2019’s grim Arctic news ought to spur aggressive climate change activism
Three-and-a-half weeks ago, right when Greta Thunberg and 6 million other young activists were gearing up for the Global Week for Future—the second in a round of strikes and protests directed at persuading world leaders to prove themselves unambiguously serious about the climate crisis—summer came to an abrupt end in the Arctic Ocean as the sea ice reached its minimum extent for the year.
This was hardly the biggest recent news about the Arctic, just another milestone, a symptom of the disruptive, planet-wide changes we’re seeing from Pole to Pole. It was another summer of Arctic heatwaves. The news from Greenland alone was astounding, with the ice sheet melting six times faster than it was in the 1980s and a new phenomenon happening as the island’s ice cap melts “like ice cream sliding off a piece of cake.”
For several months it had appeared that 2019 would see the record-low summer sea ice minimum of 2012 surpassed. But, as scientists confirmed October 3, this year produced a three-way tie (with 2007 and 2016) for the second lowest minimum extent in the four-decade-old satellite record. In 1979, the first year measurements from orbit were taken, the sea ice covered 6.9 million square-kilometers at the end of summer. This year, it covered just 4.06 million square-kilometers.
The record-breaking day will arrive soon enough. A sea-ice-free Arctic summer will come not so many years after that. Because 95 percent of the old, less vulnerable sea ice is already gone by summer’s end. This matters immensely, as Chris Mooney reports:
Over the past 40 years, the extent of the end-of-summer ice visible on the surface has fallen by 40 percent. But, just as with icebergs, the bulk of the sea ice floats below the surface and, compared with the 1980s, the volume of ice in September has shrunk by 70 percent. In 1985, according to a report from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, 16 percent of the Arctic Ocean was covered by the very oldest ice—more than 4 years old—at the height of winter. In 2018, only 1 percent was. The youngest ice, first-year ice, made up 55 percent of the sea ice in the 1980s, but that has now risen to 77 percent. The remaining 22 percent is ice that is 2 or 3 years old. As sea ice becomes younger, the near-term prospect of ice-free summers grows.
The end-of-summer melt last month scarcely made a ripple in the media amid the various meltdowns of one Donald J. Trump and the latest revelations of his treacherous shenanigans and the lickspittle GOP response. Given just how disturbing earlier news has been on the Arctic, a summer melt that didn’t break the record low was never going to get much attention anyway, but the breaking news about White House knavery in Ukraine pushed it even further out of sight.
If what happens in the Arctic stayed in the Arctic, the change going on at the top of the world right now would be troublesome only for the 4 million people living in places like the near-Arctic Siberian city of Yakutsk where buildings are literally tipping over because of melting permafrost and for the 400,000 indigenous circumpolar peoples who are seeing whole towns collapsing for the same reason.
As we know all too well, however, what happens in the Arctic will have far-reaching effects. And while indigenous people, people of color, and people of low income will suffer the worst impacts from the climate crisis, everyone alive will be affected at least somewhat by the Arctic temperature rise of 9° Fahrenheit that scientists think will occur by mid-century, 15°F by 2100. That rise is baked in even if the world’s nations were to fulfill their pledges under the Paris climate accord. Globally, we face a much lesser increase, but we’re nowhere near a trajectory to keep us below the 2.7°F increase above which scientists say climate change impacts will get severely bad in many different ways. More like double that.
Nobody should be surprised by what’s happening. There’s been plenty of warning. Fifteen years ago, on his third Arctic trek in as many years, freelance adventurer Ben Saunders skied to the North Pole in May. But he didn’t achieve his goal of making it all the way across the frozen Arctic Ocean from Russia to Canada because, 30 miles from the Canadian coast, he ran into open sea where there was supposed to be ice right up to the rocky beach. The average temperature on Saunders’ 2001 Arctic trip had been just a hair above freezing—1.4°F; in 2004, it was 21.4°F.
