environmental assessment lays out the extent of the US Coast Guard’s Arctic Shield program (Petroleum News, June 3):

[Arctic Shield’s] scope is impressive, involving multiple cutters, helicopters and other equipment. The Coast Guard plans to lodge 33 people in the North Slope village of Barrow during the mission, which will begin in July and run through October.
Arctic Shield will coincide with Shell’s much-delayed exploratory drilling campaign in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas. The Coast Guard says it aims to safeguard not only the drilling operations, but also the expanding tourism, shipping and research activities in the Arctic, which has become increasingly ice-free in summers…
A 500-meter safety zone will be established around offshore drilling rigs. “The safety zones will establish an area that is intended to be clear of other vessels and people who may intentionally or unintentionally interfere with permitted exploratory drilling operations,” the Coast Guard says.

What does this mean for city dwellers?

An Arctic resource stampede is likely to scuttle ambitions to prevent runaway global warming and promises to be a source of conflict for corporations and governments. And, with only about 4 million residents in the Arctic, opposition and accountability campaigns from environmental, anti-corruption, and anti-violence organizers are also likely to take root in cities.

Cities are where the key decision makers are located. Cities the key final sites of consumption for the energy and minerals that the Arctic contains. Cities contain the groups of organizers, researchers, activists and citizens needed to push for the strictest environmental standards in the Arctic and elsewhere. Cities are the most appropriate places to transform energy and resource circuits to limit the desirability of an Arctic resource scramble.

The escalating interest in the Arctic also suggests a new phase in the dangerous struggle to preserve out-dated infrastructural, political and economic systems. It shows a confused desperation for conventional energy when safe alternatives exist and can be deployed at a lower cost and with far less risk. It relies on a system of international cooperation where some key state parties have developed a reputation for dishonesty, subterfuge, and selective adherence to agreements (notably the US and Canada). It shows the misplaced panic of political officials, more concerned with securing fossil resources than preventing runaway climate disruption and regional conflict.

The Arctic is like an early-warning system for the climate — but it’s also an early warning system for our global political and economic systems. We must keep engaged on Arctic issues as we work to build safer cities.