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Trudeau-Obama summit — A critical need to focus on the Arctic


Prime Minister Trudeau and President Obama will hold their first formal summit this week, and are expected to sign a continental environmental and climate change strategy. But at the top of their agenda must be the need to address a global crisis — the unravelling of the Arctic due to climate change.

For millennia, the Arctic has been a stabilizing component of Earth’s climate system. Thanks to the work undertaken over the past several decades by the international scientific community including Canadian and U.S. scientists, we know that the Arctic is changing rapidly, with warming occurring at twice the rate relative to the rest of the planet.

There are many threads in the unravelling Arctic: major disruptions in weather patterns in the Northern Hemisphere; major permafrost thaw which is disrupting infrastructure and leading to enormous increases in methane and carbon dioxide emissions, further destabilizing global climate; the loss of sea ice and spring snow cover which turns surfaces that once reflected sunlight into those that now absorb sunlight rendering the Arctic and the planet increasingly warmer; and the tundra and northern boreal forest experiencing unprecedented fire seasons.

The upcoming Trudeau-Obama Summit presents an opportunity to tackle these issues, to be leaders in protecting the Arctic. Two questions are paramount:

How can we slow and stabilize the warming of the Arctic? And, how can we adapt to the new Arctic that global human activities are forging?

Science also tells us that what happens in the Arctic does not stay in the Arctic — the changes underway have major global implications. By the end of this century, it is predicted that alpine glacial and continental ice sheet melting will contribute to at least one meter of sea level rise. Cities, island states, and coastal regions throughout the world will be inundated. In short, the fate of Greenland’s ice sheet is the fate of Miami. And, at the very time President Obama and Prime Minister Trudeau will meet, Arctic sea ice will reach its annual maximum. This year’s maximum is likely to be one of the lowest in recorded history.

A warming Arctic is also disrupting the traditional ways of life for the Arctic’s indigenous peoples. Arctic communities must now adapt to increased coastal erosion, flooding, and the increased frequency and severity of forest fires. Furthermore, changing animal migrations (e.g. caribou) and hazardous sea ice conditions on the routes of the traditional hunting grounds are jeopardizing access to essential food supplies. Some communities in Alaska and Canada’s North are being forced to relocate to less hazardous areas, particularly due to coastal erosion.

President Obama publicly recognized the dramatic changing state of the Arctic when he visited the region last summer. In his speech to an international audience, he pointedly noted the urgency and opportunity to act by observing: “There is such a thing as being too late.” We are hopeful he will take these observations and turn them in to actions at the Summit with Trudeau.

Fortunately, Canada’s Prime Minister’s key priorities include climate change and other issues critical to the future of the Arctic, such as infrastructure investments, food security, and rebuilding trusting relations with First Nations, Metis and Inuit.

Timing is critical. We have entered a period where we must act together with sufficient speed and scale if we are to avoid catastrophic outcomes. Adaptation to current changes in the Arctic by people and ecosystems has been underway for some time and is a signal of what is to come. We must recognize that some responses will require not only action within our lifetimes, but also action by future generations. Response is necessary at every level within governments, the private sector, NGOs, the academic community, and, perhaps most importantly the people living in the North.

The Trudeau-Obama summit offers the chance to transform the climate change dialogue, building on the momentum of the recent Canadian First Minister’s meeting on climate change and the current U.S. Chairmanship of the eight-nation Arctic Council which has made climate change a key priority. As two key Arctic nations, the Arctic must be central to those discussions.

Russel Shearer is a member of the Board of Directors of the Canadian Climate Forum, Chair of ArcticNet’s research committee and former Chair of the Arctic Council’s Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Programme (AMAP). Rafe Pomerance is Chair of Arctic 21, a network of NGO scientists and advocates on Arctic climate issues, and is also a member of the Polar Research Board of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences.