UN to Big Oil: Don't Drill in the Arctic!
February 21, 2013
Jon Queally / Common Dreams & Arctic Methane Emergency Group
As part of their annual review, the UN says that melting of the world's Arctic waters should not be an excuse to encourage a race to exploit the mineral and energy resources that such melting have made accessible, and urged international caution to avoid damage to the fragile Arctic environment. If the current rate of warming continues, it will inevitably lead to uncontrollable accelerating global warming and "runaway" climate change.
UN Urges Against Folly of Arctic Race for Resources
Jon Queally / Common Dreams
'What we are seeing is that
the melting of ice is prompting a rush
for exactly the fossil fuel resources that
fueled the melt in the first place.'
(February 19, 2013) -- As part of their annual review, the UN says that melting of the world's Arctic waters should not be an excuse to encourage a race to exploit the mineral and energy resources that such melting have made accessible, and urged international caution to avoid damage to the fragile Arctic environment.
Released as the UN Environment Programme's Year Book 2013, the report discusses how retreat of Arctic summer ice cover has become more intense in recent years, culminating in a record low 18 percent below the previous recorded minimum in 2007 and 50 percent below the average in the 1980s and 1990s. Increasing the concern, land ice is also retreating and long-frozen permafrost is melting as well.
What's worse, however, is that the melting is being seen as an opening to previously inaccessible natural resources by oil and gas companies. The UN report says that increased human activity -- such as drilling and the infrastructure needed to support such operations -- would threaten the already fragile ecosystems and wildlife in those regions.
"Changing environmental conditions in the Arctic - often considered a bellwether for global climate change - have been an issue of concern for some time, but as of yet this awareness has not translated into urgent action," said UN Under-Secretary-General and UNEP Executive Director Achim Steiner.
"In fact, what we are seeing is that the melting of ice is prompting a rush for exactly the fossil fuel resources that fuelled the melt in the first place," he added. "The rush to exploit these vast untapped reserves have consequences that must be carefully thought through by countries everywhere, given the global impacts and issues at stake."
The agency urges improved governance for the region, especially as the retreat of sea ice has been more rapid than projected in the last report from the UN's International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). That report predicted that the Arctic could be ice-free by 2100, but UNEP says now "that the most-common prediction today is that this could come to pass by 2035."
As Reuters adds:
The US Geological Survey estimates that 30 percent of the world's undiscovered natural gas and 15 percent of oil is in the Arctic. Several companies, including Russia's Rosneft, Norway's Statoil and US-based Exxon Mobil are getting ready to drill in areas of melting sea ice, despite the risks, technological difficulties and costs.
Some countries have estimated that the Northern Sea Route would be turned into a shipping highway, with a 40-fold increase in shipping by 2020.
There is also likely to be a boom in fisheries. A widely predicted northward shift in sub-arctic fish species, including Atlantic and Pacific cod, is now being detected. It is estimated that fish catches in the high latitudes, including the Arctic, could increase by 30 to 70 percent by 2055.
The UN report offered the following recommendations for dealing with the issue:
Reducing greenhouse gas emissions remains the most-important measure. Action within the UN climate process is essential and there may be scope for complementary action on curbing regional emissions of short-lived pollutants such as black carbon.
* No steps to exploit the new environmental state of the Arctic should be taken without first assessing how the exploitation would affect ecosystems, the peoples of the North and the rest of the world as the potential for major environmental damage is high.
* The challenges posed by climate change and social and economic development in the Arctic require a long-term vision and innovative policy responses. Assessing the options for the Arctic should explicitly include indigenous peoples and other stakeholders.
* The rapid pace of change means that strengthened systems for monitoring and providing early warnings of new developments are essential. In particular, environmental research is urgently needed on the impact of short-lived pollutants, the mechanisms of changes to snow and ice and their implications, present and future changes in the biosphere, and the use of traditional knowledge to inform policy and management actions.
But such a cautious approach -- though welcome as an alternative to a mad Arctic dash by the world's hungriest and most ruthless energy and mineral companies -- may not please environmentalists and conservationists who want the Arctic to be fully protected from exploitation and who will read phrases like "innovative policy responses" and "systems for monitoring...new developments" as a green light for governments to proceed.
Groups like Greenpeace, who have launched a global campaign to 'Save the Arctic', say that oil and gas development should not be allowed in some of the only places left on Earth untouched by the polluting and damaging practice of resource extraction projects.
As part of their campaign, Greenpeace urges the creation of a "global sanctuary around the North Pole" and a complete and enforceable ban on offshore drilling and other "destructive industries" in the Arctic.
"Not only does the Arctic work to regulate the global climate," says Greenpeace's executive director, Kumi Naidoo, "it's also home to a rich ecosystem and indigenous people who depend on that ecosystem. Polar bears, seals, walruses and whales are just some of the species that call the Arctic home."
And unless the fight to protect it catches on, he says, "It's all in danger."
Why Is Arctic Methane An Emergency?
Arctic Methane Emergency Group
(February 20, 2013) -- The reason, in one word, is RUNAWAY.
