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Global Affairs: Political Will Needed for Positive Arctic Change

Climate change is an urgent problem, but the policy measures in place don’t match the scale of the threat, explains Phil Duffy, president of the Woods Hole Research Center.

Written by Hannah Hoag Published on Read time Approx. 6 minutes
Bruckner and Heim glaciers where they flow into Johan Petersen Fjord in southeastern Greenland. Greenland is currently losing 350 billion tons of ice annually.NASA Goddard/Jeremy Harbeck

Glaciologists are worried. Greenland’s vast ice sheet is now shedding 350 billion tons annually. Its ice is melting and flowing to the sea, and its glaciers are slipping into the ocean and breaking up into icebergs. While it’s only a small fraction of the ice covering Greenland, it’s enough to raise sea levels by a millimeter each year.

The complete melt, which would raise global sea level by 6 meters (19 feet), is likely thousands of years away. But studies project that a 0.6-meter (2-foot) rise in global sea level by the end of the century, which would lift sea levels by 0.7 meters in New York City, is not out of the question.

“The problem is urgent, the stakes are high and the policy measures that are in place are nowhere near commensurate to the scale of the threat,” says Phil Duffy, president of the Woods Hole Research Center in Falmouth, Massachusetts.

Duffy worked for decades as a climate scientist at some of the top institutions in the United States. At Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, he modeled climate and worked on understanding the impacts of climate change. Later, he served as chief scientist at the nonprofit Climate Central and worked as a senior policy analyst for the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.

Duffy recently spoke with Arctic Deeply about climate change, policy and the political will required to slow down the pace of climate change.

Arctic Deeply: You worked on climate models as a research scientist and later as a policy analyst at the White House. Why are you interested in the Arctic?

Phil Duffy: I’m particularly energized about the Arctic because it’s incredibly important, it’s incredibly urgent and it’s incredibly underappreciated. Specifically, the global consequences of changes in the Arctic are what need to be understood.

Arctic Deeply: What do you hear at the policy level?

Duffy: Several months ago, I was asked to brief senior people at the National Security Council on the global consequences of climate change and the Arctic. I was struck by two things: One is that there was no skepticism at all about my message, about the science, the consequences, the policy and all of that. The other thing was the complete inadequacy of the policy responses that could even be contemplated. I walked out of there realizing that we simply don’t have the political will to do what needs to be done.

The public doesn’t understand that we’re all stakeholders in what happens in the Arctic. I think people associate climate change in the Arctic with polar bears. But it is much more than that. There are really serious global consequences and that message hasn’t gotten through. We need better communication about these global consequences.

Arctic Deeply: What policy options are promising?

Duffy: To fix climate change in the Arctic, most of what you need to do are things that you need to do anyway, to address global climate change. But there are also some things that can be done, that are specific to the Arctic.

The loss of sea ice means there’s more activity in the Arctic now, more shipping opportunities, more tourism, and so on. But those activities can worsen the problem. We need to put policies in place that limit emissions and particulates from heavy fuel oil, which land on the surface of the ice, darken it and accelerate the melting.

Rafe Pomerance, from Arctic 21, likes to ask the question, “What is the Arctic we have to have?” Instead of looking at the policy measures that we can implement easily, we need to approach the problem from the outcome, what is the end-state we need and how do we get there? If we simply ask, “What are the easy things that we can achieve?” that’s not going to be enough.

The problem is urgent, the stakes are high and the policy measures that are in place are nowhere near commensurate to the scale of the threat.

The Alaska village of Kivalina is facing severe coastal erosion due to climate change. (Flickr, CC BY 2.0/ShoreZone)

Arctic Deeply: By some estimates we have 10 years left in the carbon budget at current emissions rates to keep warming below 2 C [3.6 F]. How do we implement these dramatic changes?

Duffy: Frankly, I think we just need a different mindset. I get impatient when I hear people say, “Oh, we can’t adopt solar power, because it costs three cents per kilowatt hour more than fossil fuels,” That attitude isn’t going to work. The attitude we need is that this is something we have to do, and just do it.

Arctic Deeply: Climate models are still lacking information. What’s missing and how important are those factors to future projections of change?

Duffy: It’s interesting how this works. Climate models were not designed to answer policy questions. They were designed as research tools to help scientists understand climate processes. Nearly all of them don’t include the greenhouse gas emissions from permafrost. They also don’t address sea level rise from the melting of the major land ice sheets.

That may seem crazy; how can that be, that these important processes are not included? It’s not that scientists are stupid, or don’t understand or appreciate the importance of these issues; the reason that those processes are not treated in most of the models is that scientists hate being wrong! The feeling is that the understanding of these processes is just not mature enough to be able to treat them reliably.

From the perspective of science, and from the perspective of answering research questions, that may be the right thing to do, but from the perspective of informing policy, it’s actually not that helpful, because if you leave greenhouse gas emissions from permafrost out of the model, what you’re doing in the end is you’re assuming that those emissions are going to be zero.

Informing policy is different from moving science forward. In science, we typically like to have 95 percent confidence that an idea is right before we accept it. A lot of policy is really sort of risk management, and we certainly don’t need 95 percent confidence that something bad is going to happen before we take policy action. Because of that, there is a sort of disconnect between the scientific community and the policy community.

Arctic Deeply: Carbon capture and removal is a key part of achieving our climate targets. Many of these projects are small-scale or seem to have stalled. Can they still play a significant role?

Duffy: That’s a super important question. People often say that we need a lot more research and development focused on new ways of generating clean energy. I actually think that that’s wrong; I think we know how to generate clean energy. We have wind and solar, and they’re cheap, they’re safe, they’re abundant. Where we do need a major research effort is exactly this question, how do we remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere?

When I read the IPCC [Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change] report, I was horrified that the need for carbon dioxide removal wasn’t highlighted, and the fact that “Oh, by the way, we don’t know how to do this” wasn’t highlighted.

Arctic Deeply: What role do low-tech solutions, like forests, play?

Duffy: We do have to look at land management – it’s important to generalize beyond forests. Land management can get us at least part of the way there. It seems like, in principle, one could remove a hundred billion tons of carbon from the atmosphere through a combination of land management approaches. Some people call it “carbon farming,” reforestation, restoring carbon into agricultural soils, restoring wetlands and so on.

From a scientific perspective, it’s pretty straightforward; most of that is actually reversing past human action, so it’s not like we’re putting nature into some new altered state. It’s kind of winding back the things that we’ve done over the last couple hundred years.

Scientifically, it’s quite straightforward. From a policy perspective, it’s very, very difficult. It boils down to incentives for how do you use land.

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