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Why the Arctic Is Central to the Earth’s Climate System

The Arctic’s snow, ice and permafrost help moderate the global climate. Rafe Pomerance explains how focusing on the Arctic and deep investments in R&D could help set the planet on the right course.

Written by Hannah Hoag Published on Read time Approx. 5 minutes
The global distribution of atmospheric black carbon density in late 2009.NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center Scientific Visualization Studio

REYKJAVIK – In September, President Obama ratified the climate change deal signed by nearly 200 nations in Paris in December 2015. The agreement promises to keep the global rise in temperature to below 2C (3.6F) and to take efforts to limit the increase to 1.5C (2.8F). But what the U.S., which accounts for about 16 percent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions, will do to meet its targets remains unclear.

Rafe Pomerance has some ideas. Start with the Arctic, and keep its unique features – the reflective snow and ice, the permafrost – from deteriorating much further. With concrete goals in hand, perhaps then, climate change will gain the political backing – and R&D investment – it needs, he says.

Arctic Deeply spoke with Pomerance, a former deputy assistant secretary of state for environment and development and the chair of Arctic 21, about Arctic climate change, and on developing a plan that results in the kind of Arctic we want—and need.

Arctic Deeply: What is Arctic 21?

Rafe Pomerance: We are a network of nongovernmental organizations, scientists and research institutions, established with the support of the U.S. government. Part of our mission really is to [draw attention to] the unravelling of the Arctic. I underline unravelling, because it is a critical word.

Arctic Deeply: Why do you call it the unravelling of the Arctic?

Pomerance: There is a big difference from saying “change” and the word unravelling. The unravelling involves five elements: The loss of ice in Greenland, the loss of sea ice, the shrinkage of the Northern Hemisphere snow cover, the thawing of the permafrost, and the loss of the other glaciers in the Arctic that aren’t in Greenland. If you look across the Arctic, you see the unravelling, no matter which system you look at.

The Arctic supports at least three major components of the Earth’s climate system: carbon storage in permafrost, reflectivity in sea ice and snow cover and ice storage. How do we sustain those three components? Policy makers need to establish a future state that maximizes the chances for maintaining those pillars of the Earth’s climate system.

Arctic Deeply: What do we need to do to stop the unravelling that is already under way?

Pomerance: That is a goal that is really not on the international agenda. It is to some extent implicit in the goals of [the Paris Agreement to limit warming to 1.5C to 2C (2.8F to 3.6F). But those are not tied to the specific pillars, and what we really need is to join the general goals in the framework convention to the specific elements of the Arctic system and develop a new policy framework of what’s required to keep the system intact.

Arctic Deeply: If we take permafrost as the example, what needs to be done to keep it from thawing further?

Pomerance: It is all unprecedented territory and it is at a daunting scale. First, you have to draw the line. How much warming in the Arctic can the permafrost tolerate? Then you work back from that. You have to decarbonize the world’s economy, you have to control short-lived forcers, methane, black carbon, you have to remove carbon from the atmosphere, and you have to consider a geo-engineering intervention – It is the only tool that can clear the Arctic quickly. But there isn’t serious research going on yet in the government.

We don’t lack for policy ideas, we don’t lack even for technical knowhow, what we lack is political will. The fundamental stalemate in the United States is on climate policy. There is absolute clear-cut urgency on the one hand, but the political system is unresponsive.

Arctic Deeply: Would you like to see a ban on heavy fuel oil in the Arctic from the International Maritime Organization?

Pomerance: Yes, absolutely. The Arctic drives the notion of urgency. You don’t have time to mess around. The realization will come that we don’t have time to take forever to make these decisions. The ban on heavy fuel oil will help, but it’s not the end of things. We need a strategic analysis on what is required to keep the Arctic within bounds – and then we have to do all these things simultaneously. You can’t pick one and say, “Oh, this is progress.” The determining factor of whether a policy is viable or useful is how it fits into the overall context to achieve the result. The result might require five big pieces, so doing a part of one piece is just that, it is partial.

Arctic Deeply: The amount of R&D money going into carbon removal is tiny. What needs to change?

Pomerance: The amount of R&D going into solutions for this problem, compared to the risk, is infinitesimal. We need to put billions and billions of dollars into R&D to develop the technologies that are required to lower the massive risk. The Pentagon has an R&D budget in the billions because of national security. Well, this is protecting the homeland too. Once you realize that the U.S. is threatened by these changes in the Arctic, you have the rationale for hugely increasing R&D in all these measures that are required to meet the standard for the Arctic we have to have. There is no planet B.

Arctic Deeply: Does that mean that we make small changes to existing programs or the creation of an entirely new R&D program?

Pomerance: We have a new R&D program in the U.S. called ARPA-E (Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy), it is modelled on DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency), but it is only $300 million, so you could start by ramping that up. A chunk of DARPA’s work could be on this, some of it is. You might need new agencies, if you need new funding. Climate change is a threat to the U.S. like war. You have to see it that way. It comes back to political will. We have a large portion of our political leaders who will not acknowledge this as a serious problem. Or a problem at all.

Arctic Deeply: What’s on the horizon?

Pomerance: The Arctic Council will meet in its final ministerial of the U.S. chairmanship in Fairbanks next May. They don’t generate a lot of media. But this year may be different. As we approach that meeting, a major assessment, kind of like the IPCC reports but for the Arctic, will be completed. It is called SWIPA, Snow, Water, Ice and Permafrost in the Arctic. It is an up-to-date-assessment of the trends. The Arctic Council, through its eight members, has a big opportunity in Fairbanks to make a difference. The world should pay attention to this report and to the Fairbanks ministerial. That is a declaration about the fate of the planet.

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