A one-day summit taking place in Alaska today, Aug. 31 hopes to bring Arctic nations together in support of climate action against a backdrop of criticism of offshore oil drilling in the region.
The meeting on ‘Global Leadership in the Arctic – Cooperation, Innovation, Engagement, and Resilience (GLACIER)’, is being organised by the U.S. State Department and will be attended by dignitaries from 20 countries, including the eight Arctic nations – Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden and United States. U.S. President Barack Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry are scheduled to address the conference.
The conference comes at a time of significant changes to the ever-shifting Arctic: this year’s forest fires in Alaska reached record highs, blazing so rapidly that many were left unmanaged. Last week, thousands of walruses hauled up on Alaskan shores as the ice they depend on as habitat disappeared.
“Arctic drilling is a violation of the human rights of the indigenous peoples of the Arctic. Obama and Shell are bypassing many laws designed to protect our coast and our communities” – Carl Wassilie, a Yu’pik activist with ShellNo Alaska
“The evidence for climate change in the Arctic is visible from space as we observed declining sea ice and melting glaciers, and in the lived lives of Arctic residents who see coastlines eroding from sea level rise and reduced access to traditional foods from the land and sea,” said Ross Virginia, Director of the Institute of Arctic Studies at Dartmouth College and co-lead scholar of the Fulbright Arctic Initiative.
“These changes will be more evident to the rest of us,” he added. “The challenge is to learn from the Arctic and to work with the Arctic to adapt and prevent further climate change.”
The GLACIER summit is also taking place at a time of great public focus on the issue of climate change. Critiques of Arctic drilling, as well as the upcoming United Nations climate change negotiations in December in Paris, have helped bring global warming to the political forefront.
“In visiting the U.S. Arctic, President Obama is clearly demonstrating that the United States is an Arctic nation with a stake in the region’s future,” said Margaret Williams, Managing Director of U.S. Arctic Programs at the World Wildlife Fund. “This trip provides the President with the perfect opportunity to define his vision of how all nations should work in unison to manage and conserve our shared Arctic resources.”
The conference has drawn the attention of environmental and indigenous groups, which both praise the conference’s potential for ambitious leadership but also criticise Obama’s reputation as a climate leader in the face of allowing offshore oil drilling in the Arctic.
Numerous protests and acts of non-violent civil disobedience in recent months have attempted to block oil company Shell from drilling; the company is currently active off the Alaskan coast.
“The recent approval of Shell’s Arctic oil drilling plans is a prime example of the disparity between President Obama’s strong rhetoric and increasing action on climate change and his administration’s fossil fuel extraction policies,” said David Turnbull, Campaigns Director for Oil Change International.
“The President needs to align his energy policy with his climate policy and put an end to Shell’s drilling for unburnable oil in the Arctic,” Turnbull said.
Dan Ritzman, Associate Director of the Sierra Club’s Our Wild America campaign, stressed that the drilling decision “went against science, common sense, and the will of the people.” Many environmental groups pointed to the irresponsibility of drilling in the Arctic, one of the world’s regions most vulnerable to climate change.
A senior State Department official responded to this criticism on Aug. 28 by stating that many “citizens of Alaska, and in particular, Alaskan natives” desire more drilling in an effort to develop their communities.
However, indigenous activists rejected the official statement. Carl Wassilie, a Yu’pik activist with ShellNo Alaska, said: “Arctic drilling is a violation of the human rights of the indigenous peoples of the Arctic. Obama and Shell are bypassing many laws designed to protect our coast and our communities. Obama needs to start listening to the peoples of the Arctic who oppose Arctic drilling.”
One of the aims of the GLACIER conference is to be a stepping stone towards COP21, the U.N. climate change conference to be held in Paris in December. COP21 hopes to usher in a binding, ambitious agreement on climate change.
Observers said that GLACIER may be an important moment on the road to Paris because it hopes to bring together a small subset of countries – including China, Canada, India, Japan, Russia, the United States and many European nations – which together account for the overwhelming majority of global greenhouse gas emissions.
Some suggested that the conference could be a moment for these polluting countries to step up their carbon emission reduction commitments.
“On climate change, President Obama has been good, but not good enough,” according to marine biologist Richard Steiner. “The U.S. commitment to reduce carbon emissions by about 30 percent in the next 15 years is about half of what is urgently needed.”
Steiner said: “It is like we are on a sinking boat, taking on two gallons of water a minute, and we are bailing 1 gallon a minute. We are still sinking. We urgently need a U.S. and global commitment at the Paris climate summit of at least 60 percent carbon reduction by 2030. Otherwise, we’re sunk.”
With these challenges ahead, the GLACIER summit has high expectations for international cooperation on climate change. Among the diversity of opinions, one clear message has rung out – the need to engage young people in Arctic climate change discussions
“A real priority should be engaging youth at all aspects of the climate problem – education, research, leadership and activism,” said Virginia. “It is vital that they are ‘at the table’ and that they help shape the questions to be addressed by policy-makers. After all, they have the most at stake.”