Runaway is a descriptive term for what the scientists call abrupt irreversible rapid global warming, which would be global climate catatsrophe. It involves tipping points.
A 2012 paper By Prof C Duarte says The Arctic could Trigger Domino Effect Around the World.
The science says it can happen (IPCC 2007), but it is not included in the linear projecting climate models.
Abrupt climate change encompasses two extreme results of Arctic warming -- abrupt cooling can happen (thermohaline circulation change) and abrupt warming (+ve Arctic feedbacks). This page covers the warming process. Abrupt climate warming could be over 10 years or more than100 years.
The major risks to society and environment from climate change are posed primarily by abrupt and extreme climate phenomena. Potential forms of abrupt change include [...] widespread melting of permafrost leading to large-scale shifts in the carbon cycle. Abrupt and extreme phenomena can exceed the thresholds for ecological and societal adaptation through either the rapid rate or magnitude of the associated climate change [IPCC 2007].
The US is conducting research abrupt warming situations under the Investigation of the Magnitudes and Probabilities of Abrupt Climate Transitions (IMPACTS) Project out of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. This includes the following topics.
Boreal/Arctic-climate positive feedbacks.
Rapid destabilization of methane hydrates in Arctic Ocean sediments; and Mega droughts in North America, including the role of biosphere-atmosphere feedbacks.
The background information confirms these are all real risks with continued warming, What is not addressed is that these would be mutually reinforcing.
The Arctic responds to global warming by increasing the rate of warming through several feedback processes, which, if allowed to become established, will inevitably lead to uncontrollable accelerating global warming or what for many years has been called "runaway" climate change. This is not to be confused with the scientific term "runaway greenhouse effect" or Venus syndrome.
There are two general, very large feedback processes in the Arctic that definitely will increase as global warming continues. One is melting Arctic ice and the other is emitting Arctic methane. The loss of ice will definitely increase the emission of Arctic methane to the atmosphere, which makes the Arctic sea ice meltdown the big planetary emergency.
"Runaway" is an apt description as runaway climate change is the result of the combined three following inevitabilities:
Radiative forcing from combined, cumulative, industrial GHG emissions
Climate system inertia (lag time between emission and impact of GHGs), increased radiative forcing and inertia from multiple feedbacks.
We all know about the rapid meltdown of the Arctic summer sea ice. It has long been known that the vast expanse (2.5 million square miles before industrial atmopsheric GHG pollution) of the year-round Arctic sea ice acts in the summer as a cooling influence to the Arctic region, northern hemisphere and to some extent the whole global climate. Its loss in the summertime will lead to additional warming.
This emergency to our planet's biosphere comes from multiple positive Arctic climate feedback processes, each of which affects the whole biosphere and each of which will increase the rate of global warming / temperature increase. Atmospheric temperatures are rising faster in the Arctic than in other regions.
Already today, all the potentially huge Arctic positive climate feedbacks are operating.
The Arctic summer sea ice is in a rapid, extremely dangerous meltdown process. The Arctic summer ice albedo loss feedback (i.e., open sea absorbs more heat than ice, which reflects much of it) passed its tipping point in 2007 -- many decades earlier than models projected, and scientists now agree the Arctic will be ice free during the summer by 2030. However, that is not to say it couldn't happen very much earlier.
Models of sea ice volume indicate a seasonally ice-free Arctic likely by 2015, and possibly as soon as the summer of 2013.
Such a collapse will inexorably lead to an accelerated rate of Arctic carbon feedback emissions of methane from warming wetland peat bogs and thawing permafrost.
The retreat of sea ice appears to be leading to the most catastrophic feedback process of all. This is the venting of methane to the atmosphere from frozen methane gas hydrates on the sea floor of the Arctic continental shelf.
At the Fall Meeting of the American Geophysical Union in San Francisco from 5-9 December 2011, there was a session on Arctic Gas Hydrate Methane Release and
Climate Change at which Dr. Igor Semiletov of the Far Eastern branch of the Russian Academy of Sciences reported dramatic and unprecedented plumes of methane -- a greenhouse gas that is over 70 times more potent than carbon dioxide for 20 years after emission -- were seen bubbling to the surface of the Arctic Ocean by scientists undertaking an extensive survey of the region. This has been reported by UK's Independent newspaper and copied by news agencies around the world and in a number of online blogs.
All of these Arctic feedbacks are described in detail in the 2009 World Wildlife Fund (WWF) report, Arctic Climate Feedbacks: Global Implications.
If methane release from Arctic sea floor hydrates happens on a large scale -- and this year's reports suggest that it will -- then this situation can start an uncontrollable sequence of events that would make world agriculture and civilization unsustainable. It is a responsible alarm, not alarmist, to say that it is a real threat to the survival of humanity and most life on Earth.
What To Do
There are several ways to tackle the problem if action is not delayed: they may be grouped together as geo-engineering solutions. However, they do require rapid mobilisation on national and international scales: first, to verify the science, and second, to implement the necessary counter-measures.
There is an almost impossible challenge to implement the counter-measures quickly enough to prevent the possible collapse of the Arctic sea ice in summer 2013, but this challenge has to be faced as an international emergency.
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