Four more times, Saunders dragged his heavy sledge across the Arctic ice, noticing sharp changes in that short timespan. He soon began speaking out on a subject he hadn’t been focused on previously: climate change. Critics said they couldn’t believe his eyes. The Arctic wasn’t warming up, they said, it was cooling, and the ice wasn’t dwindling, it was spreading, and no amateur alarmist was going to persuade them otherwise.
“One thing I can do is give a unique and impartial perspective on what’s happening with climate change,” Saunders told The Guardian in 2008. “I have genuinely seen the Arctic change in the seven years that I’ve known it. It’s pretty obvious that it’s getting warmer and warmer every year.”
He wasn’t the only person describing a warming Arctic. Indigenous peoples whose ancestors have lived in or near the Arctic for millenniums began to warn that something was amiss. People in Arctic towns installed air conditioning in schools because of daytime temperatures above 80°F and saw nesting robins and yellowjacket wasps in the area for the first time. Inuktitut, the language of the indigenous Inuit of Canada, Greenland, and Alaska, doesn’t even have a word for wasp.
The same year Saunders first made it to the North Pole, two interconnected reports appeared—the 242-page Arctic Human Development Report and the 1,200-page Arctic Climate Impact Assessment, the work of 600 scientists from Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden, and the United States. Cited in the report was Sheila Watt-Cloutier, an inhabitant of Iqaluit in the Canadian Arctic where her ancestors have lived and fished for thousands of years. Two weeks after she appeared at the Circumpolar Conference at a Conference of Parties to the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change in Milan in 2003, she looked out on the bay near her hometown whose name means “place of many fish” and said:
”Talk to hunters across the North and they will tell you the same story—the weather is increasingly unpredictable. The look and feel of the land is different. The sea-ice is changing. Hunters are having difficulty navigating and traveling safely. We have even lost experienced hunters through the ice in areas that, traditionally, were safe! Our Premier, Paul Okalik, lost his nephew when he was swept away by a torrent that used to be a small stream. the melting of our glaciers in summer is now such that it is dangerous for us to get to many of our traditional hunting and harvesting places. … Inuit hunters and elders have for years reported changes to the environment that are now supported by American, British, and European computer models that conclude climate change is amplified in high latitudes.”
While the ACIA scientists conceded that they lacked adequate data to flesh out their understanding of the course of the changes in the Arctic, their findings were nonetheless stark. Climate change, they concluded, would soon make the Arctic regions of the world nearly unrecognizable. The report predicted the depletion of summer sea ice and the potential to drive marine mammals like polar bears, walruses, and some seal species into extinction by mid-century.
In other words, devastating changes for the ice, for the wildlife, for human life, and for the ancient culture of the Arctic peoples. Everything that has happened in the Arctic since then has confirmed their forecasts. One example: Inuit peoples have long kept meat from their hunts in ice cellars dug into the permafrost where they can store a year’s worth of food. But warming is melting the permafrost, not only eroding the land base of coastal Native towns but caving in their ice cellars, forcing those who can afford it to buy commercial freezers.
At the Arctic Circle Assembly last week in Rejkavik, Iceland, Greenland Premier Kim Kielsen said:
“The effects of climate change have a direct impact on our everyday lives, to our way of life and to our culture,” he said. “Our environment is visibly changing. Sea ice is no longer a guarantee during winter time, the migration patterns of wildlife and fish, to which we depend, are changing, and it is increasingly difficult to predict the weather. Whenever we open fish and game that we catch from the sea, it becomes more frequent that we find plastic in their stomachs. What is worse however, is the fact that the animals now also contain microplastics which are invisible to the naked eye.”
Kielsen said his government is increasing its clean energy development. “We must keep in mind that we have borrowed this planet from our descendants, and needless to say, they have been very vocal about this fact over the recent months,” he said.
The ACIA report came under attack from the usual suspects. The Bush administration delayed publication of the report until 2005, with the 43rd president saying there was no “sound science” behind climate forecasts.
“The Bush administration doesn’t believe there’s a problem and are behind the delay in the release of the report,” said Gordon McBean, an ACIA participant from the Institute for Catastrophic Loss Reduction at the University of Western Ontario. “They don’t even think they ought to reduce their emissions, period.”
McBean told Inter Press Service at the time that reducing the impact on the Arctic, and thus the whole planet, would require that greenhouse gas emissions be reduced 50 percent by 2050. Given how many prominent people say today that this is an impossible radical idea, you can imagine the response to McBean 15 years ago.
If the whole world had opted for McBean’s prescription back then, or better yet, 30 years ago, changes in the Arctic would still be happening because of the effects of CO2 and other greenhouse gases already in the atmosphere. But at least we might be well on the way to ameliorating and adapting to climate crisis impacts. Our energy, agricultural, transportation, and water systems might be well along in the transformation they must undergo if the Earth is going to be humanly habitable in the long run.
Thanks, however, in great part to the disinformation schemes paid for by people and corporate entities that Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway named the Merchants of Doubt in their 2010 book of that title, any serious action to address climate change has been stubbornly opposed and until recently, a large portion of the population accepted their lies that climate change was a hoax, a liberal trick enabled by scientists eager for government grants. (There is also a movie of the same name.)
The doubts were spread via oceans of cash from Koch Industries, Exxon-Mobil, the Heartland Institute, the American Enterprise Institute, the Competitive Enterprise Institute, and others. Meanwhile, whileThe Wall Street Journal editorial pages—along with the sporadic, wholly inadequate coverage by most other media—gave the doubter-creators a boost by treating their fabrications and concocted smears as equals to scientific studies. Rarely if ever did the major media challenge the claims of the science deniers. There were a handful of exceptions to this tolerance for the lies and obvious conflicts of interest, but the words of these truth-tellers were mostly drowned out.
As a consequence, we have been seeing a lot of stories like these over the past 12 months. Perhaps you have read some them:
Media coverage of the climate crisis, particularly in print journalism, has improved slightly since 2004, though it remains far from ideal. Broadcast coverage, except for sporadic overview attempts, has been terrible, though marginally better on CNN and MSNBC than the legacy networks still watched by most people who get their news from TV.
What has improved markedly is the number young people all over the world who have decided they’re going to take the climate crisis seriously even if most of their elders have yet to do so. If that means a few days out of class giving congressional and state legislators and some corporations a piece of their minds, it’s worth it. Three huzzahs to them all. To them and a bunch of the Democratic presidential candidates we owe the climate town hall and the fact that many candidates up and down the ballot are talking extensively and aggressively about climate policy, something only a handful did in 2012, 2014, 2016, and 2018.
Barreling down on us now is what advisers warned LBJ about in 1965, Exxon scientists warned about in 1977, James Hansen warned about in 1988, the Inuit warned about in the 1990s, and a multitude of studies have warned about for the past two decades. No more time for dillydallying. We know what must be done. There are numerous organizations like the five linked at the top of this post fighting to get it done. And there are, of course, thousands of science-denying politicians sucking up corporate donations still standing in the way of effective climate action. Come 2020 at the polls, everything possible must be done to sweep these dinosaurs aside before their stubborn resistance to aggressive climate policy leads us down the same path as the original dinosaurs
For tl;dr readers: Some of the most ferocious scientific forecasts of global warming impacts in the Arctic—which climate science deniers have long ridiculed—are proving true, but happening sooner than expected, as several new studies and news reports have shown this year. The changes are already having effects far beyond the Arctic, as scientists have said for decades would be the case. The situation, whether in Greenland or the Yukon or Siberia, will get worse before it gets better. For large swathes of Earth, it will be the same. The only way it can get better is by casting aside the ideas that effective climate action can and should only be undertaken gradually and that our leaders tread on dangerous political ground if they propose anything substantial in this regard.
Want to make a difference? Join climate activists. Here are some choices: ClimateHawksVote, Climate Mobilization, Sunrise, 350.org, Zero Hour. There are also scores of local climate activist groups. Also, pick candidates—for city councils, state legislatures, Congress—who propose strong climate- and energy-related policies to give your money, time, and get-out-the-vote efforts to.
(Crossposted with DailyKos.)